An interim solution for iOS ‘multitasking’

There are many counterintuitive ‘rules’ in product design, these two are among the most intractable:

• The more successful a product, the harder it’s to upgrade.

• The more users say they want a product update, the more they complain when the change arrives.

It wouldn’t be unkind to ascribe both of them to the iOS platform: spectacularly successful and at the crossroads for the mother of all upgrades for both hardware and software, now commandeered for the first time by a single person who’s not named Steve Jobs. The financial impact of these design decisions is easily the 64-billion dollar question at Cupertino.

What has changed?

Having already sold over 120 million iPads in less than two years, Apple’s now making the sales pitch to hundreds of millions of potential post-PC consumers that iPads may be ‘OR’ devices, not just ‘AND’ adjuncts to their desktops and notebooks of yesteryear.

The iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010 created their respective industry segments, then went on to dominate what was mostly virgin territory with a simple proposition: One Device > One Account > One App > One Window.

Several years after their introduction, now with many competitors, Apple is under pressure to examine every link in that chain of platform definition. And the one most contested is the last: One Window. While it’s true that iOS apps can contain two (and sometimes even more) ‘views’ in one screen, like the standard Master-Detail views, two different apps cannot share the same window. A blog writing app on an iPad can, for example, dedicate portions of its single window to video, map, search engine results or tweet displays, but not specifically to Vimeo, Google Maps, Bing or Twitter apps. In the sandboxed territories of iOS, ‘One Device > One Account > One App > One Window’ is still the law of the land.

As iPads move into business, education, healthcare and other vertical markets, however, expectations of what iPads should do beyond audio, video, ebook and simple app consumption have gone up dramatically. After all, users don’t just inertly read in one app at a time but write, code, design, compose, calculate, paint, clip, tweet, and, in general, perform multiple operations in multiple apps to complete a single task in one app.

In iOS, this involves double-clicking the Home button, swiping in the tray to find the other app, waiting for it to (re)load fully, locating the app view necessary to copy, double-clicking the Home button, finding the previous app in the tray and waiting for it to (re)load fully to paste the previously copied material. That’s just one operation between two apps. Composing a patient review for a doctor or creating a presentation for a student can easily involve many such operations among multiple apps.

Indeed, among the major post-iOS mobile platforms like Android, Metro and BlackBerry, iOS is the most cumbersome and slowest at inter-app navigation and task completion. There have been a few mitigating advances: gestural swipes, faster processors and more memory certainly help but the inter-app task sharing problem is becoming increasingly more acute. Unfortunately, solving iOS’s multitasking problem in general involves many other considerations, including introduction of UX complexity and thus considerable user re-education, to say nothing of major architectural OS changes. It may thus take Apple longer than expected to find an optimal solution. What can Apple do in the interim then?

Is ‘Multi’ the opposite of ‘One’?

Systems designers know all too well: when you just don’t have the time, money, staff or technology to solve a given problem, there are ways to cheat. Steve Jobs would be the first to tell you: that’s OK. A well executed cheat can be indistinguishable from a fundamental architectural transition.

From a design perspective, the weakest link in the one-task-many-operations-in-different-apps problem is the iOS clipboard. The single-slot clipboard. The one that forces the user to shuffle laboriously among apps to collect all the disparate items one. at. a. time.

But with a multi-slot clipboard, if you were writing a report, for example, you could go to a web page, copy the URL, a paragraph, maybe a photo and a person’s email address in one trip. Now a single trip back to the initial app and you have four items ready to be pasted into appropriate places with no more inter-app shuffle necessary. Instant 4X productivity gain. Simply put, if you had a four-slot clipboard, you can instantly quadruple your productivity. For a ten-slot clipboard, 10X!

Well, obviously, it’s not that easy. First of all, Apple doesn’t believe in multi-slot clipboards and doesn’t even ship one with Mac OS X. Also, you couldn’t really have an ‘infinite-slot’ clipboard, for iOS would run out of memory quickly. Finally, a multi-slot clipboard would require a visible UI for the user to select the right content, thereby introducing some cognitive complexity.

None of these objections seem insurmountable, though. iOS already has a similarly useful ‘option selectors’ like the recent ‘share sheets’ from which a user can send stuff to Twitter, Facebook, email, etc. Limiting the clipboard to four slots would enable at least 250-pixel square previews of each slot’s contents for easy identification. The Clipboard could pop, move up, slide in from right or perform some other clever animated appearance. Yes, there could be a cognitive penalty for having to be concerned about system-memory management, but a bit of user training for the concept of ‘First In, First Out’ or a little alert to the user indicating memory-intensive copying would go a long way.

It’s not my job to suggest Jony Ive how this might be implemented in UI and UX. But until Apple has a more general solution to multitasking and inter-app navigation, the four-slot clipboard with a visible UI should be announced at WWDC. I believe it would buy Ive another year for a more comprehensive architectural solution, as he’ll likely need it.

“Ordered Information” is not a paint job

At Davos 2013, CEO Marissa Mayer unveiled her vision for Yahoo’s rebirth, affirming it wants to be:

a feed of information that is ordered, the Web is ordered for you and is also on your mobile phone.

It’s a laudable vision. With the decline of traditional gatekeepers of information, the original directory of the Information Superhighway could conceivably become again an “orderer” of the abundance of information we live in. Yahoo also has an abundance of mobiles apps, on iOS alone: Search, Flickr, Mail, Finance, News, IntoNow, Messenger, TimeTraveler, Axis, MarketDash, Sportacular, Fantasy Baseball, Basketball, Hockey, Cricket and Football, as well as feeds into Siri queries and built-in Weather and Stocks apps.

It would thus appear Yahoo both “has content” and “gets mobile.” Unfortunately, when dealing with information for the past 15 years, Yahoo has been confusing “ordered information” with “content aggregation” and “task completion.” While ordered information is presumably better than unordered information, simple aggregation — and that’s all Yahoo has, for the most part — is still quite low on the online food chain, both for Yahoo’s bottom line as well as utility to its users.

What then for a company like Yahoo — cyclically self-described as a search, media, technology, portal and advertising company — could go wrong in a rebirth process? Let’s take a page from Yahoo! Finance, a property that has long dominated its space against old (Microsoft, AOL) and relatively new (Morningstar, Google) competitors, for it neatly displays the degree of trouble Yahoo is in.

Yahoo! Finance

Is it “ordered”?

Scanning top-to-bottom a page of stock quote for AAPL, there are three disparately located Search departure points [1, 2, 3] all styled differently: [1] “Search Web” is the most emphasized one of the three. And yet it’s for generic search, even though I’m already at a highly specialized finance site.

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[2] “Get Quotes” is finance-specific, but then [3], not a button but a text-link, is named “Finance Search” and yet, inexplicably, takes you to another page with a completely different UI and a generic searchbox with text-links to images, video, shopping, etc., not unlike the giant generic “Search Web” [1] just above it. Baffling for a company that still harbors search aspirations.

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[4] Instead of a single banner ad, there are four small ad-buttons for competing trading tools right next to each other. I’m sure some people click on those, but what a waste of prime real estate for premium monetization.

[5] If you wanted to see the price of the stock you’re currently looking at in the context of Dow and Nasdaq as people would want to do, well, you’re out of luck. It’s to the left, on top the navigation column, above the ads.

[6] Why on earth is it necessary for Yahoo to display a Facebook Like button with running tally on an individual stock quote page? Believing Facebook Connect or Like can somehow be Yahoo’s friend in the long run is self-destructively naive.

[7] It’s a navigation column with a kitchen-sink attitude, one of half a dozen other section tabs on top of the page, likely bewildering for most casual users of the site and not quite comprehensive enough for professional traders.

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[8] You’d think “customize chart” (unlike other text-links, all lower-case) would allow you to customize the small chart in some meaningful way. Click it and you’re taken to, you guessed it, another page with a completely different, barren UI from the 1950s. It allows you to change nothing but the timespan of the chart to either 1 day, 5 days or 1 year. That’s customization for you, one which was available on the original chart itself to begin with, without having to navigate to another page under false pretenses.

[9] There comes the positively Amazon-ian “People viewing {current stock} also viewed:” inanity. People who love/hate AAPL apparently also love/hate/crave Chipotle and MasterCard. Seriously?

[10] I don’t have access to click rates on that “Trade Now” button, obviously, but I’m guessing those who do click are a small minority. Clearly this linkage to brokers is meant to generate significant origination revenue for Yahoo, but all those broker sites also provide roughly equal or better generic financial info. Somebody who trades at Schwab or Fidelity wouldn’t necessarily be wasting time at Yahoo, while trading.

[11] Also, don’t plan on having more than one broker to quickly go to, since you can only have one.

[12] I’m not entirely sure whether people actually compare brokers at Yahoo! Finance, but even if they do, they get to choose from only four pre-selected brokers, presumably paying Yahoo an origination fee.

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[13] Just two articles “featured”? What’s the logic behind featuring random articles here, other than cheap SEO linkage?

[14] One of the two articles “featured” is about RIM’s upcoming BlackBerry 10 phone. I know Eric Jackson has plenty of interesting things to say about AAPL, and does pretty much every single day, but this featured piece has absolutely nothing to do with Apple, the word doesn’t even appear anywhere in the linked article or the accompanying video. It is about RIM, as the title says, a company Apple hasn’t really been competing against for nearly two years now.

[15] (I’m not logged into Finance here but) I’m a proud resident of NYC without a car and yet this is a localized car service ad, from another state. Normally, I’d never see any of these ads, as I use an ad blocker.

[16] A river of news. Really, any text that seems to contain the words “Apple” or “AAPL” can end up here and does. No hierarchy or grouping. The “Filter Headlines” text-link on top takes you to another page with, yes, a completely different, barren UI from the 1950s that allows you to check/uncheck a uneditable list of third party news sources.

[17] Sector/Industry/Sub-Industry categorization of US stocks is an issue for nearly all finance services but, newsflash, Apple dropped “Computer” from its name over 5 years ago. Beyond semantics, this is completely nontrivial for a finance site. Readers shouldn’t be led to believe that nothing more than a small and declining percentage of Apple’s revenue comes from selling “Personal Computers.”

[18] As can be seen in the second column here, Apple’s market cap is 20 times Dell’s. They’re in different leagues and (except for desktops and notebooks) in totally different markets. Apple has stopped worrying about Dell many years ago. Since the title of the section reads “Comparison” (singular), of all Apple’s fierce competitors, Yahoo picked Dell? Furthermore, if you do click the text-link “More Competitors” (plural) you’re taken to another baffling page with random stuff thrown in, but with only a single competitor shown: you guessed it, Dell.

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[19] If the stock you’re investigating is an unfamiliar one, wouldn’t it be useful to see what the company does right on top? The “Business Summary” that describes what Apple does is way down. If you were in Wall Street looking for AAPL, it’d be across the river in Jersey City.

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[20] “Penny Stocks.” That cheesy ad pretty much says it all.

[21] Live by 3-column layouts, die by trailing, unbalanced empty space.

[22] “Sponsored Links”? Be respectful of the user, just call them “Ads,” especially if you are an advertising company. If you’re ashamed of carrying advertising detritus at the very bottom of your site, 50 feet below sea level, maybe it’s time to rethink the longer prospects of revenue generation at Yahoo! Finance beyond penny stocks and car mechanics?

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[23] The long list of data feeders to Yahoo is telling. Yahoo! Finance is obviously an aggregator and not a smart or a handsome one at that. Yahoo doesn’t generate all this stuff, you might say, companies that provide the data feeds to Yahoo do. For a company that wants to “order the information,” that is the problem, isn’t it?

A problem deeper than UI

In the latest quarter earnings call Marissa Mayer gave further indication of how this “ordered information” vision might be deployed:

Overall in search, it’s a key area of investment for us. We need to invest in a lot of interface improvements. All of the innovations in search are going to happen at the user interface level moving forward and we need to invest in those features both on the desktop and on mobile and I think both ultimately will be key plays for us.

If Yahoo wants simply to be the data provider to gatekeepers like Apple, Facebook and Google, it will be problematic since Yahoo is often not the originator of the data flow [23]. General-purpose feed business is not a high-margin opportunity in any case. As the simple analysis above shows when the underlying data layer is decoupled from the UX, especially at the hands of designers insufficiently enthused, the results are mediocre at best. In the long run, it’s difficult to “pretty up” data that you don’t control and derive meaningful profit/benefit from, ask Apple’s Maps team.

And yet, this is Finance, one of Yahoo’s strongest properties, not a minor beta product. It’s enough of an embarrassing UX debacle that I haven’t even mentioned any of the glaring visual design issues at all. No amount of interface pixel-dust will cover up the fundamentally broken opportunity to make financial information actually useful to consumers and semi-professionals, while making money doing it. For the user, it fails the first test: now that I’m presented with all this aggregated information, what do I do with it?

Product design starts right there: What Do I Do With It? Not at picking one of 41 shades of purple. Ordered information is great but hard…repainted information is cheap but insufficient. Here’s hoping Yahoo gets that this time around.

*

P.S. I don’t mean to single out Yahoo here. All the other financial sites, like Bloomberg or Reuters, also suffer from similar misunderstandings of how to make financial information usable and useful. I picked Yahoo because Marissa Mayer appears to be actively revamping various properties, Yahoo! Finance desperately needs TLC and I’d like to see Yahoo come out of its funk if for no other reason than as a balance to Google’s growing dominance in online services. This is clearly a things-I-noticed in-20-minutes kind of a superficial treatment. I simply scanned one stock quote page of one of the myriad sections at Yahoo! Finance. The list of things-that-went-wrong around the entire site must be enormous. It’s also obvious that Yahoo! Finance wasn’t made with passion, focus and much attention to detail, like a lot of Yahoo properties. That said, providing product design analysis from outside a company, without knowledge of its business goals, is fraught with danger So I’ll have to refrain from offering gratuitous advice to Yahoo on how to fundamentally reformulate their web and mobile Finance presence.

Apple’s design problems aren’t skeuomorphic

From Tim Cook’s letter announcing the latest reorganization at Apple last week:

Jony Ive will provide leadership and direction for Human Interface (HI) across the company in addition to his longtime role as the leader of Industrial Design. Jony has an incredible design aesthetic and has been the driving force behind the look and feel of our products for more than a decade. The face of many of our products is our software and the extension of Jony’s skills into this area will widen the gap between Apple and our competition.

Sir Jony

Sir Jony Ive needs no introduction

Ive’s industrial design work has been one of the key drivers of Apple’s rebirth. His relentless, iterative focus on simplification of form and function under an aesthetic budget is legend. From Bondi blue iMac to iconic iPods to flatscreen iMacs to iPhones to iPads, his signature is unmistakable.

What’s not publicly known is Ive’s role, if any, on Apple software. The current meme of Ive coming on a white horse to rescue geeks in distress from Scott Forstallian skeuomorphism is wishfully hilarious. Like industrial design of physical devices, software is part form and part function: aesthetics and experience. Apple’s software problems aren’t dark linen, Corinthian leather or torn paper. In fact, Apple’s software problems aren’t much about aesthetics at all…they are mostly about experience. To paraphrase Ive’s former boss, Apple’s software problems aren’t about how they look, but how they work. Sometimes — sadly more often than we expect — they don’t:

  • Notifications, dark linen background or not, is woefully under-designed.
  • Six items that drain mobile device batteries (GPS, WiFi, cellular radio, Bluetooth, notifications and screen brightness) still require laborious, multiple clicks in multiple places, not immediately obvious to non-savvy users to turn on and off, without any simple, thematic or geo-fenced grouping.
  • iCloud-desktop integration and direct file sharing among Apple devices are circuitous and short of “It Just Works.”
  • Many Apple apps, like the iWork suite, are begging to be updated. Others, like Preview, TextEdit, Contacts, desperately need UI and UX overhauls.
  • Core functionalities like the Dictionary or the iOS keyboard layout and auto-correction are not the best of breed.
  • iOS app organization in tiny “folders” containing microscopic icons on pages without names borders on illegible and unscalable.
  • Navigating among running iOS apps (inelegant and opaque for users) and data interchange among apps in general (vastly underpowered for developers) remain a serious problem.

Obviously, it’s not much use piling up on this list, as everyone else’s list of “things to be improved” is likely ten times longer. Neither is it really useful arguing at this point whose fault it is. Apple software — especially its self-declared future, iOS — needs some serious overhaul both in aesthetics and experience, and far more in the latter department.

One Man. One Company. One Aesthetics?

The question is, can one person, even the world’s most eminent industrial designer, pull it off? Is it possible for one person to have enough time in a day to pay sufficient attention to hardware and software — aesthetics and experience — at a level of detail that has become necessary?

After all, Apple’s Human Interaction Guidelines (HIG) has never been just about the aesthetics of icon shadows or button alignment, but also about the behavioral aspects of application design in general. A generation ago, especially prior to the ascendency of web design, HIG was far more respected and adhered to both by Apple itself and its developers. Loyal users also noticed deviations and complained. HIG debates on public forums were not uncommon.

Today, not so much. A radio button or a checkbox can initiate a webpage navigation. Navigational menus now come in circular and triangular popups. There are now purely gestural UIs otherwise betraying none of their functionality to the user. Layers of sliding panels cascade on each other. List items slide left and right to initiate drill-down actions, up and down to reveal interactive media. Some UIs are beveled in 3D, some flat with no shadows, most a loose melange of many styles. And with each such “innovation” they bury the notion of a once powerful HIG a foot deeper.

Is it possible then to have a Human Interface czar for a 500-million user ecosystem today at all? If it were possible, would it be desirable? And if it were possible and desirable, can one person be in charge of both the visual aesthetics and the functional experience of such a huge ecosystem?

  • Can one person truly understand how Siri’s problems surfaced at the display layer actually go deeper into its semantic underpinnings, phoneme parsing, lexical contextuality, data-provider contracts, network latencies, etc., and therefore how the overall solution depends on this interplay of form and function?
  • Is it fair and reasonable to expect one person to understand how user-facing issues that surface within Maps or Passbook apps also suffer from similar technical and operational constraints?
  • Or how a lack of a social layer in Game Center or a content discovery layer in iTunes or App Store impede their functions in so many ways?
  • How about the cognitive mess that is document management and sharing in iClouds, as Apple moves away from user-level file management?
  • Or that monumental experiment also known as the Grand iTunes Redesign that’s been threatening to arrive any year now?
  • Or the Apple TV that needs an injection of a barrel of aesthetics and experience redesign?

In just how many UI corners and UX paths can a HI czar discover the depth of lingering problems and craft solutions as Apple designers play chicken with OS X menubar and iOS status bar translucency and color with every update? These are not just, or even mostly, aesthetic problems.

Apple, quo vadis?

It’s not known if Ive’s is a transitionary appointment necessitated by Scott Forstall’s departure or a harbinger of a longer term realignment of Apple design under a single umbrella. Unification of hardware and software design under a czar may certainly bring aesthetic efficiencies but it can also be pregnant with dangers. Much as the “lickable” Aqua UI ended up doing a decade ago, a serious mistake would be to hide many of these behavioral, functional and experiential software problems under a more attractive, aesthetically unifying display layer, such as:

  • A more modern, less cheesy Game Center redesign that still doesn’t have a social layer.
  • An aesthetically unified iTunes without appreciably better content discoverability.
  • A Siri app without the background linen but still lacking much deeper semantic integration with the rest of the iOS.
  • A Maps app without the ungainly surreal visual artifacts but still missing a robust search layer underneath.
  • An iBooks app without the wooden shelves or inner spine shadow, but still with subpar typography and anemic hyphenation and justification.
  • A Podcast app without the tape deck skeuomorphism, but with all the same navigational opaqueness.

In the end, what’s wrong with iOS isn’t the dark linen behind the app icons at the bottom of the screen, but the fact that iOS ought to have much better inter-application management and navigation than users fiddling with tiny icons. I’m fairly sure most Apple users would gladly continue to use what are supposed to be skeuomorphically challenged Calendar or Notebook apps for another thousand years if Apple could only solve the far more vexing software problems of AppleID unification when using iTunes and App Store, or the performance and reliability of the same. And yet these are the twin sides of the same systems design problem: the display layer surfacing or hiding the power within or, increasingly, lack thereof.

Yes, unlike any other company, we hold Apple to a different standard. We have for three decades. And we have been amply rewarded. If Apple’s winning streak is to continue, I hope Jony Ive never misplaces his Superman cape behind his Corinthian leather sofa…for he will need it.

Noted: Braille on mobile touch screens

pin.pngFrom NewScientist, Vibrating touch screens spell out Braille:

In Braille, letters are encoded using a two-by-three matrix in which each character is represented by a different configuration of raised and absent dots at the six locations. To display these dots on a touch-screen device, Jussi Rantala of the University of Tampere in Finland and colleagues used a Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, which has a piezoelectric material built into the touch screen that vibrates when an electric signal is applied to it. The team installed software that represents a raised dot as a single pulse of intense vibration, and an absent dot as a longer vibration made up of several weaker pulses.

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The team developed two methods: (1) the user moves a finger horizontally across the screen to detect the bumps, and (2) the finger stays still but the screen vibrates the sequence of six dots, each 360 milliseconds apart. In the latter method, once users got used to it, they could read a character in as little as 1.25 seconds.

The team’s next step, says NewScientist

will be to present entire words and sentences. Screen-reading software is already available that “grabs” information displayed as text and turns it into speech. The same information could be turned into Braille characters on phones with vibrating touch screens.