Friday, July 20, 2012

The Delicate Subject of User Experience

When talking about any technology product, user experience usually comes up as a key factor. All too often I hear that this particular product has a poor user experience while another product offers an awesome experience. Yet what is user experience? It can’t be measured in bits, bytes, or seconds. Comparing technology is usually easy, a 256-bit encryption is stronger than a 128-bit. 4 GB of memory is more than 2 GB. 8 ms access speed is faster than 12 ms. But user experience? Is it an art or a science?

I believe that it is a bit of both. For sure, there is an indirect relationship between user experience and complexity. People appreciate simplicity. Complex user interface may look cool to someone who appreciates the richness of capabilities but it intimidates most people and hinders adoption. Think of the cockpit of a space shuttle (you know, from back when the US government had a space program) - cool but complex! Or think of Photoshop. There is a reason why more people use Instagram than Photoshop. It’s called simplicity.
AutoCAD has many features and is thus fairly complex
But of course simplicity is hard to achieve when the product is rich on features and options. That’s the reason why professional photographers and artists use Photoshop and why my car was designed in AutoCAD and not SketchUp. There are of course other scientific methods that allow the developers to arrange complex features in a less intimidating way by making certain functionality more prominent or by arranging controls in logical groups. And there is much more to the science of user experience including techniques such as navigation design, interaction design, attention economy, cognitive dimensions, etc. I won’t even pretend that I am an expert here.
Google is simple - it does just one thing
I have this nagging feeling, though, that user experience is also to a large extent an art. Design elements such as color palette, symbols, fonts, or image style are subject to fashion trends that change from year to year. Today, there is no algorithm that predicts which fashion collection will succeed next spring, which pop star will score a hit or which video game will become a blockbuster. For the same reasons, we can’t really tell about which user experience will be more successful with users.

Just think about some of the famous examples of successful user experience. When Microsoft SharePoint first took the market by storm, a lot of the success has been attributed to the compelling user experience. “It is just like Office”, we kept hearing. Today, the SharePoint UI is being considered rather outdated and Microsoft invested heavily into introducing new a UI in SharePoint 2013. We’ll see how that’s going to be received.

Or think of Apple, the ultimate pinnacle or coolness, hipness, and user experience. Do you really think that the original models of iMac and iPod look that awesome today? Probably not. But you did when they first came out. We all did! In fact, as successful as Apple’s products are, iTunes offers a very poor user experience. We use it anyway because we like the devices and we have no alternative to iTunes. But we didn’t select iTunes because of its user experience.

The original iMac does not look as cool today as it did in 1998
Look at today’s popular software - take social networking. You can hardly argue that the user experience offered by Jive or by Yammer is any better than what eRoom provided 10 years ago. Sure, eRoom was perhaps ahead of its time. But maybe, the fashion finally caught up with the user experience of online collaboration.

The perception of user experience evolves not only as a result of fashion trends but also as function of innovation and technical advances. 20 years ago, the term GUI (graphical user interface) was the state of art in user experience. 10-15 years ago, a web-like UI was all the rage - in fact, Microsoft even shipped a version of Windows that used a browser to navigate folders. Remember the wave of Flash-based user interfaces? Or the excessive use of Ajax-based components? Widgets? Gestures? As a new technology allows us do new things, the user experience expectations evolve. Predicting what’s coming next might be difficult. Predicting what will succeed is both, art and science.

Microsoft Windows 8 introduces the Metro-style UI: is it art or science?
Right now, every ISV is trying to figure out how much to invest into the new Microsoft Metro-style user experience. Is that a real emerging trend? We’ll see!

Monday, July 16, 2012

App Store Comparison - iPhone vs Android vs BlackBerry vs Windows Phone

Recently, I wrote about my take on the smartphone market. My conclusion was that the key factor to success is the availability of apps, noting that iPhone is way ahead of the game with Android following closely behind while Microsoft and BlackBerry are nowhere. But as soon as I published my blog post, Microsoft announced that they now have 100,000 apps in their app store. And I started doubting myself...

100,000 apps sounds like a pretty good number. I only use about 100 apps on my iPhone and so 100,000 is a lot to choose from. But there was this nagging feeling that the number of apps available is actually a pretty meaningless number. What I really care about is my apps. The apps that satisfy my needs. But which apps are those?

Well, I recently published a post about my favorite apps on the iPhone. I have distinguished between the coolest and the most useful apps. That’s a good list to start. In the article, I have mentioned a few solid alternatives and so let’s add them to the list too. I should also add a couple of service apps for services I use a lot like Marriott and Air Canada. They didn’t make the list but let’s see. And for a good measure, let’s add some of the event specific apps to the list. What could be more important right now than Wimbledon, Tour de France and the Olympics?

That results is a pretty good basket of meaningful, useful apps. There are 30 of them in total and I have all of them on my iPhone. No basket is perfect or entirely rational but a sample basket is useful. Just ask the Dow-Jones. So let’s take a look at how the other smartphones scored. I have checked the app stores for Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone. Here are the results:

The results? As expected, Android scored relatively high and by far the best. With 23 out of 30 apps available on Android, Google is not on the same level as Apple but certainly in contention. Microsoft Windows scored 16 out of 30 apps which was disappointing. That said, most of the big providers such as Netflix, Audible, Shazam or Evernote have made it as far as supporting Windows by now which is encouraging. But if you are looking for any more specialized apps for your Windows Phone, forget it.

BlackBerry, as expected, is far behind and considering that they are in the process of switching operating systems to QNX, the apps shortage is not going to improve anytime soon.

So there you have it. The next time any of these vendors start throwing around numbers like hundreds of thousands of available apps in their apps store, remember that such numbers matter little. What matters is - do they have the apps I need?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Can Machines Replace Humans?

I have recently read a great book by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee called Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Professor McAfee is of course the one and the same who coined the term Enterprise 2.0 a couple of years ago and who worked with us at AIIM on the business-use cases for social software last year. I was thrilled to be a part of that project.
Andrew McAfee and I during the AIIM project last year.
In the book, the authors argue that we have now reached the point where technology is getting so advanced today that it is possible to automate tasks and jobs previously thought only humans could do. The chess-playing supercomputers beating Gary Kasparov were just the beginning. Now, we have computers driving cars and winning on Jeopardy, and we are only starting. The speed of innovation is growing exponentially and we are into the large growth numbers!

The repercussions of this hypothesis are far reaching. We are at the beginning of an incredible technology cycle. Do you think SoLoMo is cool? Do you get excited by the Cloud and Big Data? Consumarization? Gamification? Just buckle up! Another wave of incredible innovation is bearing upon us - innovations that will be able to replace, improve and automate many of our daily life activities. Tasks previously thought of as forever relegated to only humans will be taken over by machines. Is the Babelfish finally going to be released by Apple?

I can think of many incredible possibilities: image and video recognition, automated decision making, adaptive process flows, contextual experience, home automation, continuous authentication, and yes, real-time translation... there are so many things we could do! They are all possible in theory today but are just too impractical given the technology constraints. However, the technology - hardware and software - is improving at an exponential pace and constraints such as performance limitations or the overwhelming data volume will soon be no longer considered obstacles.

The consequences will likely be profound. Just like the bank tellers and stock brokers of the past, many jobs will be eliminated as a result of innovation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee went as far in their book as to suggest a blueprint for transforming society in order to accommodate for the massive shifts in the workforce. I really wish our politicians read the book.

With all the changes, I believe that technology ultimately creates opportunities. The sudden shifts may feel disruptive to the established order but we all know that only the most adaptive species survive in the long term, We need to embrace the technology. We need to harness its power. And, we need to adapt.