When thinking about user interface design, many will focus on the
application itself, but Claire Rowland, an interaction designer and
researcher, looks at things a bit differently. She came to the Desktop
Summit in Berlin to describe "service design", which encompasses more than
just the interface for a particular application. Looking at the service
that is being provided, and focusing on the "touchpoints" for that
service, makes for a more holistic view of interface design. That will become
increasingly important as we move into a world where more and more
"ordinary" devices become connected to the internet.
Rowland set the tone for her talk by playing a short video from the Smarcos project, which outlined
the kinds of devices and connectivity between them that we are likely to
see over the next few years. Things in the real world that have not been
connected to the internet, like toilets, pets, or bathroom scales, are
headed in that direction. Since February 2011, AT&T has had more new
machine subscribers (i.e. devices of various sorts) than human subscribers,
and it is estimated that there will be 50 billion connected devices by 2020.
The video described the challenge of making the
systems—services—surrounding these devices usable. It also
pointed out the problems with
ensuring that users are in control of the data that gets shared, as well as
the challenges in making the service understandable. Some of the
presumably fictional examples shown were a washing machine flashing an
"Error: update firmware" message and a coffee machine that wouldn't perform
its usual task because of a "caffeine allowance exceeded" condition.
The difficulty in designing these systems is to make them usable and
understandable, Rowland said, because many people "don't want to
fiddle around with tech". The number of things that need to
"connect up" are only increasing. Smartphones are outselling
PCs these days, TVs are connecting to the web, and more environmental
sensors are coming online, which presents an "interconnectivity
challenge", she said. "How do we get these things to play
Part of the answer may lie in "service design", which is what she works
on. A service simply delivers "something for users". That
could be a service in the traditional computer sense of the term, or
something more real world. She used the "Post" (i.e. Postal Service in the
US) as an example of the latter. There are multiple "touchpoints" for the
service, whether it is buying stamps or sending and receiving packages.
The value of the service is in "how the whole thing works
together", she said. For digital services, it doesn't matter how
well an application ("app") works in isolation, it needs to fit and work with the
service as a whole.
New design metaphor needed
There is a need for a new design metaphor, Rowland said, because the old
usability model of "one person sitting in front of one app" is
no longer valid. That model relies on there being one core device, the
screen, that creates a "work-centric" design. Those kinds of applications
are context-independent and passive, waiting for a single user to perform
In contrast, future applications will have "interusability", she said.
There will be multiple devices involved, some without a screen, and the
applications will become context aware. The applications will be
"content and activity-centric", cloud-based, and will target
multiple users (e.g. web TV).
The key to designing these services will be in finding the right
touchpoints and the appropriate interaction type. Touchpoints need to be
right for the device being used, that is "doing the right thing on
the right device". The "right thing" is not necessarily based on
what the device can do, she said. While a TV can have a keyboard, that may
not be the right way to interact with it, because watching TV is generally
a more passive activity. Depending on the type of application, and the
device in use, it may make sense to design applications to be
"glanceable", and not require users to put their full
attention on the application.
Today's smartphone landscape takes an approach that Rowland called the
"bucket of apps". Instead of just offering a huge range of
different apps, the phone's capabilities should be used to
anticipate the user's needs. If the user is fumbling with their phone at a
bus stop, there is no technical reason that the bus stop couldn't identify
itself to the phone. That would allow the phone to present the bus
schedule app as a likely choice, rather than require the user to dig
it out of the bucket.
There are three elements that make a "service feel like a
service", Rowland said.
The first is to present a "clear mental model" of what the
service is and what it can do for the user. For example, she said that
Dropbox is not technically better than other alternatives, but it positions
itself as simply being about sharing folders. Other similar services talk
about "syncing and backup", which is "scary for
Continuity is another important element, so that users get the same
experience on different devices. For example, an app could tag the Twitter
tweets that you have seen on a particular device, so that they don't have
to be downloaded on a different device. There is an effort to create
"migratory interfaces", she said, where the user can move from
device to device while keeping the same state and context in the service.
If a user is on a mobile device looking at banking information, and the
device runs low on power, the device could prompt whether to push the
information to a nearby desktop. There should also be continuity
"across interaction modes", so that a transaction started
elsewhere could be completed via a phone call, for example.
The final piece of the service puzzle is consistency, Rowland said. No
matter what kind of device or application used to interact with the
service, it should be consistent. If an appliance is to be controlled from
a mobile phone, that doesn't mean that there will be the exact same dials
and other control elements in the phone app, but that the labels, names, and
interaction logic should be the same, she said. The kind of controls used
should be appropriate to the device, but still be consistent with other
ways of interacting with the service.
The cloud user experience is a challenge for consumers, she said.
Connectivity is going to fail sometimes, and to a non-technical user, the
difference between losing the connection and a bug in the app is small.
Losing connectivity can also lead to bad user experience when it is
regained. She pointed to the Spotify music service, where users have to
log in again once the connection has been restored. There may be valid
security reasons for doing so, she said, but it leads to a bad user experience.
Instead of treating connection loss as an exceptional event, applications
should plan for periods of disconnection. Downloading content well ahead
of the time it is needed would be one example of that. The cloud also
brings with it a set of privacy issues and settings that are difficult for
users to get their heads around. There is a need for reasonable defaults,
she said, pointing to the recent issues with Fitbit
activity information showing up in Google searches. Users were
probably not expecting that their sexual activity (including date and time,
as well as duration) would show up there.
The desktop certainly has a role to play and will be a part of this
ecosystem, Rowland said. Service design is partly about the user
interfaces on devices, but it is also about how to make all the different
parts work well together. Apple has staked out a claim to provide this
kind of experience, but she does not want commit to only Apple products.
There "need to be alternatives" to Apple, she said, and that's
where the free software world can come in.
In response to a question from the audience, Rowland had some suggestions
on getting designers more involved with free software. "Designers
love a challenge", she said, and free software needs to "get
better at packaging itself to attract designers". She suggested
going to design conferences to present free software design problems as
challenges and asking for designers to step up to help solve them.
While Rowland's talk was not immediately applicable to free desktops, there
was much in it to ponder on. Like it or not, the vision of the
interconnected future is coming, and our mundane devices and appliances are
that route as well. Making those things work well for users, while still
allowing user freedom, is important, and it's something the free software
community should be contemplating.
[ I would like to thank the GNOME Foundation and KDE e.V. for travel
assistance to attend the Desktop Summit. ]
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