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The complexity of designing for everywhere

Author Rachel Hinman on the future of mobile design and UX.

In her new book The Mobile Frontier, author Rachel Hinman (@Hinman) says the mobile design space is a wide-open frontier, much like space exploration or the Wild West, where people have room to “explore and invent new and more human ways for people to interact with information.”

In the following interview, Hinman talks about the changing landscape of computing — GUIs becoming NUIs — and delves into the future of mobile and how designers and users alike will make the journey.

What is mobile’s biggest strength? What about it is creating a new frontier?

Rachel Hinman: Humans have two legs, making us inherently mobile beings. Yet for the last 50 years, we’ve all settled into a computing landscape that assumes a static context of use. Mobile’s biggest strength is that it maps to this inherent human characteristic to be mobile.

The static, PC computing landscape is known and understood. Mobile is a frontier because there’s still much we don’t understand and much yet to be discovered. There are lots of breakthroughs in mobile yet to come, making it an exciting place for those who can stomach the uncertainty and ambiguity to be.

You talk about “mobile context” in your book. What does that involve and why is it important?

Rachel Hinman: Most designers have been steeped in a tradition of creating experiences with few context considerations, though they may not realize it. Books, websites, software programs, and even menus for interactive televisions share an implicit and often overlooked commonality: use occurs in relatively static and predictable environments. In contrast, most mobile experiences are situated in highly dynamic and unpredictable environments. Issues of context tend to blindside most designers new to mobile.

Compelling mobile experiences share a common characteristic — they are empathetic to the constraints of the mobile context. Underneath all the hoopla that mobile folks make about the importance of context is the recognition of a skill that everyone interested in this medium must develop: both empathy and curiosity for the complexity of designing for everywhere. It’s not a skill most people grow overnight, but rather something we learn through trial and error. And like any skill, the learning never stops.

How do you see the ethics and privacy issues surrounding sensors playing out?

Rachel Hinman: I think what’s interesting about the privacy issue is that it’s not a technical or UX “problem” as much as it is a cultural/social/ethical issue. Information has always had value. Before the widespread acceptance of the Internet, we lived in a world where information wasn’t as accessible, and there was a much higher level of information symmetry. The Internet has changed that and is continuing to change that.

Now, people recognize their information has value and some (not all) are willing to exchange that information if they’ll receive value in return. I think experiences that get called out for privacy violation problems are often built by companies that don’t have a handle on how this issue is evolving, companies that are still living in a time when users’ relationships to information were less transparent. That kind of thoughtlessness just doesn’t fly anymore.

I interviewed Alex Rainert, the head of product for Foursquare, and a quote I distinctly remember related to this very issue. He said:

“It seems weird to think that in our lifetimes, we had computers in our homes that were not connected to a network, but I can vividly remember that. But that’s something my daughter will never experience. I think a similar change will happen with some of the information sharing questions that we have today.”

I think he’s right. I think it’s easy when we talk about privacy and information sharing to believe and act as if people’s sensibilities will forever be the way they are now. This childlike instinct has its charms, but it’s usually wrong and particularly dangerous for designers and people creating user experiences. People who think deeply about the built world necessarily must view these issues as fungible and ever evolving, not fixed.

I think Alex said it best in the interview when he said:

“I think the important thing to remember is that some problems are human problems. They’re problems a computer can’t solve. I’m definitely not one of those people who says stuff like, ‘We think phones will know what you want to do before you want to do it.’ I think there’s a real danger to over rely on the algorithm to solve human problems. I think it’s finding the right balance of how could you leverage the technology to help improve someone’s experience, but not expect that you’re going to be able to wholeheartedly hand everything over to a computer to solve.”

In your book, you talk about a paradigm shift. What is the Mobile NUI Paradigm and what sort of paradigm shift is underway?

Rachel Hinman: Paradigm shifts happen when enough people recognize that the underlying values, beliefs, and ideas any given paradigm supports should be changed or are no longer valid. While GUI, WYSIWYG, files, hierarchical storage, and the very metaphor of a desktop were brilliant inventions, they were created before the PC was ubiquitous, email was essentially universal, and the World Wide Web became commonplace. For all its strengths, the desktop paradigm is a static one, and the world is longing for a mobile paradigm. We’ve reached the edges of what GUI can do.

Just like the Apple Macintosh released in 1984 ushered in the age of the graphical user interface, Apple’s iPhone was a hero product that served as an indicator of the natural evolution of the next wave of user interfaces. The fast and steady uptake of mobile touchscreen devices in all shapes and sizes since 2007 indicates a fundamental change is afoot. A natural UI (NUI) evolution has started. GUIs will be supplanted by NUIs in the not-so-distant future.

While “NUI domination” may seem inevitable, today we are situated in a strange GUI/NUI chasm. While there are similarities and overlap between graphical user interfaces and natural user interfaces, there are obvious differences in the characteristics and design principles of each. What makes a GUI experience successful is very different from the attributes that make a NUI experience successful. This is where much of the design confusion comes into play for both designers of NUIs and users of NUIs. We’re still stuck in a valley between the two paradigms. Just as we look back today on the first GUIs with nostalgia for their simplicity, the NUI interfaces we see today in mobile devices and tablets are larval examples of what NUIs will grow to become. NUIs are still new — the design details and conventions are still being figured out.

Who is doing mobile right at this point? Who should we watch going forward?

Rachel Hinman: There are a couple categories of people who I think are doing mobile right. The first are those who have figured out how to create experiences that can shapeshift across multiple devices and contexts. They’re the folks who have figured out how to separate content from form and allow content to be a fluid design material. Examples include Flipboard, the Windows 8 platform, as well as content providers like the Scripps network, which handles interactive content for TV networks like FoodNetwork and HGTV.

Another category is novel mobile apps that are pushing boundaries of mobile user experience in interesting ways. I’m a big fan of Foursquare because it combines social networks with a user’s sense of place to deliver a unique mobile experience. An app called Clear is pushing the boundaries of gesture-based UIs in an interesting way. It’s nice to see voice coming into its own with features like Siri. Then there are apps like DrawSomething; it’s an experience that is so simple, yet so compelling — addictive even.

There’s also tons of interesting mobile work being done in places like Africa — in some ways even more cutting-edge than the U.S. or Europe because of the cultural implications of the work. Frontline SMS, Ushahidi and M-Pesa are shining examples of mobile technology that’s making a huge impact.

What does mobile look like in 10 years?

Rachel Hinman: I think the biggest change that will happen in the next 10 years is that we likely won’t even differentiate a computing experience as being “mobile.” Instead, we will assume all computing experiences are mobile. I predict in the not-so-distant future, we will reflect on the desktop computing experience much in the same way my parents reflect on punch card computing systems or telephones with long cords that used to hang on kitchen walls. What seems novel and new now will be the standard sooner than we can probably imagine.

This interview was edited and condensed.

The Mobile Frontier — This book looks at how invention in the mobile space requires casting off anchors and conventions and jumping head first into a new and unfamiliar design space.

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