Worth a thousand words, etc.

I’ve long been of the opinion that there are terms of art floating through the various interaction design and user-experience conversations I’m a party to that should never, ever be exposed to the end user. That is, however useful they are to us as designers, they’re so technical, jargony or obscure that they should neither show up in a product or service interface, nor its documentation, nor all but the most granular and geek-centric of its marketing materials. By no means am I alone in thinking this; I’d imagine this is as close to conventional wisdom as one can get in this disjoint field.

What I might have missed, though, is that there are other people even within a design organization who might not sling the lingo with such ease. Not that these folks are in any way limited or less than fully competent at their jobs, it’s just that they’re not as au courant regarding the minutiae of my own particular field as I might like. (And why should they be? It’s not like I live and breathe market-segmentation strategy.)

Case in point: I must say that it’s been surprisingly difficult, in various conversations with folks not immersed in the IxD space, to get across the essential distinction between context-aware applications and location-based services (LBS).

Everyone gets LBS, more or less: it’s the ground on which Interaction Design Cliché No. 2 is built. You’re in a particular place, and there are things your device can do in this place that it’s not capable of elsewhere. Straightforward enough, right?

But what is “context” if not location? What could that possibly mean? It turns out that this is not at all an obvious distinction, and that understanding what an interface designer might mean by “context-aware” is actually built on, uh, shared context. (It’s like rain on your wedding day, or summink.) And since that shared context is, in this case, absent, it behooves the designer who wants to work effectively in a heterogeneous organization to do a better job of explaining these important ideas to everyone else around them.

That’s why I’m so grateful that this set of images has popped up. Minor quibbles about the form factor aside, I think the scenario depicted is just about right.

In fact, designer Mac Funamizu has actually nailed two separate things here. The first demonstrates precisely what I, at least, mean when I use the words “context aware”: but for some residual core of basic functionality, the device’s capabilities and available interface modalities at any given moment are largely if not entirely determined by the other networked objects around it*. If you pair the device with a text, it’s a reader; at the checkstand, it provides a friendly POS interface; aimed at the skyline, it augments reality.

Why this argument is so self-evident to longterm IxD folks and so relatively hard for anyone else to grok is, I believe, a function of the fact that we already take for granted the (rather significant) assumption from which it proceeds: that the greater part of the places and things we find in the world will be provided with the ability to speak and account for themselves. That they’ll constitute a coherent environment, an ontome of self-describing networked objects, and that we’ll find having some means of handling the information flowing off of them very useful indeed.

That the world, of course, looks nothing like this at present is a given. I do think it’s coming, though, as the marginal cost of instrumenting reality-at-large dives below the value derived from harnessing such dataflows in aggregate. Accept that, and the utility of an easy-to-use context-aware mediator like the one here depicted should become very clear indeed. (Inside baseball: let me make it absolutely clear, however, that I don’t believe anything like the semantic Web as its apologists currently understand it will ever exist.)

The second thing Mac got right is more subtle, and it’s a line about the evolution of mobile devices that I think is deeply correct. It’s that the device is of almost no importance in and of itself, that its importance to the person using it lies in the fact that it’s a convenient aperture to the open services available in the environment, locally as well as globally.

Mac happens to have interpreted this metaphor particularly literally, but there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s certainly a defensible choice. The business lesson that drops out of it, though – and of course I would think this – is that the crafting of an impeccable user experience is virtually the only differentiator left to a would-be player in this market, with clear implications for allocation of organizational effort and resources.

At any rate, I find Mac’s vision infinitely more convincing than another, far weaker near-future UI concept that’s been making the rounds lately. The idea of mobile device as context-sensitive pane isn’t even “futuristic” to me, to be honest: just a very convenient way to explain to the people around me what it is I believe we now have to build, and how, and why. Thanks, Mac.

[*UPDATED: After a second reading, I though I should make it clear here that a more usual definition within the field would stipulate reference to the state of the systems to which an application is coupled, whether technical, physical or social. See my (long) explanation here.]

11 responses to “Worth a thousand words, etc.”

  1. Gen Kanai says :

    Funamizu’s work is inspired.

    re: “I find Mac’s vision infinitely more convincing than another, far weaker near-future UI concept that’s been making the rounds lately.”

    Would you be referring to the Aurora demo?

  2. Barbara Ballard says :

    We are consistently disappointed that more applications and platforms are not more context-aware. That’s why we have at least three speakers on context at our forthcoming mobile design conference, which doesn’t include the social networking folks.

    You can find links to those speakers as well as several mobile + context blog entries here: http://www.littlespringsdesign.com/blog/blog/category/context/

  3. v says :

    for me, who is NOT an expert in this stuff and just generally interested, there is a big conceptual mess in the whole ubicomp/context-aware/locational/locative/etc. discussion resulting in perceptional confusion. at least for me. :)

    no iconic designs or other “conversation anchors” have yet been established in the mainstream – “more than words” are needed, like you say.

    however, there is no such a thing as an “iconic” user experience or interaction design: it has to be material and work you have to get the form factor right for the thing to catch on – take the iphone as a vivid example of this and the touch ui. nokia needs to make one “that just works”. :)

  4. v says :

    i guess you have seen enkin already, but just to be sure, see: http://enkin.net/

  5. AG says :

    Well, I completely agree about that last point: Nokia does need to leapfrog the current timid and reactive “responding to the iPhone” discourse; do so in a way that harmonizes look and feel of the physical device, its technical capabilities, and its user interface; and do so fairly quickly.

    In this context, something like Enkin – but far smoother and far better resolved – is an absolute given, not something to build a strategy on. The same is true of gesture, touch, GPS, NFC: these are all (vital) components of an overall next-generation experience, not credible go-to-market strategies. Synthesized into a coherent experience of the world, crucial…but on their own, small potatoes indeed.

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