Usability in Ubiquitous Computing and Interactivity
Once upon a time, we used computers exclusively at our desk to look for information, or to use a specific application. But, increasingly, computing devices are becoming an extension of human experiences, as we go about our daily schedules. Event-based, contextualized presentation of information is introducing new demands to the usability factor for applications running on mobile devices. Now, more than ever, usability needs to hone the user experiences that are enabled by ubiquitous computing.
To consider the implications of the lack of usability in a mobile application, the interactivity modes in which a user incorporates its capabilities into their daily flow, need to be analyzed. A badly designed interface in a mobile application, which is used in short, five-second episodes throughout several periods during the day, can cause a lot of pain for the user solely due to the frequency mode. Other high-context applications need to take a deeper anthropomorphic view of the users’ needs to ensure that specific interactions deliver the usability components for a superior experience. A lack of insight into these aspects will cause the user to abandon the application due to the mismatched impedance.
Meeting at the Intersection of Design and Engineering
The design challenges caused by ubiquitous, intelligent software are paramount. From usability of the user interface to the scalability of the underlying services and further to the secure exchange of information, design is the cornerstone of a ubiquitous computing architecture. The architecture subsystems and layers are now so intricately linked that it is no longer possible to treat each aspect in silo and expect to deliver the user experiences that deliver the ‘wow’ factor. Engineering teams, throughout the technology industry, are realizing that to effectively reach and grow a ubiquitous audience, it is necessary to begin with the ultimate end user experiences and design back into a scalable, distributed services architecture.
Key architecture services, such as distributed caches and event-based data aggregators, deliver experiences such as faster load times and information streams from sources specified by the user. In fact, one simple usability feature in Instagram that produced a significantly faster load time for photos was attributed to its massive surge in popularity, outpacing even the Facebook photos feature. The Instagram photo upload feature was implemented with a few lines of code in the Cloud services that they used to transmit the photo content. By the time Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion, the latter had amassed an audience of 30 million users. Usability is a big business, and it starts with platform-based, user-centric experiences.
Steve Jobs famously stated, “Design is not just what it looks like. Design is how it works.” Apple is a leader in usability, not only from a hardware and software perspective, but also from the scalable, distributed platform services point of view. The huge success of its iTunes platform, which provided a way for consumers to easily access a wide array of music content and services, is the most obvious case study for how design and usability came seamlessly together across its hardware, software, and platforms.
The design simplicity of the iPod with its streamlined, user interface, combined with the convenience of the iTunes store, was so compelling to consumers that they willingly shared their credit card information with Apple en masse. The iTunes-fueled innovation became worth almost $10 billion, representing approximately 50% of the company’s total revenue. As Apple introduced new mobile devices and Cloud services, like the App Store and Push Notifications, the company’s market capitalization increased to over $150 billion by late 2007. However, competitors, such as Spotify, are challenging Apple by delivering a music streaming experience to users.
Usability factors are quite different in music streaming applications. These differences need to be accounted for when designing music streaming experiences. For instance, transient, connectivity outages as the mobile user moves from one location to another need to be handled in a graceful fashion to allow the user to continue enjoying the experience. Search usability will be another key factor in setting users’ expectations as they are given access to a large catalog of music in which to find the content they are most interested. In fact, Apple just launched a competing music streaming service called ‘Apple Music’ with features that are intended to turn listening to music into a fuller, curated user experience. Apple also integrated Siri and artificial intelligence into the Apple Music search function to make it very easy for users to find music of interest. There is no doubt that superior music experiences will be critical to user adoption and market lift.
Watch this space for the second part of the series…