Mobile Diary: the keyboards are back!

The new Blackberry CEO, John Chen, plans to focus on devices with physical keyboards in the future. This from an article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, reporting on an interview with Chen at CES.

Chen said “I personally love the keyboards,” and will be more aggressive in promoting that now-unique feature of Blackberry smartphones, starting with a patent infringement suit against the Blackberry-like Typo Keyboard, which was announced at CES.

Happy to see that Mr. Chen is taking my advice

Mobile diary: Good luck Jolla!

The new smartphone from Jolla launches today in Finland. Jolla was founded by a bunch of ex-Nokians with a plan to execute on the MeeGo vision that Nokia abandoned in favor of Windows Phone. Their new device runs SailfishOS, the community-driven successor to MeeGo.

jolla_026_dOne thing I find particularly appealing about the Jolla proposition is their proud embrace of their Finnish roots and Finnish designs with the “Design from Finland” mark granted by the Suomalaisen Työn Liitto, the Association for Finnish Work. I always thought that Nokia could have made more noise about its Finnish (or generally Nordic) design when it was trying to compete with the other smartphone players.

Another extremely smart move was to add support for Android apps to the OS, and partner with the Russian Yandex app store to provide Jolla users with access to 85,000 apps from the Android ecosystem.

Good luck Jolla!

Mobile Diary: style vs. substance

Another interesting read from Michael Mace in his Mobile Opportunity blog, this time about style vs. substance in mobile applications. key quote:

Too often, we as an industry equate an app that looks simple with an app that’s easy to use. Those are two entirely different things. Stripping all the text out of an app and hiding all of the buttons makes for a beautiful demo at TechCrunch, but a horrible user experience for people who are trying to get something done with an app.

I agree with him on the subject of cryptic icons. I have a Windows phone, which has its own library of interesting symbols for different functions. Fortunately, Windows always provides text labels for icons at the bottom of the screen, so there’s always a way to decode the runes.

Serving the digital omnivores

I just discovered that I’m a “digital omnivore,” at least according to ComScore, who use this term to refer to people who are “able to engage seamlessly with a steady stream of digital content across different platforms.” In my case, it was the Kindle Fire that made me really omnivorous; since I bought it, I’ve been more interested in finding apps and services that work across all of the screens I use every day: phone, tablet, and desktop computer.

As you might expect, this requirement for the same services everywhere creates huge challenges for designers and developers. How exactly do you deliver the same features, or  perhaps the “best” features, in a consistent way on 4″, 7″ and 19″ screens?

One option is to make assumptions about what your customers are most likely to do on a phone, for example, and deliver an app or web site that only supports those features. This is the approach that LinkedIn has taken; their mobile app offers only a subset of what the full web site supports, and emphasizes the social networking parts of the service as opposed to job searching and profile management (both of which are very important to me right now).

As Stephanie Rieger writes, however, these assumptions can get you into trouble. As your customers get more “omnivorous,” they will want to do anything, anywhere, on whatever device they have at hand, even things that seem extremely difficult (Stephanie’s example: filling out a life insurance form).

Fortunately, smart designers are figuring our interesting ways to satisfy the omnivores and manage the constraints of different screens. I saw an excellent example of this earlier in the week, when I updated the Hipmunk app for Android. I’ve used Hipmunk for a while through Google Chrome on the desktop to find flights. It has perhaps the best user interface I’ve seen for this task, plus a friendly dancing chipmunk.

For the mobile app, they have reproduced the essence of the flight search and selection interface, and added a really clever feature; an option to complete the purchase of your flight on a bigger screen (i.e. a computer) using a pass phrase to retain your results.

I like this solution; it still gives you the option of typing in your credit card number on a tiny screen, but provides a reasonably elegant way to move to a larger screen to complete the task without losing the data you already collected.

I’m working on an analysis tool that I hope will make it easier to develop mobile solutions, like the one from Hipmunk, that comprehend the multi-screen landscape. I call it the “Mobile Space-Time Continuum;” it’s a graphical map of screen size (space) and task time that is intended as a guide for planning how to deliver features in a way that supports various combinations of screens and attention spans.

Please let me know if you want more info on this. It’s still a work in progress, which I’m evaluating by applying it to a couple of projects I’m working on. I also hope to apply it in my future work, wherever that may be.