Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Let's talk about multitasking as a feature

And immediately stop before doing any more damage. Look at any recent smartphone or tablet advertisements about multitasking. They're awful.

"You know what, we glued this clunky multitasking mode on the side of an already kind of lost operating system. Are you excited? We surely are, because it super easy for you to multitask when you're in the mood for multitasking."

Seriously. Multitasking is not a feature and you shouldn't talk about it as one. Ever.

An operating system either is or is not designed for handling multiple tasks simultaneously. It's the behavior how the OS treats applications and their windows. Whether it's giving its user a desktop pedigree control over them or not.

Without doing a serious overhaul to your operating system, you cannot change those things. Adding another feature to the side will definitely not do that. It just makes you look funny.

Unless you make stuff up of course. And that's exactly what happens in those advertisements. That will make you look even worse than funny.

Now, the main purpose of a mobile operating system is to allow user tasks to be done on the go. To enable whatever user wishes to do. Be it business, pleasure or both at the same time. The user is in control and the operating system responds to that call without questioning it.

For the experience to be responsive and smooth, the OS needs to be lean and unobtrusive. After all, the OS will always be secondary to what user wishes to do with the device. Complex operating systems require more memory and processing power than simple ones, eating away system resources from user tasks like gaming, browsing or watching movies.

However, implementing multiple home screens, truckload of widgets, separate app drawers or dedicated places user needs to go, to do different things, is just an amusement ride. Disguised usually as personalization. Yet another dishonest word used to cram in features.

Do these features give more visibility or priority to user tasks? Do they free system resources for those applications user wishes to keep ready to be used? Do they improve how application windows can be controlled?

No. They do not.

Not a single one of them had anything to do with improving how the operating system handles applications or makes them perform any better. Neither do they make it any more personal. Personal is not about giving you more things to manage. Personal is about you, how a device fits to your needs.

But what they do contribute towards is increased operating system complexity, increased hardware requirements and development effort. The resulting software is slower to load, slower to learn, slower to develop, maintain and fix. Most unfortunately, it's also slower to use since user tasks aren second class citizens.

Why do people buy that stuff then?

Most of the time they have too much faith in technology. It's easy to show a potential buyer how to flick between home screens or play around decorating them, changing sizes of things and managing bits and pieces. Just an illusion of power or relevance. Merely additional things you need to do since it's there and you bought it.

When buying a hammer, the sales person will not tell you how easy that specific product is to keep on a table, or how well does it match with your favorite novel or coffee brand. You will not hear how pets in general think about that hammer.

Anyone buying a hammer would walk straight out, unless sticking around out of mad curiosity, to maybe get a glimpse of where the sales department ends and the padded cells begin.

But when it comes to phones and tablets, people just blindly trust the technology and ignore all the insanity. They trust that these devises with their operating systems and applications give user needs the highest priority.

Sadly the mainstream crop of smart-devices fail miserably in that. The operating system has become more important. Both the manufacturer brand and the OS are treated as celebrities. User tasks on the other hand can be stopped to save system resources.

The OS race is currently about coming up with desperate distractions. A race that rewards competitor with increased OS complexity, increased hardware requirements and increased development effort. A race funded by its spectators.

Everybody needs to stop supporting this unsustainable competition. Your local school will at least thank you for your donation.

Stop believing blindly in technology because it's so easy to get wrong.

Imagine a mobile operating system as a modern version of a workbench. Only, that this virtual counterpart travels in your pocket. A workbench that has apps instead of tools, to let you do different things. A workbench that runs on your smartphone or a tablet.

It's important that this virtual workbench is designed to support your intentions and the tools you need to fulfill them. Tools that enhance and augment your abilities. Anything outside that is not helping.

One key function of a workbench is to keep all your tools neatly arranged and easily found. When you have plugged in and properly adjusted several tools, it's important that there's plenty of room on your bench for them to avoid repeating unnecessary steps in preparing them for use.

It's how naturally you're able to switch from using a single tool to another one, that defines how good of a workbench you've gotten yourself. It's how much the "generator" inside the bench can provide power to your tools in relation to using it for the bench itself. How many tools it can support simultaneously, without you having to turn off some of the ones you need.  It's how long can you go without having to top up the generator tank.

It's how the overall experience works for you, and for the tools you use.
Multitasking is not a feature. It will never be.

The next time when a sales person tells you how easy it's to flick between home screens, or how well does a widget or a tile match with your favorite novel or coffee brand, or how newly added features are approved by pets, and how all that will make you more efficient; walk out and buy a workbench.

At least you know it doesn't try to cheat or distract you from the purpose it's intended for.

That is an honest product. People. Demand the same from your smart-devices.

Thanks for reading and see you in the next post. In the meantime, agree or disagree, debate or shout. Bring it on and spread the word.


  1. I broadly agree, all the mobile platforms are converging on the same design and it does feel like a bit of a kludge. However, this kludge actually works just fine because whether you use iOs, Android or Windows Phone, everything functions broadly the same, so you really only have to have experience with one and you can switch to others easily. The problem with Jolla though is that there is a very inconsistent experience. Sometimes you swipe left in an application, sometimes you swipe right, sometimes your option is in a pulley menu, sometimes you have those ugly orbs in the top left directing you, sometimes you don't. For me at least, it's been a learning experience to remember where certain options are (changing ambiance I have Googled for the 4th or 5th time already). As for apps, some are ok, some aren't, there really should be more consistency in where settings are and how they're laid out in an app.

    I don't mean too be too harsh. I mean you look at Google or Apple a year after they released, they were nowhere near where you guys are now. At the same time though you guys still have work to do, and I hope that you are willing to try new things.

    1. Yes, it's true that they all work. Nobody really notices or complains about that using a smartphone has become mutually exclusive with real life interactions. We are masters at adapting.

      Everybody learns how to walk at some point in their lives and might be content with that. Others pick up bicycles, cars and planes to extend what they can do. None of the options are wrong by any means. It's what you want to do matters.

      Did you check my post about harmonizing touch screen gestures? I've studied many platforms and apps, and I'm pretty convinced that they're all pulling whatever direction since there's no default horizontal flick behavior, like there is for scrolling a list. On SFOS right flick is always reserved for going back. Additional content just like the Android or iOS header menu (email folders or a contact card) opens with the left flick. Pulley has actions that you would see on a regular toolbar. Ideally :)

      I know it's daunting at first - just like bicycling. Like you said, there's a lot to do, things to harmonize. And there's also a lot of improvements planned, but not that many people working on them.

      If I may ask, what places did you find it inconsistent? Maybe you have spotted something that we missed since you look at it a bit further away. I would be helpful if you could show a few examples.

      Thanks for speaking your mind. I really appreciate it <3

  2. I believe there is no such thing as smartphone experience convergence. In my view Android is the next Symbian: widgets of different sizes, a grid layout for widgets, multiple homescreens, app shortcuts and a separate app launcher... too much flexibility the does not add up to something truly valuable for end users.

    Apple on the other hand is very conservative and has a long digest cycle until it assimilates useful features from other ecosystemts. The app icons grid does not seem likely to change anytime soon, neither the 'task switcher' with the ridiculously long we-display-everything-you-launched-since-boot-and-pretend-its-still-executing app screenshots. This is not what I would call a multitasking interface; it is just a task switcher.

    On the other hand, wonderful things can happen with active covers. OwnKeepass app is a brilliant example: swipe once to copy the username, swipe again to copy the password of an entry; a plain gesture that saves you bringing the app fullscreen twice. If I were to criticize something in Jolla, I would rather organize lock - active apps - launcher horizontally, to save the effort of swiping the long vertical side of the 4.5" screen (OK I am lazy :)).

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post! Keep up the good work!

    1. It's very hard to do things differently these days. Inside an organization, it only requires one person who thinks that the pinnacle of UX has been reached. The interface of tomorrow, is right here.

      Then, because that's settled, creative minds start thinking about adding value. How to make a smart-device a better product. Regardless of the process or methods used, it usually boils down to appending something to what already exist.

      "Everyone, what would user like to do?" or "Let's integrate this next to home screens"

      And this is what I feel that the mainstream UX is converging towards. Finding distractions and things to work on since every design committee in the world is worried about confusion if the existing window handling and navigation logic is changed.

      Active covers do indeed open up a whole new world of possibilities. OwnKeepass is a good example of using it right. Since a different gesture is used to trigger an action than to maximize the app, user can be much more casual since no separate touch targets like buttons exist within a same cover. Wait for my post about larger screens and multitouch ;)

      What I personally miss, is that the covers wouldn't shuffle around all the time. That way, I could remember and change the locations for apps that have cover actions. Now, it takes some time to find what I need.

      Yep, I too desire to change the unlocking behavior. Let's see when we get around to do that.

      Thanks for the feedback and encouraging words. These days, it means a lot more than you can imagine :)