Monday, December 15, 2014

What if game controllers were designed like smartphones

Sometimes, we find products that are carefully designed with human body limitations in mind. And sometimes products go to market with utter disregard to how and where people use them.

I started wondering how would it look if, for example, a game controller would be designed without actually thinking how our hands interact with it. Here is an existing smartphone, next to a made-up game controller:

Click to enlarge
Obviously, that wouldn't really work out for any gamer, since your thumbs would be functioning on their movement range limits most of the time. It would be painful in two ways: one, your hands would be killing you even after a short session. Two, in an online game, everyone else would too. As a gamer, I'm glad we don't have such controllers, but sadly we have phones that are painful to use with one hand. And that's killing me.

Naturally, I'll just go ahead and flip that around. Here you can see the same focus to ergonomics that's applied to existing game controllers, going into a smartphone interface design. To most of you, it looks familiar:

Click to enlarge
Just like that, we can play games and use smartphones as much as we like without collateral thumb damage. And trust me when I say this, we clock in some impressive amounts per day on both. Something that smartphone interface designers in the past didn't take into consideration.

Or chose to ignore.

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.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Follow-up: Why the status bar has to go

My earlier post, about calling a persistent status bar a ghost of desktop days, got somewhat mixed reception. I was mainly talking about individual details, and forgot to summarize the big picture.

I'd like to take another swing at the topic from a less technical angle, by asking why do we own smartphones?

Everyone uses them to communicate with people important to them. We use them to consume content through any channels available. We all have slightly different ways we use them. Others take things further, while the rest settle for less. But everyone has one thing in common;  we all do it on the go.

We pay money to carry a piece of technology around all day, to do all these things when we want to. The value comes from the device enabling communication, access to information and entertainment. It exists so that we don't have to be tethered to our grampa's box all the time.

I don't understand why are we required to babysit our devices all day, using that small bar at the top of the screen?

When facing a critical error, all smartphones have that "I just soiled my pants" -look of a small child on their faces. But children are much easier to debug, because all issues are local. With cellular reception woes, the catastrophe can occur in places you don't even know that exists. You're only left with the stink.

We must stop traveling a road, where you have to keep one eye on the status bar and one on the content. We can't live under a constant fear of our devices jumping off a cliff the moment we're not able to see the status bar. It's a UX shot so wide, that you could park Jupiter with its moons between it, and the "smartphone" target you we're aiming at.

Making better products and better software is not easy, and will only happen gradually. Nobody makes software that behaves badly on purpose. It's bad because we, as users, are holding on to certain things extremely tight. We're constantly demanding more features on top of the old ones, without understanding the complexity it invites. Complexity in the software is the same for bugs, what blood in the water is for sharks. An open invitation to ruin your pool party.

That's why rebooting the smartphone value domain is important to see what is really needed.

Look at anybigcompanies, that are throwing thousands after thousands of developers and testers at their software products, to keep the quality on an acceptable level. Even they struggle to keep the water safe for swimming. They're not bad at software, but their products are simply unwieldy.

And they're complex because we demand them to be. So make sure you demand only what you really need, because it will affect with who you're sharing your swimming pool?

Is it with people important to you? Or with bunch of f*cking sharks?

The decision is yours.

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.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Ambience: the story behind Sailfish OS looks, part 2

In the previous part, I went through the reason to not follow what other mobile operating systems do, and stay away from a static interface style. The main problem with themes, is that they just alleviate the real problem of interfaces being static, because someone wanted it to look the same for everyone.

Instead doing small things here and there, we wanted to build the personalization story around a single strong feature. The most used way to customize a device yourself, is to change the wallpaper. But we didn't want to stop there -  we wanted the wallpaper to signify how the device currently works.

To do that, it should affect also to how individual applications look. This naturally allows the image to carry more meaning to its owner than meets the eye of an outsider. The feature was named as Ambience, which means atmosphere, surrounding, mood or environment of a given place.

Here's some examples. These are screenshots of my lock screen, home screen and calculator app (click to enlarge them). In the first set, I have created an Ambience out of Orion nebula photo, and set the device to not emit any sounds when that Ambience is active. You can see the selected image being visible throughout the interface, from lock screen to the calculator.

Alright, unto the next set. This time I have selected an image that shows a circuit board as Ambience motif. More discrete ringtones and notification sounds are defined to fit my working mood and prevent disturbing others. It's easy for me to tell apart green and red interface as they carry added significance for me (both photos are personally relevant for me, and I have defined the behavior for each Ambience). Red is silent, green is discrete. No need to squint at tiny status bar icons.

Moving on to the third set, where I used an abstract macro photo to create my casual Ambience. When activated, ringtones and volumes reflect my preferences for events, going out with friends, or just idling at home. Again, it's trivial for the owner of the device to understand the device behavior through meaningful images and colors instead of minuscule status icons.

To create a new Ambience, all you need is a large enough image. Download one from web, use camera to capture something nice, or create a unique piece with your favorite illustration software. With a little bit of testing, anyone can do it. Results will often surprise you. It's an invitation to explore how different kind of images work and shape the appearance of your device. Use images relevant to you, don't follow but pave your own style. Be playful and try different things. Delete the bad ones and enjoy keepers.

Sailfish OS Ambience journey has just barely started and currently only includes partial sound settings. To get some idea what could be done with it in the future, take a look at what our community has already proposed. In short, it's like a visual umbrella for grouping any kind of behavior you might frequently need to change based on context.

How you make use of it, is up to you. After all, it's your personal device. And this time around, it really means it. The way your phone looks like, is not shared by anyone else.

Each Sailfish OS device is unique in that sense. Reflecting their users.

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.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ambience: the story behind Sailfish OS looks, part 1

As a part of our daunting task of creating a new mobile operating system, a visual story (theme) for the user interface was needed. What that usually meant in the past projects, was a ton of work containing:

  • appearance for system UI (things that's part of the OS itself like home, lock etc.)
  • appearance for each application UI building block (buttons, sliders and switches etc.)
  • launcher icon style (how app icons stand out and represent the app itself)
  • generic icon style (iconography used across the OS and apps) 
  • creating graphical assets for actual implementation of system interface and application UI building blocks
  • document how everything is implemented correctly (fonts, colors, geometry, transitions, interaction feedback etc..)
  • continuously work on the documentation to fix mistakes, partial details and oversight
  • add new features and update existing ones in your documentation

In most cases, one or two design teams are working on this huge pile of things. Team compositions are usually something like this:

  • few chiefs for planning, leading, reviewing and managing the work
  • some seniors for heading key areas
  • a lot of designers to execute the design and deliver it to be implemented. Usually one per application. 

That easily means work for 15-25 people. At the time when we started, we had 2. We couldn't really continue the Nokia N9 style, due to both the amount of work required (see above) and it was still part of Nokia's brand. Same restriction applied for going for Android or iOS -copycat style. Too much to do. The amount of work needed to define, implement and maintain such an UI style, would've burnt us up in no time. Not to mention delivering something like that, understaffed, with a competitive quality. We went the opposite way, do as little design as possible.

The current Sailfish OS visual appearance was born out from the idea, that it's not the interface that matters, but what's around it; starting from the user. The more we could capture that, the less visual design would be required.

Let me open that up a bit more. The less a designer dictates how an interface looks like, the more one leaves room for personal expression. The less you try to control everything, the more the interface can become adaptive, and to resemble its owner.

We didn't want to control everything in Sailfish OS. That's not what personal is about. We wanted to make it adaptive, so that every device would look unique through portraying something that's dear to the user. As a designer, you cannot decide what that something is. You need to let go and trust the user.

And we did. We didn't end up defining everything like the competition. We almost completely eliminated documentation overhead (we're not shipping that, but a product), and instead worked with the actual software. We crafted a rule-set for adaptive interface, and continue improving and developing our own personal story.

The Ambience story.

In the next part, I'll dive deeper into how the visual style works (with example pictures).

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.