Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Breaking free from my invisible prison

Everything that we know today is based on our past experiences. Our knowledge is limiting what we can create tomorrow.

When we solve a problem, we tend to stick with that solution and keep improving it. That affection prevents alternative discoveries from happening. Alternatives, that weren't possible at the time of our original idea. Alternatives, that have much higher potential in the long run.

Various limitations that are affecting our past tools, will silently keep limiting the potential of our future ones. It's not natural for us to consider our proven solutions as restraints. Well, this isn't a prison made of concrete and steel, but obsolete or incorrect knowledge that we fail to see. And what you can't see, you can't escape.

I joined Jolla in 2012. It took me almost three years to discover my self-imprisonment. Back then I could only work with knowledge withing those walls of mine. I was happy to repeat what had been done before. It didn't use to matter, as anything was always possible before. I was either creating concepts or working without time pressure. It all changed when I started working with Sailfish OS.

I guess it was the immense pressure that finally pitted me against my own knowledge. During these three years, I have questioned majority of what I know. Life of uncertainty and constant doubt has been hard, but at least those walls gave in before I did - ironically only to be replaced by tiredness and loneliness. Abandoning things I've held as facts for many years was a cruel journey. Mainly because I just traded one solitude for another.

Our existing knowledge is our happy place, and it's perfectly understandable to fight for that happiness. They say that ignorance can be a wonderful thing. It's only human to seek comfort through stability and order - until one dies. To me, that's a horrible waste. Loneliness I can deal with.

So remember. The knowledge you have gathered doesn't update itself. If there's something you really care about, you should question everything you know about it. Sure, it might get lonely for a while, but it's imperative that you do.

Because tomorrow will be just like yesterday if you don't.

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, June 13, 2015

Tailoring graphical user interfaces for everyday life

When developing a graphical user interface for a product, it's easy to forget the outside world; the reality that your product will ultimately face.
It's tempting to downplay the importance of various everyday situations. Mundane, boring and even stupid situations, that have nothing to do with your amazing new product; yet everything to do with how much user attention they require. This common and critical mistake results in a struggle between the product and the environment it's being used in. Below is a simplified example of this conflict (click to enlarge).

The image shows how the environment affects our ability to focus and handle information. The more control we have over the environment we're in, the more demanding interfaces we can cope with.

Mobile and portable devices are widely adopeted because they conform to dynamic and unpredictable qualities of human life. We naturally have a lower barrier toward carrying small devices with us. Therefore a smartphone is more likely to be used inside a taxing situation than a desktop computer.

On the opposite ends of that scale, we can either be fully engaged with the environment, or with the graphical user interface. Even a familiar and simple interface will be problematic in a demanding situation. Like composing an email while outrunning a bear. Similarly, any smartwatch interface feels lethally boring and restrictive, while waiting for another meeting to end (you'd rather tussle a bear). For reference, see the following image (click to enlarge).

Our available time, at any given moment, affects what we consider important. When a situation requires any attention, completing another task will costs you situational control and awareness. The expense amount depending on both interface needs and the task complexity in question. In short, if you text and drive, you'll suck at both. Human multitasking in all its glory.

Therefore it's important for interfaces input requirements to scale accordingly. The problem is that many interfaces today, like Android, iOS and WP, are already beyond their capability to do so, forcing the user to give in. The reason is a devious one. Even if people don't like to carry around tower PCs, they still love the familiar interface logic derived from them. Even though many human interaction methods, that were developed for desktop computing, are far too demanding for the life outside those cubicles they were never meant to leave.

The smaller your product is, the more focused, effortless and fault tolerant the interface needs to be. I know that our work on Sailfish OS is not there yet either, but it's still easier to keep on building it on top of thoughts like these.

A mobile device that fits your life, is valuable. One preventing you from living yours to the fullest, is not.

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.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

No more empty smartphone screens

Ever since I parted ways with my trusty Nokia 3310, empty standby screens of many smartphones have felt cold, distant and useless in comparison.

Although, various Windows phones, and a handful of Android devices come equipped with features that make their standby screens appear far less dead. After all, credit must be given where credit is due.

No need for power or home key presses, display double taps or other conscious interactions. The moment they're exposed to the world outside users pocket, both the phone and its user are already one step ahead of everyone else. A digital extension of a human intention.

Sailfish OS also has a similar feature in development we call "Sneak Peek". It's not ready yet, but I've been trying it out for almost one year now. Somehow the feature always carried over software upgrades, up until last week at least. I had to re-flash my phone, turning the feature off for good.

The sudden change in device behavior has left me staring at an empty screen more times than I'd like to admit. Looking and feeling like an idiot.

One step too much

Curiously enough, I realized that all those solutions I mentioned earlier, had one important piece missing. They all focused only on what user might want to see, but ignored where that would lead: what would people do next, after already holding the device in their hand, with the display showing relevant information?

Easy. You either want to interact with it, put it back to your pocket, or set aside on a surface near you.

And the problem with everything we have out there today, is that they all just create an additional state between the display being completely off and fully on. A glance or active screen is shown first, before you can see the lock screen. If you desire to interact with device functions below, you have to first go through that extra screen. This throws away part of the potential gained through anticipating user intentions.

To allow user interaction, it would make more sense to automatically show the lock screen, without any added steps. User would see the same information, intereact with lock screen controls, or continue to unlock their device.
Yes, it would requires some adjustments to how the lock screen behaves. It might be something like these wildly conceptual images, that are created to support this post. Take them for their illustrative value.

Moreover, the appearance is secondary in the long run. How it feels in the daily use becomes much more interesting and valuable quality. At first, it might sound strange for the phone to behave like this, but let's look at what would happen if it did.

The first thing you'll notice, you can get to whatever you're doing a bit faster. People use smartphones over 100 times a day, with majority of those instances starting with manually turning on the display. As the manual part is removed, less attention and accuracy is needed.

Second, the amount of user errors would decrease, because nothing was added. Every gesture and functionality works just the same way. It's the same lock screen, nothing more, nothing less. It's just working with you, not against you.

Worried about accidentally unlocking it? Don't be. Every lock screen has a built in protection mechanism to prevent that. Made famous by that "slide to unlock" slider on the first iPhone. We flick or swipe long enough distance to get past it.

Finally, removing your device from your pocket becomes much more friendlier event.

Just pick up the phone from your pocket and place it on a surface near you. Display will light up to greet you. An accelerometer inside the phone can tell whether you're holding it in your hand, or it's resting on a table. By following that information, it's easy to turn off the display sooner to save power.

Naturally, if the phone is on a table, the same sensor can be used to detect user picking up the device. And for cases you don't want to pick it up, you're just a double tap away from whatever you need.

By now, I'm sure some of you've already wondered why not use black background with colored text and icons on top. Well, it works great if there's no display backlight. If there is, too bad. I illustrated the problem below.

Those liquid crystals that are used to affect the light passing through, cannot block all of the backlight, resulting in gray appearance instead of black. This is very visible at night, inside movie theaters, clubs and ancient dungeons.

Using a background image will simply make the issue less apparent (can be turned off for AMOLED devices to save power). Also, a user selected image is much more personal option compared to someone saying it should always be black.

Making smartphones anticipate our needs is not rocket science. Especially when it comes to the lock screens scenario that we manually go through almost 100 times a day anyway. It's much more about seeing past of our past experiences. If you see through them, and get a taste of what things could be, it's going to be difficult to go back anymore.

You'll soon realize how passive most smartphones are. As if they didn't have the information available to anticipate the most basic thing we do. Once again, you've been staring at an empty screen. Looking and feeling like an idiot.

Welcome to the club.

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.