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Category: simplicity

Apple’s UX Strategy: I Want To Hold Your Hand

A few thoughts about the iPhone 4 and why technology does or doesn’t catch on. I’ve yet to hold one in my hand, but like everyone else I’ve got opinions. The typical gadget review takes the device’s feature list and compares using technical measures to other devices deemed competitive. Using this methodology, it would be fairly simple to dismiss the iPhone as introducing no new features. The other lines of attack involve dropped calls on the AT&T network and the App Store approval process. For some people these two items trump any feature or user experience.

Google talks about their mission as organizing the world’s information. When I think of Apple’s mission, at least their mission for the last five years or so, it revolves around getting closer to the user in real time. The technology they build flows from that principle.

I’d like to focus on just two new iPhone 4 features. The first is the new display, here’s John Gruber’s description:

It’s mentioned briefly in Apple’s promotional video about the design of the iPhone 4, but they’re using a new production process that effectively fuses the LCD and touchscreen — there is no longer any air between the two. One result of this is that the iPhone 4 should be impervious to this dust-under-the-glass issue. More importantly, though, is that it looks better. The effect is that the pixels appear to be painted on the surface of the phone; instead of looking at pixels under glass, it’s like looking at pixels on glass. Combined with the incredibly high pixel density, the overall effect is like “live print?.

The phrase that jumped out at me was “the pixels appear to be painted on the surface of the phone; instead of looking at pixels under glass.” While it seems like a small distance, a minor detail, it’s of the utmost importance. It’s the difference between touching something and touching the glass that stands in front of something. Putting the user physically in touch with the interaction surface is a major breakthrough in the emotional value of the user experience. Of course the engineering that made this kind of display is important, but it’s the design decision to get the device ever closer to the user that drove the creation of the technology. Touch creates an emotional relationship with the device, and that makes it more than just a telephone.

In a 2007 interview at the D5 conference, Steve Jobs said:

And, you know, I think of most things in life as either a Bob Dylan or a Beatles song, but there’s that one line in that one Beatles song, “you and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.

You could say that Apple’s strategy is encapsulated in the Beatles song: I Want To Hold Your Hand.

The lines that describe the feeling Jobs wants the iPhone and iPad to create are:

And when I touch you i feel happy, inside
It´s such a feeling
That my love
I can’t hide
I can’t hide
I can’t hide

The other new feature is FaceTime. Since the launch of the iPhone 3GS it’s been possible to shoot a video of something and then email it to someone, or post it to a network location that friends and family could access. Other phones had this same capability. That’s a real nice feature in an asynchronous sort of way. One of the problems with it is it has too many steps and it doesn’t work the way telephones work. Except when things are highly dysfunctional, we don’t send each other recorded audio messages to be retrieved later at a convenient time. We want to talk in real time. FaceTime allows talk + visuals in real time.

FaceTime uses phone numbers as the identity layer and works over WiFi with iPhone 4 devices only. That makes it perfectly clear under what circumstances these kind of video calls will work. Device model and kind of connectivity are only things a user needs to know. These constraints sound very limiting, but they dispel any ambiguity around the question of whether the user will be able to get video calls to work or not.

We often look to the network effect to explain the success of a product or a new platform. Has the product reached critical mass, where by virtue of its size and connectedness it continues to expand because new users gain immediate value from its scale. The network must absolutely be in place, but as we look at this window into our new virtual world, the question is: does the product put us in touch, in high definition, in real time? The more FaceTime calls that are made, the more FaceTime calls will be made. But the system will provide full value at the point when a few family members can talk to each other. Critical mass occurs at two.

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Die Walküre: Once Upon A Time In America

Last Sunday I attended a performance of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre by the San Francisco Opera. In many respects, it’s a minor miracle that any grand opera is produced at all— given the high cost, the super-specialized talents required and the deep coordination of the music, singing, drama, light, costume and stagecraft. To complicate things further, Die Walküre is the second opera in a cycle of four operas called The Ring of the Nibelung. The Ring Cycle is one of the more ambitious projects an opera company can undertake. The Ring takes years of planning, signing the right talents, finding the right concept and assembling considerable financing. Given the difficulty, one would think it was a rare event. But instead we find ourselves with one Ring after another. This year the Los Angeles Opera presented its science fiction ring. In 2012, the Metropolitan Opera in New York will present a Ring that features integrated computer and video technology designed by Robert Lapage. San Francisco Opera’s offering of Die Walküre is a prelude to their presentation of the full ring cycle in 2011.

The Ring tells the story of the Twilight of the Gods and the beginning of the age of men. It’s been told in many ways over the years. The San Francisco Opera production (a co-production with the Washington National Opera) brings the story to America. The Gods are transformed into the titans of industry, inhabiting the skyscrapers of a giant metropolis; the Valkyries are women aviators parachuting on to the stage, the mythology of the opera is seamlessly fused to the mythology of America.

Director Francesca Zambello has created an American Ring full of raw power, deep psychology and strong resonances with our national story. In Die Walküre, it is the sense of touch that expresses these big themes in terms of personal moments. In the scenes between Hunding and Sieglinde in a rural shack, their entire relationship can be understood by watching their body language and how they touch each other. Zambello manages to infuse the entire dramatic level of the opera with this kind of specificity and emotion. Donald Runnicles, SF Opera’s former music director, is one of the foremost interpreters of Wagner’s music. He recently conducted two full Ring Cycles with the Deutsche Oper Berlin for their 2007/2008 season. His work on Die Walküre is detailed and passionate. The singers, Stemme, Delavan, Westbroek, Ventris, Baechle and Aceto are outstanding in both voice and their dramatic work. From the opening notes, all the way through the four and half hour opera, the audience is riveted. While I’ve seen the opera many times before, I was on the edge of my seat wondering what these characters would do next.

This may be one of the Rings that people talk about years from now. There’s something about the mythology of the Ring, the Twilight of the Gods, and this time in American history that creates very strong connections— where new meanings well up from leitmotifs of the music and the unstinting drama unfolding on the stage. This Ring sheds a great deal of light on the story of America, from the very personal to the highest levels of our politics. Even a God is bound by treaties, contracts and obligations— seemingly unlimited power is always limited by the power of the world. It’s a drama where the Gods are human, all too human.


Internet Identity: Speaking in the Third Person

It’s common to think of someone who refers to themselves in the third person as narcissistic. They’ve posited a third person outside of themselves, an entity who in some way is not fully identical with the one who is speaking. When we speak on a social network, we speak in the third person. We see our comment enter the stream not attributed to an “I”, but in the third person.

The name “narcissism” is derived from Greek mythologyNarcissus was a handsome Greek youth who had never seen his reflection, but because of a prediction by an Oracle, looked in a pool of water and saw his reflection for the first time. The nymph Echo–who had been punished by Hera for gossiping and cursed to forever have the last word–had seen Narcissus walking through the forest and wanted to talk to him, but, because of her curse, she wasn’t able to speak first. As Narcissus was walking along, he got thirsty and stopped to take a drink; it was then he saw his reflection for the first time, and, not knowing any better, started talking to it. Echo, who had been following him, then started repeating the last thing he said back. Not knowing about reflections, Narcissus thought his reflection was speaking to him. Unable to consummate his love, Narcissus pined away at the pool and changed into the flower that bears his name, the narcissus.

The problem of internet identity might easily be solved by having all people and systems use the third person. A Google identity would be referred to within Google in the third person, as though it came from outside of Google. Google’s authentication and authorization systems would be decentralized into an external hub, and Google would use them in the same way as a third party. Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo, of course, would follow suit. In this environment a single internet identity process could be used across every web property. Everyone is a stranger, everyone is from somewhere else.

When we think of our electronic identity on the Network, we point over there and say, “that’s me.” But “I” can’t claim sole authorship of the “me” at which I gesture. If you were to gather up and value all the threads across all the transaction streams, you’d see that self-asserted identity doesn’t hold a lot of water. It’s what other people say about you when you’re out of the room that really matters.

What does it matter who is speaking, someone said, what does it matter who is speaking?
Samuel Beckett, Texts for Nothing

Speaking in the third person depersonalizes speech. Identity is no longer my identity, instead it’s the set of qualities that can be used to describe a third person. And if you think about the world of commercial transactions, a business doesn’t care about who you are, they care if the conditions for a successful transaction are present. Although they may care about collecting metadata that allows them to predict the probability that the conditions for a transaction might recur.

When avatars speak to each other, the conversation is in the third person. Even when the personal pronoun “I” is invoked, we see it from the outside. We view the conversation just as anyone might.

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Human Factors: Zero, One, Infinity

Software is often designed with three “numbers” in mind: zero, one and infinity. In this case, infinity tends to mean that a value can be any number. There’s no reason to put random or artificial limits on what a number might be. This idea that any number might do is at the bottom of what some people call information overload. For instance, we can very easily build a User Managed Access (UMA) system with infinite reach and granularity. Facebook, while trying to respond to a broad set of use cases, produced an access control / authorization system that answered these use cases with a complex control panel. Facebook users largely ignored it, choosing instead to wait until something smaller and more usable came along.

Allow none of foo, one of foo, or any number of foo.

Privacy is another way of saying access control or authorization. We tend to think about privacy as personal information that is unconnected, kept in a vault that we control. When information escapes across these boundaries without our knowledge, we call this a data breach. This model of thinking is suitable for secrets that are physically encoded on paper or the surface of some other physical object. Drama is injected into this model when a message is converted to a secret code and transmitted. The other dramatic model is played out in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, where a secret is committed to human memory.

Personal information encoded in electronic communications systems on the Network is always already outside of your personal control. This idea of vaults and breaching boundaries is a metaphor imported from a alien landscape. When we talk about privacy in the context of the Network, it’s more a matter of knowing who or what has access to your personal information; who or what can authorize access to your personal information; and how this leg is connected to the rest of the Network. Of course, one need only Google oneself, or take advantage of any of the numerous identity search engines to see how much of the cat is already out of the bag.

The question arises, how much control do we want over our electronic personal information residing on the Network? Each day we throw off streams of data as we watch cable television, buy things with credit cards, use our discount cards at the grocery, transfer money from one account to another, use Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare. The appliances in our homes have unique electrical energy-use signatures that can be recorded as we turn on the blender, the toaster or the lights in the hallway.

In some sense, we might be attempting to recreate a Total Information Awareness (TIA) system that correlates all data that can be linked to our identity. Can you imagine managing the access controls for all these streams of data? It would be rather like having to consciously manage all the biological systems of our body. A single person probably couldn’t manage the task, we’d need to bring on a staff to take care of all the millions of details.

Total Information Awareness would be achieved by creating enormous computer databases to gather and store the personal information of everyone in the United States, including personal e-mails, social network analysis, credit card records, phone calls, medical records, and numerous other sources, without any requirement for a search warrant. This information would then be analyzed to look for suspicious activities, connections between individuals, and “threats”. Additionally, the program included funding for biometric surveillance technologies that could identify and track individuals using surveillance cameras, and other methods.

Here we need to begin thinking about human numbers, rather than abstract numbers. When we talk about human factors in a human-computer interaction, generally we’re wondering how flexible humans might be in adapting to the requirements of a computer system. The reason for this is that humans are more flexible and adapt much more quickly than computers. Tracing the adaptation of computers to humans shows that computers haven’t really made much progress.

Think about how humans process the visual information entering our system through our eyes. We ignore a very high percentage of it. We have to or we would be completely unable to focus on the tasks of survival. When you think about the things we can truly focus our attention on at any one time, they’re fewer than the fingers on one hand. We don’t want total consciousness of the ocean of data in which we swim. Much like the Total Information Awareness system, we really only care about threats and opportunities. And the reality, as Jeff Jonas notes, is that while we can record and store boundless amounts of data— we have very little ability to make sense of it.

Man continues to chase the notion that systems should be capable of digesting daunting volumes of data and making sufficient sense of this data such that novel, specific, and accurate insight can be derived without direct human involvement.  While there are many major breakthroughs in computation and storage, advances in sensemaking systems have not enjoyed the same significant gains.

When we admire simplicity in design, we enjoy finding a set of interactions with a human scale. We see an elegant proportion between the conscious and the unconscious elements of a system. The unconscious aspects of the system only surface at the right moment, in the right context. A newly surfaced aspect displaces another item to keep the size of focus roughly the same. Jeff Jonas advocates designing systems that engage in perpetual analytics, always observing the context to understand what’s changed, the unconscious cloud is always changing to reflect the possibilities of the conscious context.

We’re starting to see the beginnings of this model emerge in location-aware devices like the iPhone and iPad. Mobile computing applications are constantly asking about location context in order to find relevant information streams. Generally, an app provides a focused context in which to orchestrate unconscious clouds of data. It’s this balance between the conscious and the unconscious that will define the new era of applications. We’ll be drawn to applications and platforms, that are built with human dimensions— that mimic, in their structure, the way the human mind works.

Our lives are filled with infinities, but we can only live them because they are hidden.