Sunday, February 24, 2013

Defeating the Apps First Approach to Tablet Interface

Despite a recent CBC study which found that 82% of Canadians mostly use tablets at home, I still consider tablets a mobile device and thus under my purview.  I also take an avid interest in Canadian innovations in digital media. So I was really excited to attend a talk last week by James Wu of Kobo on "Rethinking Tablet User Experience".

Kobo is a world-leader in e-readers. They are no longer owned by Canadians, but are still based in Toronto. The event was sponsored by ToRCHI, a leading organization for organizing events of interest to people working in or studying Canada's digital media.

It's been awhile since I have actively designed digital user interfaces, but when I did I found it a constant struggle (against many forces) to put the user's needs and their perspective first. James Wu, director of user experience at Kobo, opened his talk by addressing this point head on - "technology sucks for most people". Technology should not be the focus of design. Instead, Wu explained, technology should be out of the way and let people quickly and easily perform the task or access the content they want.

Yet, the standard interface of tablets (and I'd add smartphones) is the app. This dominant tablet user experience paradigm "is defined by facilitating a user’s navigation into, out of and between apps". When Wu asked tablet users, however, what they value most about their device it wasn't the apps. It was content. Thus tablet user interfaces "are always at least one step removed from what users want". Wu adds that is apps that define how and where users can access and organize their content rather than the users themselves.

"The focus on apps has taken us away from what apps do for us" Wu empathetically cautioned.

To redress this situation, Wu and Kobo embarked on a new project with the launch of the Kobo Arc e-reader and its Tapestries interface (here's a review).

To achieve this, Wu identified three main goals:
  1. Focus on users' content
  2. Support organic curation
  3. Help users find more content
The Tapestries interface builds upon advances in visual bookmarking (such as Pinterest) and recommendation engines. Tapestries allows one to "pin" content (whether e-books, websites, songs, movies, etc.) to one's homepage. Users can organize their content in collections ("tapestries") in various ways, for example by media type or topic. The best way to get a sense of it, however, is to see a demo, as Wu does below via YouTube (the part about Tapestries starts at the 50 second mark).

Based on above-mentioned goals, here's what Tapestries achieves:

Focus on User's Content
Wu aptly noted that people (other than perhaps the attendees at the talk or readers of this blog) do not care about the movie player on their devices. Rather they care about watching their movies. Moreover, they don't want to have to care (or even think about) the movie player. So it's important to "put content at users' fingertips" metaphorically and literally. Wu noted that even in such content as email or Facebook which are incredibly personal, every user has the same icon on their device homepage - but it doesn't have to be this way.

Support Organic Curation
Tablet apps force organization by media type or date, rather than by activity (e.g. a vacation), topic, or other parameters. Wu asserts "let people organize content how they want to and maintain personal relevance".

Help Users Find More Content
The "Discover" feature of Tapestries engendered a lot of interest with the ToRCHI crowd.  To me, the Discover bar seemed much like recommendation engines on book websites that offer recommendations for content based on other people with similar interests histories or one's personal profile or viewing history. Discover, differentiates itself by allowing users some control in the content that is suggested to them.

User-centred Design
Wu also discussed the benefits and challenges of user-centred design. Before starting the Tapestries project, Wu conducted formal and informal research with tablet users - sometimes as informally as watching over strangers shoulders while they use their device (I do this too - it works great.)

They also conducted rounds of user testing. They found that the interface was so new for people that it took time for people to get used to it. But once they did, the feedback has been positive.

This comment reminded me of a great article by Bill Buxton and Saul Greenberg called "Usability Evaluation Considered Harmful (Some of the Time) ", which I mentioned.

In the article, Buxton and Greenberg caution that when innovations are really new users may need time to learn, adapt, or become comfortable with the changes. Rigidly following the outcomes of user testing can result in killing new interfaces and quashing innovation. Buxton and Greenberg offer this caveat against this:
How can we create what could become culturally significant systems if we demand that the system be validated before a culture is formed around it?
The rest of the article is well worth reading for any company or developer trying something new.

I was greatly impressed at how Tapestries is doing something new and different. I don't have an e-reader (when I get a device I need one that is optimized for data entry as much as consumption) but it made me want to get one. Nonetheless, much of what Wu pointed out applies not only to tablets but to anyone designing or developing for smartphones or even desktops.

I'm looking forward to more such innovations from Kobo and I truly hope that their Japanese owners keep such an innovative team in Canada.

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