Originally published: Apr 22, 2011
Every year, our research turns us to what's currently top of mind for designers. As we've been preparing for our Web App Masters Tour this spring, we uncovered three hot trends that everyone wants to know more about: designing for a mobile world, visualizing our data in meaningful ways, and upgrading our design process to handle the rapid world of web-based applications. The challenges we face are great, but when we come up with the right solutions, we see big rewards.
The last few years have seen a dramatic shift in how we access and interact with the applications in our lives. No longer are we tied to a browser in a sedentary machine through megapixel displays. In an upward trend with no end in sight, our users are rapidly and increasingly demanding more interaction with our designs from wherever they are using the devices they carry on their person.
The sheer breadth of platforms presents the first obstacle. After all, we thought we were done with the browser wars. Now, we have iOS, Symbian, Blackberry, WebOS, and more than a hundred variations of Android to contend with. Webkit isn't as consistent across platforms as we'd like. The promise of write-once interact-everywhere is still just a promise, challenging our design, development, and QA efforts.
Do we go native or use a web-based interface? The web-based approach gets us closer to that write-once interact-everywhere world, but doesn't let us take advantage of the benefits of the localized hardware. We can only get restricted access to the power behind the touch interfaces and geolocation capabilities of the device.
It's harder, in the browser approach, to access the gyroscopes, cameras, microphones, and proximity sensors that are packed into the mobile device. Native apps can release the power of interacting with those devices, but now we're coding separate designs for each platform and playing the distribution games that come with each of the vendor's App Stores. The decision to go native or use a web-based application is a serious one.
We're seeing a new category of hybrid applications. Using a native shell that talks to the remote servers through browser-enabled interfaces, we can have some of the advantages of both worlds. New on the scene, we're still getting our feet wet trying to understand it all.
Beyond deciding how we'll deliver our applications, we're now faced with the new interaction paradigms. What had stabilized as common desktop user expectations, with a click-and-refresh model, is now again open for interpretation.
The first thing we notice is the disappearance of the hover state. On the desktop, we could create rich interactions by responding to a mouse move and, more importantly, a mouse hover action. Fly outs, tool tips, and previews became part of our common parlance.
With a touch interface, we can't hover anymore. Our interfaces have to communicate what the user gets upon the touch without knowing the users' focus. Combine that with the smaller screen real estate and we're suddenly forced to re-evaluate our basic design approaches.
Along with the emergence of new input mechanisms comes a new way to communicate. We're in a world where, as designers, we have to establish a new language of interaction. A swipe here, a tap there — each new motion has meaning to the interface, giving the users new control.
However, we're not the only ones defining that new language. As our users encounter other designers' work, they are forming expectations of behavioral stimuli and response.
Take the emerging idea of refreshing the data. What started in one application as a simple gesture — pull the data screen down from the top and hold it for a second — has spread from application to application, and even across platforms, to become a de facto standard without ever appearing in any official vendors' published guidelines. As designers, it becomes our responsibility to keep up on the latest interaction patterns, and adjust our designs accordingly, to stay up-to-date with this emerging and ever-evolving language.
Mobile isn't the only trend that's at the center of our world. The rapidly decreasing costs of disk storage, network bandwidth, and processor power have opened up a new world for designers: data visualization. What was once only the purview of the world's fastest supercomputers and largest data farms is now commonly available on easy-to-buy off-the-shelf technology.
Take a site like PatientsLikeMe, a community of individuals dealing with serious and chronic medical conditions, each sharing their current experiences with the hopes to learn from others. In the past, this type of experience would be limited to text-based online forums, providing simple question and answer interactions to learn how to deal with the day-to-day issues that come up when dealing with a serious medical problem.
But PatientsLikeMe combines the best of today's technologies into an elegant and powerful design solution. The site encourages members to enter as much data as they're comfortable doing, describing their condition and current status. The site uses its inherent processing and data warehousing power to find other people dealing with the same results. Using a highly rich, visual interface, individuals can see what treatments are working for others and where they exist within a disease's progression.
Imagine discovering that people like you see substantial pain reductions by practicing yoga for 40 minutes a day. Imagine uncovering this, not through some dubious health guru's blog, but by looking at the graphical charts that show yoga practice versus pain data of thousands of people in the same situation you're in. The designs of a site like PatientsLikeMe have a profound affect on the lives of their users.
Of course, all this data comes with the price of natural complexity. You don't get detail for free. That's what's truly testing our design talents. Knowing how to give our users access to all the detail without overwhelming them is critical.
We first must master the visual tools and language. We need to understand the elements of clear data communication. Often the data, to be meaningful, has to exist in a larger context. As Edward Tufte likes to say, "compared to what" becomes our common test of usefulness.
What's emerging is a new form of storytelling. We're learning to surface what was previously hidden, giving root to a new understanding of everything we know.
This is even more challenging when we make our visualizations interactive. Once we create a way for users to explore the world of our data, we see them suddenly become immersed in our designs, to a level previously only seen through highly interactive video games. Creating simple-to-use, yet powerful-to-explore data tools is a huge design challenge. This is where we have to bring out our A game.
The power of this visualization, as proven by sites like PatientsLikeMe, is when we can change people's lives for the better. Giving people insights into their own behaviors can show them where things go well and where they are led astray.
As we learn more from fields like neuroscience and behavioral economics, we realize that, left to their own devices, people don't always act rationally. They don't always do what's best for them.
However, much of this is unconscious behavior. With our new tools of collecting, storing, and displaying data, we can now bring these things into people's foreground. This lets our users see avenues for improvement they might not have realized before.
To make this work, however, we have to engage them at an emotional level. This requires taking things beyond the simple notion of badges and leaderboards — the artifacts of the current fad of gamification — into elements that are truly meaningful to the user. From a design perspective, there is probably no bigger challenge today than reaching a level of emotional engagement that can help a person realize significant life improvements.
While we were busy designing, the tools and methods we design have been changing out from under us. Instant browser access to our applications means we can deploy changes instantly. Companies like Netflix push out new versions of their design in as short as two weeks. More aggressive organizations, like 37Signals, find themselves making changes several times a day.
These short-burst development cycles put huge demands on the design process. We have to deconstruct our process into manageable, bite size pieces to fit these quick turnaround schedules, while, at the same time, never losing sight of the big drivers: who are our users, what do they need from our designs, and where are we going?
Meanwhile, the teams we work with are undergoing their own dramatic changes. The shift of development processes removes the notion of "big design upfront." Instead, we sprint towards an incremental design process that lets us learn what our users need throughout the development process.
Adapting our design methods to fit this new way of development is presenting some interesting challenges. The roles of "sprint zero" and the idea of staying one step ahead of the team is only taking us so far. We need to learn to create a driving vision and research-based principles that guide every decision from the team, not just those we have a direct hand in, to ensure a unified, thoughtful design that delights our users.
All this shifting, in the mobile space, with new visualization powers, and of our own design process, is creating big challenges for everyone involved. We're all exploring this space together and learning how to manage within its boundaries.
While we're at it, though, we're seeing the big payoffs. When we do it right, its benefits are realized immediately. Our users are now engaging with our designs stronger than ever before. And our organizations are seeing how good design enhances the total offerings, not just creating a smooth veneer.
It's a great time to be a designer. One filled with hard challenges and great rewards.
How are you tackling these critical challenges? We'd love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment on our UIE Brain Sparks blog.
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