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August, 2007 Monthly archive

iPhone-specific pages are a bad idea

Remember the old days when we were promised jetpacks, flying skateboards and the mobile web? Well we still haven’t got the Back to the Future gear but some would argue that devices like the iPhone do bring us closer to the internet, anywhere.

The iPhone gives you the best experience browsing the web on a mobile phone although contrarily to what some people seem to believe, that’s because it doesn’t need iPhone-specific pages to feel right. Apple did a terrific job at crafting a device that gives you the web (as it is today) in your hands. And that takes me to my main point: which is that designing pages exclusively for the iPhone is a dumb idea.

Dumb? But it’s the iPhone!

Here’s a hypothesis: Google launches their own mobile device, say, tomorrow – and it’s so beautiful you need to have it. In fact, it’s so amazing you’ll be throwing that iPhone out the window. Suddenly you get it, all those iPhone-crafted pages are suddenly useless, because they are built specifically with one device in mind.

The mobile web never really took up because designers tend to design for what’s closest to their hearts – and right now that’s the glassy phone with the Apple logo. As most people will tell you, being “closed” is a lousy way to get wide adoption – and this is just about as closed as you can get. Think about it, you’re designing pages specifically for a $599 device and expect huge visits? Oh, come on.

Design for the experience, not the device

A better idea is to design for an experience, not a specific device like the iPhone. Just like you design for desktop browsers by assessing constraints (like window size) and building an experience based on those constraints, why not do it for mobile devices in general? Truth is carefully crafted pages can actually display perfectly both on the desktop and the mobile web (iPhone or not).

The iPhone actually goes a very long way in making sure pages today work great. Instead of building a page specifically for the phone, why not one that gracefully scales to fit the device’s screen? It guarantees you’re not spending resources building for a specific device and effectively means you can focus on building one experience that’s maintained across all platforms. Give it a try.

PS: Have you also noticed how most of these iPhone-specific pages are trying hard to mimic Apple’s design too? Sacrificing resources and a brand just to make something blend in on one device is a lot worse than spending those resources on maintaining quality across the board.

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Better living through existing standards

I remember years and years ago when I first started working with web standards. I felt back then what I feel now – there’s good intentions but little activity except for a few initiatives. Zeldman, who I have the greatest respect for, calls it moving at a glacial pace.

Wasp

There’s people like Molly trying to move the gigantic W3C boat, but it’s not really happening. There’s the HTML5 mess, there’s CSS drafts taking years, and there’s people getting confused and pissed – and rightfully so.

Luckily for web developers out there, the last few years brought something extremely valuable to the table – information. Developers at least understand what’s out there now, standards-wise and are making the best of that – one very clear example is microformats. The last couple of years have proven how resilient the development community is with exploring what’s out there now. We’re better living through current standards than sitting around waiting for the future to unfold.

Jeffrey Zeldman: One day, people from nice homes may forsake XHTML for HTML 5, making us wonder what that XHTML pony ride was all about anyway. Or not. If HTML 5 bombs, we’re not so badly off with the markup specifications we have. Remember this. It may help you sleep at night. If HTML, CSS, or accessibility go seriously astray (and depending on who you ask, at least two of these are in trouble), we will still be able to use HTML 4.01, XHTML 1.0, CSS1 and 2.1, ECMAScript, the DOM, and WCAG 1.0 (with our without reference to the samurai errata) when Britney has grandkids.

Jeffrey says there’s no such thing as a crisis in web standards, and although I agree, I sometimes secretly wish for a small revolution to actually happen – to stir things up a bit and remove the political cruft in the way. But there’s no such thing and for now we’re going to have to keep glueing what we have today in hopes of slowly building the future.

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Successful products through observation

Back in June I wrote an article on designing web applications through ethnography – by seeing real people in the real world, engaged in actual activities and solving real problems. That post got quite a lot feedback both in comments as well as emails, so I thought an update was due with examples of how other companies use ethnography in their experience designs.

Lets recap what ethnography means and what it allows first – and then look at examples of how it is being used by large organizations like Nokia, Intel and IBM.

From the June article: Ethnography – a method to look at user needs through observing people in their naturally setting rather than through research or, like we usually see in this space, guessing work. Ethnography allows you to design (in the broad sense of the word) products that are more in touch with your audience – to solve real problems, and not those you think people have.

Ethnography at Nokia

Business Week has the inside view on how Nokia uses ethnography to deliver richer products that solve real needs. Here’s what Nokia’s Design Director Antti Kujala has to say about their method:

Our process starts with a team of anthropologists and psychologists working in our design group. They spend time with specific types of people around the world to understand how they behave and communicate. This helps us to understand better and to spot early signals of new patterns of behavior that could be harnessed into mobile communication. Our designers often go out into the field to understand the world they are designing for. All of these observations are brought into the design process to inspire and inform our ideas.

We have an advanced design team that is looking 5 to 15 years out, working on spotting and predicting megatrends in society and coming up with thought-provoking ideas on what mobile design could do to influence and react to these.

Ethnography at Intel and IBM

Hemispheres Magazine (from United Airlines) has also a very good article on how corporations like Intel and IBM use ethnography to look ahead and enter (or create) markets ahead of competition. Make sure you read this article as well.

In addition to helping with the development of products, ethnography also can be used to direct corporate strategy, says Ken Anderson of the people and practices research group at Intel Corporation. Anderson oversees the innovation team within the digital health group at Intel. “It’s not about developing a particular product, but opening a space that had been untapped,” he says.

Inspired? Act on it.

Ethnography isn’t just for huge market cap corporations – it can and should be used in any product-oriented or service-oriented business. Chances are if you are reading this blog, you are either an entrepreneur or someone who’s passionate about the web and design. You should be acting upon these examples.

How can observation help you launch a successful product or service? What would do you differently if you looked at your target audience more deeply? Quite a lot, most likely. Here’s how you get started if you don’t have the budget or a product: carry a notebook, note down problems you have in your daily life, or problems you see other people have. You’ll likely come across solutions to these problems, and you know what that means.

Like our project management product (Goplan) came out of our necessities and problems dealing with the people we do consulting for – and by looking at how people manage their projects poorly -, you’ll likely succeed in solving real problems if you just sit down, observe and listen.

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No video in my Flickr, please

Mike posted yesterday on Techcrunch that Yahoo was planning on finally adding video to Flickr. I have to go against Mike on this one and call this a bad move: not because I hate video (I love it), but because it’ll ruin the beauty of Flickr: simplicity and efficiency.

Do one thing right

Flickr is the number one service for photo sharing on the web, and does it exceptionally well. It is simple to navigate, very clutter free, very photo-centric. People love that – I love that. Heck, Flickr may very well be my #1 favorite service out there.

Now, look at Youtube – despite the fact that I believe their layout has a few flaws -, they excel at video sharing. It’s what they’re good at, and numbers (for both memberships and uploaded videos) seem to agree. No need to go anywhere else for video.

These are two examples of doing one thing right – how well do you think Yahoo would do by adding video to Flickr? Not too well, it’s definitely not the Flickr mindset. Consider the reverse scenario: Youtube adding photos. Preposterous idea, I hear you say – exactly. Just like Flickr dwelling into the world of online video – a crazy idea, and apparently quite out of touch with the majority of the Flickr audience.

Flickr + Video

A few alternative routes

Now obviously Yahoo doesn’t want to miss the video bandwagon – makes total sense to them from a business perspective. But you shouldn’t mess with a product that clearly does well in a different market just for the me-too feeling – the implications of messing with something as big as Flickr are huge. And Yahoo does have alternatives:

Jumpcut, hello? Jumpcut is Yahoo’s video solution. And if you’ve never heard of it before (which wouldn’t surprise me at all), that’s only because Y! has been doing a really poor job at promoting and enhancing that service. It’s a youtube competitor, but it lacks positioning and attitude. It’s Yahoo!, they definitely can spruce it up a bit.

Integrate, don’t build: If Y! does want to have videos in the Flickr interface, why not integrate Jumpcut instead of hacking video into Flickr itself? Am I the only one for which this approach makes more sense? They’re both Y! properties, and by integrating, each would maintain its own identity. People who wanted videos with their Flickr profile would pull those in from Jumpcut, and that’s it.

Concluding thoughts

I must confess I’m a little skeptical about these changes to Flickr. It worries me that they’ll mess up a service that so many people use effectively in their daily lives just to go with the flow. Do you have any thoughts and opinions? Please leave them in the comments – thanks, and have a great weekend!

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