Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Mobile Web’s Ugly Duckling - RSS

When something that seems to be ideal for mobile phone use is relegated to a separate position and treated as an anomaly, the HC Andersen story of the Ugly Duckling comes to mind. How else can one explain the treatment that RSS feeds receive from mobile browsers and apps where they are lumped into separate RSS tabs or applications? When it comes to the mobile web, RSS feeds are clearly not treated as equals of web sites or apps. Now why is that? Before we answer this question, let us take a look at Real Simple Syndication feeds.

In their most commonly used form, they are feeds of headlines and updates from news media, magazines, web sites and blogs, but they are also summaries of news, events, store offerings, magazine articles and even twitter feeds. If well written they are like headlines and the first paragraph in a good newspaper article or catalog entry, designed to want you to read the whole article or buy a product. Granted, everything does not lend itself to RSS summaries, but when it does, RSS headlines and summaries are probably the best way of quickly cover large amounts of information in a small space. And the good news is that there are hundreds of thousands of them.

Needless to say, this format is ideal for mobile phones where limited screen size and usage patterns make condensed info a plus. But how do you find them and how do you add them to your mobile apps? Here the bad news starts as RSS feeds have somehow taken on a separate ugly duckling status! Many phones and phone browsers support RSS feeds, but then often as a separate 'RSS reader' in a tab, app or function recognized by the orange RSS button. In order to read an RSS feeds you need to open a special RSS reader and then painstakingly find and add the RSS feeds you want to follow to your RSS reader. So what in many ways is the ideal information presentation format for mobile phones, has instead become a difficult to use special application.

What is needed is a user experience where an RSS feed is treated like any other application with its own app icon, ease of discovery and simple user interface. Given that many news and web sites have multiple RSS feeds, it would not hurt if the RSS app was able to simultaneously display say the news and sports feed from one publication under a common app name! RSS feeds can then become the information swan they really are instead of an ugly duckling!

Are there such user experiences for mobile phones? The answer is YES, but more about this in a later blog.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Not so fast – Browser Web Rendering and Search are Different

We are so used to the PC-based web that we sometimes fail to recognize that what we have on the phone is something very different. A good way to look at this is to separate web rendering from search. Let us start with rendering!

Does the site look good on the phone and is it usable? Two very different questions that are not necessarily related as looking good have to do with design, colors, eye candy, pictures etc. Usability means that the mobile phone user can quickly find what they look for and use site related menus, entry-fields and links. It also means that there is some immediacy between hitting enter and getting results back! By this standard, most real web sites fail miserably when presented on a phone browser. Mobile web sites do much better although their usability differs between phones. However, recent attempts to ‘standardize’ browser rendering with ‘web-kit’ based solutions is certainly a step in the right direction as it makes it much easier for web site developers to develop sites that look good and are usable on a number of phones and phone platforms from different manufacturers!

But what good are good looking usable sites if you can’t find them? As most of us do not walk around with memorized URLs in our head, we depend on having a search function that is usable. So are today’s phone search any good? Well, not really. As a start, search results that generate long lists of web sites without regard to whether they are usable or not do not constitute a good user experience. Nor do lists of general results that are not what we are looking for. We also do not want to have to type in several words just to get back results that are too narrow. And what about the search engines that supposedly give us mobile friendly results, how do we incorporate them in our search. Finally, once we have found what interest us and the site looks really usable, we want to add it to our favorites so we can refer to the site often. Bookmarks? Tabs? Well a lot of questions but no clear emerging solutions for search that really works on a mobile.

So while rendering seems to be heading in the right direction mobile search still leaves a lot to be desired. More on that in a later blog!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Apps & Sites - Widgets & Feeds ....

One of the favors bestowed by the iPhone was a common name for the icons on the user interface – they are all called apps which is short and simple. There is no distinction between a web site bookmark in the form of a colorful square and the colorful square that opens an application running on the iPhone processor utilizing all its impressive computing and rendering capabilities. This brings great simplicity to the user who does not have to worry what hides behind the colorful square! For them it is all the same whether it is a cell phone application, a bookmark or a widget – a third category!

Hmm, so how many categories can hide behind a colorful square? Well, there are of course ‘phone functions’ like placing calls, messaging etc. But if we stick with applications or web applications, there seems to be at least two more in use, the browser and the feed (or RSS) reader. I am sure the reader can come up with more but let us stick with these five:

  • phone application
  • web bookmark
  • widget
  • browser
  • feed reader
The definitional differences between them are relatively clear although browser and feed reader are descriptions of functions rather than just apps. They both come from the personal computer world and have been shrunk to the mobile phone world. As on the PC, browser has become somewhat synonymous with search and web rendering combined into one app. As for feed reader – it is just an app designed for a specific purpose, to display RSS feeds.

Does the everyday user care about these distinctions? Most likely not and if one or more can be combined so that we have fewer categories, we would have fewer functions, less confusion and a better user experience. More on that in a later blog!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Finding what you want quickly!

If you are like most people, patience is not in great supply when you use the mobile web on the phone. NOW is the word that comes to mind and most of the time the user knows what they want because they have used an app or visited a site before. On most phones this leaves the user searching for an app logo or opening their browser to find a bookmark! Neither of these is particularly quick when you have more than 12 apps of 5 bookmarks not to mention that you also have to remember whether it is an app or a bookmark.

It seems like phone user interfaces are not designed to handle a lot of mobile web sites and applications individually or at the same time and are certainly not designed to quickly get you to what you want. So there is both a need and opportunity for innovation in a couple of areas:

  • A user interface that accommodates 50-100 apps and bookmarks and at the same time make them easy to find and use
  • A user interface that combines app icons and bookmarks eliminating the need for a separate browser app.
  • As we are all different, we also want a user interface that we can personalize and organize the way we want. My mobileWeb comes to mind!
There is obviously plenty of innovation around both phone user interfaces and app/browser interfaces. However, it tends to be focused on specific phones (do high end smart phones sound familiar) or specific apps (Layar anyone). If you use an older phone or want a better experience for all your apps, you are out of luck!

Well, not necessarily – there are companies bringing out enhanced user interface shells and application launchers that innovate in the areas described. To date many are focused of high end smart phones but there are one or two exceptions. More about these in a later blog!