Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bookmarks, Tabs or Spatial Layout? – How to Find What You Want on your Mobile!

It is interesting to see how old usage descriptions get adapted to new uses but keep their limitations in the new use. Bookmarks and tabs as applied to mobile user interfaces are a cases of point.

Every reader of books uses a bookmark to find where they stopped reading the last time. In cookbooks we place bookmarks at our favorite recipes so that we can easily find them. In web browsers, book-marks have come to mean the list of favorites that point to web sites we like to find. This use of bookmarks works when we have a couple or maybe 10-20 items we want to mark for later easy access. It fails when we have 30-40 and becomes unusable when we have 100.

We are used to tabs from filing cabinets or binders where they are used to group information so that we can easily find it. Each tab can contain several pieces of information, say folders, organized is some type of fashion, alphabetically or other. In web-browsers, tabs are used to keep multiple web sites open and easily accessible at the same time. This use works for 5-10 tabs but fails if we have 20-40.

Folders come to the rescue when we try to organize more material and are used to group bookmarks in lists or tabs. However, once we pass 50, these approaches to organizing our mobile phone reach their limit and become cumbersome. It is time consuming and difficult to find what you want. What can be done?

On approach is to let spatial organization help. Our minds are good at remembering spatial information and if we can organize our sites and apps spatially instead of with lists of bookmarks and tabs, we can easily find what we want. All cell phones even have a special button for spatial (up/down, left/right) navigation - the directional button. The only thing missing is a better spatial placement beyond today’s pages of icons, drop-down menus of bookmarks or lines of tabs. Is there such a way? Yes, but more about that in a later blog!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Do we need an App for every Mobile Web Site?

A recent blog posed the interesting question of whether we need an app for every mobile web site out there. The obvious answer is of course no, but judging from what is going on in the world of Apps right now it looks like the answer is yes. After all, what other way do you have to get your mobile web site onto the icon deck of the iPhone, Android, Blackberry or Symbian smart phones? You simply have to turn it into a colorful icon and submit it to your App store of choice – or all of them for that matter. This ‘battle for icon space’ has created an interesting world of bookmarks posing as apps with colorful icons. I for one am interested to find out how many of the purported 250,000 iPhone apps are simply bookmarks with an icon.

Is there anything wrong with this trend? Well, it kind of defeats the purpose of the 'available anywhere to anyone' mobile web and the tools we have for explore, search and browse for mobile web sites and content we are interested in. If this trend continues we will need an app browser to explore, search and browse the mobile app space. And we will need separate ones for iPhone, Android, Blackberry and Symbian. The problem with this scenario is that it replaces the open world of the mobile web with proprietary silos of apps.

What is really needed is a user interface that merges the icon space of today’s phone deck app launchers with the capabilities of the web browser/search function. A user interface where a web site or result can be turned into an icon and placed on the phone app deck. A good name for such a user interface is a mobile web/app launcher that creates a user experience where apps and sites are treated the same. Do mobile web/app launchers exist? Yes, but more about that in a later blog.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Do App icons have to be square?

To be square means being conventional and boring and there is something slightly boring about today’s mobile phone user interfaces. What was clearly influenced by the icon usage on personal computers became the norm for mobile phones and most application interfaces on today’s phones are matrixes of square icons - or more often pages and pages of square icons! As screen resolutions are getting better, the squares have become more colorful and even ‘3D’ and some nearly sparkle – which all makes for a nice visual effect. Critics call this eye candy, but it works as long as you have a relatively limited set of applications. By using colors, symbols and characters it is certainly possible to create a thousand different icons that our eyes can easily distinguish between. But beyond that – now that we are in the 200,000 range it becomes more difficult.

One solution is to make the icons active so that a descriptor window pops up when we navigate past the icon. This eliminates any constraints as far as describing and branding the application – but without that ‘pop up window’ – it is difficult to quickly glance at icons and remember what they do. What can be done?

Sometimes the answer is simpler than the question appears. If we give up the square 1:1 ratio icons and replace them with rectangular 3:1 icons we can suddenly start to put text in the icons or mix logos with text. As our human mind is used to reading text the ability to clearly read, say 2 lines of 15 characters each, removes all limitations on icon recognition and makes the user experience much better. So instead of recognizing and remembering a square icon, why not just read the text in a rectangular one! Do such mobile application interfaces exist? Yes, but more about this in a later blog!

App icons do not have to be square – bring out exciting rectangles!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Good Mobile Search - Content or Look & Feel?

There is a lot going on in mobile search right now and the notion of mobile friendly results is coming to the forefront. So what exactly are mobile friendly results? Dumb question? Well it depends on the answer.

Most people can agree that mobile friendly results are results that work well on a mobile device, whether a mobile browser, feed reader or media player. They also should correspond to the capabilities of each phone. So if you have a large screen, high resolution is important and if you have a touch screen the results should be touch-friendly. As touch screens are the latest and greatest, there are even companies specializing in providing a search portal with touch friendly results.

Are we moving to a world with search portals for every phone category? Hopefully not, as the look, feel and usability of search results is of less concern than actually getting search results that corresponds to what the user is looking for, content rather than look and feel, one could say. As lengthy search queries are tedious to enter on a phone, we want relevant results from simple search terms. Let us use the search term fun as an example. Are we looking for jokes, games, amusement parks, movies or something fun to do close to where we are? Good mobile search results should give you results in a way so that you can quickly get to which one of these you are actually looking for. And they should do that without having to use a different portal or app for each result type. Is this possible? Yes, but more about this in a later blog.

In the meantime, try entering fun on your phone search and see how quickly you get to what you have in mind!