Monthly Archives: November 2014

Software and hardware, mind and body

When we designed software or websites for desktop computers, it was easy to think about the user interface in isolation from the hardware the user would actually use. When smart phones broke out into the scene, we were (once again) reminded that the software user interfaces we design exist in physical devices that allow us to interact with the software.

The software is the mind or spirit, and the hardware is the body. When you think about them in isolation, you miss the emergent properties of the whole. As it is with humans, so it is with our digital devices.

As a user experience designer (or whatever the job titles happens to be), it’s all too easy to focus on the spiritual side of the device. This makes sense, because for practical purposes, most of us don’t influence the hardware side. But our software or websites do exist in glass, metal, and plastic bodies and I imagine we will want to be more mindful of this in the years ahead.

How Smart Should a TV Be?

An article on the Verge last week got me thinking. “Bring back the dumb TV” argues that the apps in TVs will always be worse than the experiences you’ll have using external devices that plug into a TV, and that the optimal TV is just a collection of inputs.

And… yeah, I can see the point. When I look at the apps I use in my TV, there’s the painful Amazon app, the painful YouTube app, and the completely adequate Netflix app.

One huge problem is the lack of keyboard. Typing by using a d-pad to navigate around a QWERTY keyboard on the screen is a bad, bad experience. From that perspective, the YouTube app got a whole lot better once I connected it to my iPhone and iPad, and used those devices to select videos.

If I could do that with Amazon, it would get a whole lot better, but the pain points in the Amazon app—all of their complete misjudgments about how people would watch TV shows—is a whole other blog post.

Then I consider the Netflix app. It doesn’t wow me, but it works okay and most importantly, it has been noticeably updated during the time I’ve had the TV. If apps that are installed on my TV can improve, then there’s no excuse for not improving them.

To get, at last, to the point of that Verge article: I like not having a bunch of stuff plugged into my TV. I don’t want to keep buying new stuff and accumulating more devices. Planned obsolescence is deeply uncomfortable. I like being able to use the same remote control to operate my TV and all of the services I use to watch content on the TV (although if I already have the iPhone, it’s nice to use that, too).

On the other hand, while software can be upgraded, the hardware is not getting any newer. Theoretically, there could come a day when my TV is not up to the task of using things like Amazon or Netflix. Also, to the best of my knowledge, I can’t go out an install new apps for new services. When the Amazon/Netflix/Hulu-killer comes out, I’m kind of out of luck.

It’s hard to say what I’ll want some number of years in the hypothetical future. For now, though, I’m pretty satisfied with my smart TV, all things considered.

Conflicted Over UX Professional Certification

I don’t know how to feel about certification for user experience professionals.

This topic seems to come up regularly year after year. The main reason seems to be so we, as a profession, can exert some kind of quality control over the wave of new UX people surging in to fill the (mythical, as far as I can tell) glut of UX jobs. It seems likely to me that it is also a way for organizations to try to exert more control over the field.

The idea seems to be that having a concept of certification will increase the status of our profession. The model is something like doctors or lawyers, where the specific job you have doesn’t make you a doctor or lawyer. Rather, you are one just by virtue of having the certification from your professional association. I can’t wait to see the first user experience professional get disbarred from practicing UX for breach of ethics, forced to do UX in dark alleys.

All that said, I don’t really have strong feelings on the matter. The interesting thing to me about the idea of certification is the opportunity to bring an explicit ethical component to our profession. Dark design patterns are widely derided. What if it was explicitly part of our professional ethics that we not try to trick users?

That’s an easy enough ethical matter. What about harder problems, like participating in making unsustainable products or working on products that enable the abuse of people like businesses that use the new “sharing economy” model?

Spotify is a Lesson in Product Trade-offs

If Spotify didn’t offer such a good service, I can’t imagine wanting to use their app. From a user experience perspective, I want every touchpoint that the user interacts with to be the best. From a product management point of view, I’ve got to admit it makes sense to make the app just good enough.

I imagine a lot of my dissatisfaction with the app comes down to running it on an old iPhone 4S. When I’m waiting for the app to start up, I contemplate making a sandwich or something. When I tap on an album and wait for it to load, I get the urge to kill time by checking my email, then remember that my phone is busy loading a list of songs and a piece of artwork, so I’m stuck waiting. When I try scrolling for the fifth time in a row because the app has become unresponsive, I curse the slowness of my phone.

I would also totally believe that some things are genuinely hard to program. Spotify forgets what I was playing within a few minutes of me pausing a song. When I use Spotify in my car, it seems to fight with Apple’s Music app for control. I would believe that interacting with iOS’s built-in music-playing functionality is hard.

But all that said, why does it have to connect to whatever it’s trying to connect to before I can start using it? Why can’t they optimize loading time?

There are also user interface problems. Why is it that when you shuffle a playlist, shuffle stays on when you play an album? Why is it so hard to find the control to turn off shuffling? Why can’t I just search within the albums I’ve saved instead of everything in Spotify’s collection? Why does the iPad app lack the functionality of the iPhone and desktop app? Or, at least, seem to lack the functionality?

Nonetheless, I’m a Spotify customer. Despite all these problems, the service is exactly what I want, so I put up with their apps. Food for thought when it comes to making choices about products.