Thursday, 19 May 2011


[An exert from Scott Jenson’s “The Coming Zombie Apocalypse”, Design Mind, May 2011]

The fundamental paradigm of the mobile phone app is basically the same as has existed from the dawn of computing time: a single piece of software to install, open and interact with directly, and then put away.  But the future is revealing new UX patterns that will start to form from the connections and interactions between these devices.

Three new patterns come to mind, but expect more to form as this unfolds:

1. Fixed cluster
A fixed cluster of devices will come into the home and encourage the use and transference of functionality between them. Pandora is a primitive version of this, and the Sonos sound system is another. Both of these systems stream music to multiple devices within the cluster. Pandora takes a one-at-time model where Sonos is working with more with a “swarm” of devices.  However, both of these examples are just the beginning.

Here is an imagined scenario that would push this concept further: while I’m working out, I'm listening to some exotic, crowdsourced playlist on my wireless headphones that is being streamed via my phone. When I get into my car, the music automatically transfers to my car stereo. When I get home, the music pauses while I walk into my house but once I dock my phone, it transfers into the house stereo system, which will play on the speakers nearest to me, and will follow me as I move around the house.  Of course, a fixed cluster can do more than just play music: it could regulate energy usage in the home, synchronize personal data (such as photos between cameras, phones and family), personalize settings for devices based on who is using it, to name just a few examples.  The possibilities are endless.

2. Personal cluster
A second type of pattern will be swarms of devices on people’s bodies that will be able to collect data and collaborate. There is likely to be a two-tier caste system between a relatively small set of smart devices such as a phone, headset, watch, and shoes, alongside a much larger ragtag gaggle of “dumb” RFID devices that represent nearly everything a person is wearing and carrying.

A classic example of this pattern is a “distributed phone,” where the basic communication brick containing the radio, main processor, and storage hide in the user’s pocket while an earpiece, watch, and jewelry work in concert to interact with the user and the central device. A smart watch can show message alerts and a photo caller ID, and subtler “Info-jewelry” could display information ambiently through color changes (e.g., different colors based on number of pending messages). There is even a burgeoning field of person bio monitors that could monitor your condition and report back to your doctor.

But even the “dumb” RFID tags in people’s clothes could be read by one of their smart devices to become part of a larger, personal profile: who people are becomes an amalgam of what they’re wearing. This could be shared by physical proximity or even projected onto Web-based profiles. This applies to more that just clothing; it could involve any number of objects, each having an owner, so “who” you are wearing could be more interesting than what: objects associated with causes, movies, books, or pop artists, could each evoke a special message or buying opportunity.

3. Opportunistic cluster
The previous two patterns involve fairly stable, known clusters under the user’s control. Another likely pattern will involve the entire world of smart devices that people will pass throughout the day. Bus stops, rental cars, store kiosks, movie posters, and even entire buildings will offer value by allowing people to interact with them.

In this world, the idea of “an app” is ridiculously quaint.  In a world of millions of smart devices, a UX lingua franca will be a necessity so any user can approach any device and be able to interact with it directly, without downloading a specific app.

In a sea of these cheap devices, we’ll likely need a display on our phones/tablets that lists (and most likely ranks) nearby devices that might be of interest. Selecting any one would allow that device to interact in any way it chooses. In this manner, the classic concept of “an app” will just be available on demand for any device or object a person happens to be in front of. The idea of a user downloading, managing, and launching apps will feel just plain silly.

Some of the cluster devices won't even need computation to be “smart.” Just geotagging every bus stop in a city would allow people to walk up to any one and interact with it by looking up its exact location through a cloud service, creating, in effect, “websites on demand”. The great benefit of these “dumb points” would be that since they’re nearly free, experiences can be deployed literally anywhere and at great scale.

But it's not just about quick access; these dumb points explode the classic concept of an app by focusing on the precise node I'm currently in front of.  I won't need a 'city bus app, I’ll just need the app for this particular bus stop, which shows me, without any interaction, the next 3 buses.  The same is true for classic store apps. Instead of firing up the GPS and figuring out which Starbucks I'm in, the on demand page shows, without effort, the one I'm currently standing in, complete with today's special right there at the top.  This approach works not only for my current location but now adds significant depth to any mapping application: I can now 'peek into' stores when I zoom into a street, seeing mini pages for each location right in context of the map itself.   This doesn’t even begin to expand on Augmented Reality (AR) add-on’s.

Some of these ideas are admittedly aggressively looking-forward, but most really aren't technologically that complex. The very idea of what a device is today and how it interacts with other devices has already started to change. Like most exponential trends, it is a subtle one that isn't really obvious until it is nearly undeniable. The UX community needs to embrace this coming evolution not because we need to invent the future, but rather that our past is holding us back. We'll only really discover this future if we shed our default desktop computers thinking. May the dreams of our past be the reality of our future.