Creative User Interfaces Aren’t Just for Movies

Recently I saw an article about a new startup called Small Demons. The premise was vague, but had something to do with the publishing industry. Being interested in publishing I signed up to be notified of their launch. Today I went to their website and was introduced to their premise of cataloging real world details mentioned in books and visualizing the connections between them. OK.

Cataloging large amounts of data with interesting connections and visual representations is always a fun user interface challenge. There are usually lots of opportunities to do something interesting with the UI. And the video (starring ubiquitous hipster startup video spokesperson whose name currently escapes me) doesn’t disappoint. Well, at least not at first. The video is set in a room full of books with our friend slowly explaining what the site does. Details from books are flying out of said books in 2.5 dimensions. UI is hanging in the air and sliding all over the place. Very creative. Lovely and inspirational aesthetic. On point and well done.

Our friend is grabbing details from the air and using them in real life. Really fancy.

And then the UI of the actual experience makes an appearance. What a fucking disappointment.

Hey there boring grid on white background. Nice to see you… AGAIN! There’s nothing wrong with a grid or white background per se. But where’s all the inspiration from the UI that was in the video? Where’s the aesthetic? (Or any aesthetic?) Where are the small details that reinforce why I’m on this site passionately combing through the “Storyverse” as they call it. The people who made this video clearly understood how to articulate the passion behind the site in a visually expressive and inspiring form. Could those people have not been used to design the user interface that the users would actually use? It’s like the difference between the picture of the steaming, delicious, appetizing, tasty burrito on the box of frozen burritos and the actual mess that comes out of my microwave.

No. I don’t expect the service to deposit me in a 3d virtual world where i can wave my hands Minority Report style and navigate their interface (grabbing items from the virtual world into the digital world in the process). I’m sure there are lovely and smart people working on Small Demons and I wish it nothing but success, but this just seems like an opportunity lost. I would have hoped that the folks at Small Demons would see the contrast between the aspiration articulated in their video and their UI and realize that quite a bit more “special” was called for to deliver on the promise they made.

Perhaps in v2.

Showing off: The New eHarmony App for iPad is Gorgeous

As you may know, Jackson Fish Market is a bit of a hybrid business. We’re a software startup with products like A Story Before Bed and Thrilled for You, but we also have a user experience consulting side that helps other companies make their software special. We’ve worked with dozens of companies and are proud of all our collaborations. We also are wary of taking more than just a smidgeon of public credit for the results. While we are proud of the role we play, there’s a lot of work on those apps that goes beyond our design efforts to bring them to market.

But, we’re going to show off a little bit more than usual when it comes to the new eHarmony app for iPad. We’re proud of the work we did providing a deep set of initial designs for their app. But, the eHarmony team took the ball and ran with it. No… they sprinted with it. Not only was it amazing for a successful business to come to us with such open minds and hunger for innovation, but they took the work we did it and made it way better. They executed our contributions beautifully, but took them to the next level as well. Various transitions and animations are fantastic. Navigational systems were extended with style. And small touches of personality (make sure to tap the coffee in the coffee cup on the opening screen) are pixel perfect (not to mention adorable).

Even if you’re not looking for that perfect partner, I highly recommend you download eHarmony’s new app for the iPad. The screenshots below just don’t do it justice. This is an example of a next generation user experience that can’t be ignored. And here at Jackson Fish Market, we’re very glad to have played a small role in helping make it happen. Bravo eHarmony team.

Does HTML5 mean the end of the native app? (In other news… Phillips head screwdrivers will kill flat head screwdrivers!)

I just happened upon an article by Matt Marshall on Venture Beat: “How HTML5 will kill the native app.”

Ugh.

This article reads like an HTML5 marketing document. There’s good reason to be excited about HTML5. But I believe there are a couple of key things missing from this discussion:

1. The value of cross-platform code to developers is a myth. — Yes, many people say they would love to standardize on one platform and write once and save “billions”. But in reality, developers like to learn new skills, platforms, and languages. And clearly having to rewrite code to a brand new platform hasn’t stopped hundreds of thousands of apps getting written for iOS. The best modern developers are well-versed in a variety of client and web-based technologies and platforms, and recognize that one solution doesn’t fit all. And ultimately they, and the businesses that employ them will flock to any platform that has a real promise of commercial success and novel functionality no matter how much new code they have to write. Do we really think iOS is the last time that a new platform will attract tens of thousands of developers to write hundreds of thousands of new apps from scratch? If that’s true the software industry is dead.

2. HTML5 has still not addressed a critical piece of the UX — responsiveness. – HTML5 and it’s predecessor Flash have are not focused on the degree of responsiveness we demand from really polished software. It’s true that in many cases, we don’t need instant responses. And with the advent of AJAX style development web-based apps have come a long way from needing to reload the page every time you make a state change. However, the fundamental value of an HTML page (and app) being able to load progressively is often counter to the type of rock-solid responsiveness that we need from many software experiences. I know that most user’s will live with little delays and not even be able to articulate that there’s a problem. But like the soft click of a door closing on a well-engineered luxury car, customers do know when something just “feels right” (and conversely… when it doesn’t). When I can load thousands of items in a list on a webpage without having to do pagination, when that loading feels instantaneous (even though there may be progressive loading of the data into memory), and when scrolling feels smooth as butter and super fast, then I’ll feel like web apps are getting closer. I don’t think there’s a technical limitation on this per se in HTML5, it’s just that it’s not optimized for these types of interactions. Responsiveness is one of the unsung heroes of a polished user experience, and even with all its innovations and AJAX goodness, GMail can still be frustrating to use for heavy mail users.

To be clear, I’m a fan of HTML5 and here at Jackson Fish Market we will use it as appropriate. It’s a tool, like many other tools in our toolbox. We’ll use it when it’s the right tool for the job. And we’ll use other tools when they are appropriate. The most rational and easy to work with developers I know share this philosophy. I’ve found that developers who like to spend lots of time arguing about which tool is the “end all be all” are doing me a favor by letting me know up front that I shouldn’t be working with them.

‘More Features’ Won’t Save a Dying Business Model

I love being in the software industry. So many things are being reshaped right now and I get to participate in my own small way. Here’s a vision piece from some European newspapers describing the newspaper of the future.

News+ concept live from Bonnier from Bonnier on Vimeo.

The problem is, there’s really nothing new here. Yes, this seems great. Basically go down the checklist of every feature that the internet and sexy hardware devices have, and leverage them all to make a digital newspaper. Tablet? Check. Roaming across devices? Check. Video. Check. Photography? Check. Discussion with the writers? Check. Alerts? Check.

I get it. I get it.

I’ve been on many projects where my team’s job was to come up with videos and prototypes exactly like this one.

Here’s the problem. Maybe a better newspaper, a digital newspaper, a newspaper that leverages all of the features that are sexy on the web and touch devices today isn’t what anyone wants. Or certainly isn’t what anyone is willing to pay for to the point that would support the infrastructure necessary to create this kind of production. Maybe the problem that newspapers are facing is intractable. Maybe there simply is no solution and they have no choice but to die.

It’s not the news business that’s dying. It’s the newspaper business.

The same seems true of record labels. Their economics just couldn’t last in this new world. People still love music. People still pay for music. It’s just the economic structure of record labels that is becoming extinct.

Adding more features is easy. I get asked to do it all the time. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen a situation where even the greatest collection of features can overcome the fact that the core of the experience isn’t something people want (or want to pay for).

I’m not saying that finding those core experiences is easy. It’s not. I just feel bad for all the effort and resources that went into this video and countless other visions like it. The blogs and websites I read, the google alerts I use, the social networks I frequent, all give me this experience already today. I don’t need a newspaper to deliver it to me in one package.

Hover R.I.P. (~1991-2010)

Was it the first tooltip (or screentip as Microsoft called it) that showed up when you hovered over toolbars in Word for Win95? Was it in 1991 with System 7 Baloon Help? Was it before those? In a game maybe? I don’t really know, and please comment if you do so I can update the date. But regardless of when the technique of revealing new UI when the mouse pointer was hovering over a particular region, today I am declaring that technique officially dead.

When we first started designing software for touch UI devices (namely iOS devices) I often forgot not to rely on hover as a technique for revealing more UI. Over time I remembered to make sure not to use hover in the designs for iOS. But still relied on it in web designs. But over the last two days I’ve been designing a web app. And I know it’s going to be used on touch devices, so what’s the point of relying on hover. I’m no longer using hover (other than for possible minor reinforcement of what’s clickable) in any apps we create.

And honestly, it’s a shame. I loved hover. It was an awesome relief valve. A great way to get shit off of the screen that didn’t need to be there until that one particular moment. Or maybe, I just used it as a crutch to remove stuff but not really remove it cause I didn’t have the courage to just say no.

Should there be some attempt at a replacement on touch devices? Some proximity thing? I doubt it. Sounds clunky.

Either way, hover is now dead. I’m laying a bouquet of virtual flowers by its tombstone.