Note: I did not receive anything from the SweetPea Toy company, nor was I asked to write this review.
The SweetPea3 is an MP3 player designed for young children, 1 - 5 years. Essentially, it replaces the Fisher-Price record player of my youth and the Fisher-Price tape recorder of my 18-year old daughter’s youth with the modern equivalent. (Note: At the time I was ordering our two SweetPea3 players, Amazon.com was showing a product listing for a new Fisher-Price MP3 player due to launch in a couple of months. No product details were available at that time. The product image looks an awful lot like those kiddie tape recorders of yore, including the sing-along microphone… and the size.)
I bought two SweetPea3 players — one lavender, one blue — from the SweetPea3 website. (Also available from Amazon.com.) My main motivation was to give my two youngest children (ages 3 and 5) access to music without buying yet another tape recorder for our old collection of music cassettes.
At $49.95 each, the SweetPea3s were a substantial investment. I admit to spending some time wondering if I should just buy low-end “grown up” MP3 players, instead. Ultimately, I went with the SweetPeas, and was glad I did. Here’s why:
1. Speaker. The SweetPea3 is primarily designed to play over it’s (very decent sounding) speaker. While it can accommodate headphones (not included), they are not the intended playback method; something most parents will prefer for small children. Not only are headphones something I don’t want to give my little ones (a strangulation hazard, especially in bed), they interfere with communication and make it hard for me to monitor volume levels.
2. Size. Sometimes, bigger is better. The SweetPea3 is sized and shaped for small hands. About 8″ long, it’s large enough for them to carry comfortably, and large enough not to slide between the sofa cushions (you wouldn’t believe what slips between our sofa cushions…). In addition to being more comfortable for kids to use, the larger size is safe for children under 3 years, who could easily choke on, say, a Sansa Clip+ or an iPod Shuffle.
3. Design. The player has a nice circular handle just right for little hands. (The product is shaped sort of like a hotel’s “Do Not Disturb” sign, only smaller.) The handle/hole is also perfectly sized for attaching plastic links, so that you can attach the player to a stroller or crib.
4. Rubberized exterior. The players are reasonably cushioned against shocks… and tantrums. Being thrown on our stone floors hasn’t done the blue one in yet.
5. Age-appropriate controls. The SweetPea3’s controls are limited to three buttons: Play/Pause, Back, and Forward. Limited controls means limited opportunities for confusion and frustration. Wisely, there is no Delete function.
6. Parental controls. A parent-accessible menu (hold two buttons down for six seconds to activate the menu) allows for volume control, playlist selection, and a couple of other settings. (Some settings I didn’t understand the need for: “Show Song“? “Pause“? Why wouldn’t I want those features on?)
7. Long battery life. After a week of reasonable use, the battery indicators still show full.
Purchasing from the SweetPea site was easy – the website is nicely designed and simple to navigate. Delivery was prompt and timely. Each box contained the MP3 player, some product guides and ads, and a USB cable. Showing a fine understanding of the target audience, the players came charged and pre-loaded with several songs and stories (some stories are just snippets), making them ready-to-go right out of the box.
Transferring files to the players was odd but not hard — because I’d seen the helpful information one Amazon customer posted. The players have 2 GB of memory, which is plenty for audio content (the website claims over 32 hours).
(On a Mac, the trick is NOT to drag files directly from iTunes to the player, but rather to find the music files in the Finder, and from there, drag and drop to the player’s icon on the Desktop (just like you might copy files from the Finder to an external hard drive). Double-clicking the player’s icon will reveal three playlist folders, into which you sort the audio files. It seemed to me that Playlist 3 does not accept new files; even if it appears to, they won’t be accessible from the player.)
The SweetPea3 was a fabulously successful gift — my daughter and son are delighted with the music players, and a week later, are having a ball with them. They love the control and fun of having their own “iPods” (a marketing coup for Apple), and take them everywhere. And I feel like a great Mommy for buying them.
SweetPea boasts that their player won the 2009 Best Toy Award. That may be so, but the player’s interface — while adequate for a first product — does not live up to the rest of the design, and really requires an upgrade if this product is going to take off.
Here’s what needs to be updated:
1. Larger buttons. The existing buttons are all right for my 3- and 5-year olds, but would be frustrating for the under-two set, or children with below-average fine-motor skills.
2. Volume buttons. These can be on the side to distinguish them from navigation controls. I like the concept of full parental control over the volume via the hidden menu, but not every song is equalized at the same volume as every other song. I’d like my control to be over an absolute maximum decibel volume, and for my kids to be able to control the volume up to that point. Perhaps for the youngest children (up to age 2) this would be overkill, but for the 3-5 year old set, it would be preferable. After all, the volume buttons can always be inactivated via the Parental Control Menu.
4. Playlist selection. Currently, switching between playlists can only be done via the Parental Controls menu, which limits the kids’ ability to choose what to listen to. With 2 GB of memory, there are an awful lot of songs to scroll through to find a specific one. Perhaps the solution is to add an album-sorted list.
5. Color display showing album images in addition to song titles (for kids who can’t read).
6. Faster response time. I was startled by how slow the SweetPea3 is to respond to button presses. My kids have the patience for it, but many won’t and will find themselves pressing furiously to try and elicit a reaction, only to find they’ve overshot.
7. More color options. This isn’t an absolute requirement, of course, but it would be a bonus if there were more color choices. The blue and lavender colors are really nice (nicer than they look on the screen), but if I’d had two girls, which one would have to take the blue? (I know it’s sexist, but you’ll have to live with it.) With small kids, color is the main distinguishing factor; writing their names on the players would not only be useless for the pre-literate ones, it would deface a lovely product.
Overall: The SweetPea3 MP3 player lives up to its tagline, “The MP3 player Made for Kids”. It is a solid choice for young children (birth to 5 years, or older children with motor or developmental delays), but the product is ready for a design update. The SweetPea3 was a fabulously successful gift — my daughter and son are delighted with them. Kids love the control and fun of having their own “iPods” (a marketing coup for Apple), and take them everywhere. And I feel like a great Mommy for buying them.
With regard to my post on Tawkon, ima2seven asked my opinion about various smartphone options. She didn’t know what she was getting into! So instead of replying in the comments, I’ll post my response here:I love my iPod Touch as an iPod and mini-portable computer, BUT absolutely prefer my Blackberry as a smartphone (that’s why I have a Touch and not an iPhone). Blackberry is a much better fit for me, in terms of phone and email usability. For example, my biggest uses (no particular order) of my smartphone are: check new emails, phone functions, send myself notes via email to act upon when I get back to my desk, camera and calendar. I use (with less frequency) podcasting and music features, Google maps, Twitter, Facebook, alarm clock.It’s important to note that the Blackberry is MUCH less convenient for syncing to my Mac than the Nokia E71 it replaced. The E71 synced wirelessly and flawlessly via Bluetooth, keeping my computer and phone contacts and calendars up to date. The Blackberry will not sync to iCal (despite claims to do so), and is erratic and unpredictable about syncing with the contacts. It also requires a special USB cable to sync (none of my 100 other micro-USB cables fit the BB).[As an aside, whichever smartphone you decide to go with, you must first backup your contacts, email, calendars and bookmarks before attempting to sync it to your computer! This will save you a lot of grief if you manage to accidentally overwrite your computer with your empty smartphone instead of vice-versa.]The lack of calendar sync keeps me teetering on the verge of switching back to Nokia or iPhone, but the vastly better email and phone functions keep me with Blackberry. The speed of opening, composing and sending emails from Blackberry is unmatched, for now.I have no personal experience using an Android phone. But here’s a typical quote, tweeted just yesterday by a very tech-savvy colleague who works in the mobile industry, albeit not a programmer:
“almost destroyed my android phone today of rage, because of the time I lost trying to make it a great phone and realizing I won’t succeed. I will stick to my love-hate iPhone for now and patiently wait for WIN7 phones to show up. cannot wait to synchronize Outlook with my phone, and mirror my inbox etc. […] will always be a fun tool for application developers, a phone for geeks and Google adepts, but for a simply rooted guy like me using MS Outlook and few cloud apps, this is not going to work.”
I expect it’s just a little too early for most people to move to Android, unless you are either a programmer, or someone who keeps most of your data in Google’s cloud, anyway (GMail, GMail contacts, Google Calendars, Google Reader, etc.).The upshot: Choosing a smartphone depends on how you really behave when you are mobile. Your real smartphone choices are a QWERTY-keyboard Blackberry (if email and calling is a big part of your day); iPhone (if you mostly want a great iPod and a phone rolled into one, or you’re on a Mac and desire seamless syncing with your computer and MobileMe); and Nokia enterprise phones (if you value great calling functions and sound quality above all else, and don’t want to sacrifice any other features, even if they take a few more keytaps to reach. Nokia phones are fabulously hardy, and gorgeous, too.).Good luck, ima2seven, and I hope you’re happy with your new smartphone!
I had an experience yesterday that was totally exhausting, but fascinating. An expected action catalyzed an unexpected emotional reaction; a relatively small incident set off a huge welter of emotions. The trigger turned out to represent — and therefore evoke — much larger, parallel, issues that lurked under the surface.
It’s almost like a pain path: when a person has physical pain, it stimulates the nerve path to the brain. The more often that path is traced, the more developed — and responsive — that nerve path grows. And the more sensitive and exquisite the pain.
I don’t know if the identical neuronal process applies to emotions. If it doesn’t, it surely provides a useful parallel, a useful analogy. Once an emotional route is traced — a certain type of event, a certain interpretation of that event, a certain emotional response to that event — that same route is more likely to be retraced the next time an event of that type occurs.
[I suppose this is the foundation of behavioral psychology: to encourage a desired emotional response by forcing interpretation (either positive or negative) to a controlled event combination (grafting a contrived event onto one that otherwise occurs spontaneously). And by repeating the process over and over, to “retrain” the interpretation to that type of event, thus leading to a different, more desirable, emotional response.]
Musing on Using
All of this led me to think about how the best products or interfaces take positive advantage of this quality: of the ability of one small experience to somehow tap into a depth of prior, more emotional experiences.
In some ways, this is the goal of great User Experience design: to create a series of positively felt interactions that build upon one another to create a superlative overall experience of a product.
Every “Little” Interaction Counts
This is why every “little” key press, every symmetry of interface, every tactile feedback, every sound, every visual transition matters so much. It’s why people like Steve Jobs and Jon Ives are totally obsessive. Because the User Experience as a whole is created by tens and hundreds of little interactions, little trigger events.
On the one hand, this means that the system can tolerate a certain degree of bad experience (think Symbian S60 menus), if the overall experience is positive enough (think Nokia phones). Because the positive emotional reaction will still be triggered often enough to keep the overall experience positive.
On the other hand, this means that the first series of experience event absolutely has to be wonderful, to establish the desired User Experience pathway (think original Palm Pilot). If not, a neutral or negative pathway is established, which is difficult to overcome — perhaps impossible to overcome entirely (think Motorola RAZR).
Creating Passionate Relationships
But the really powerful lesson is that if once you’ve established a solid experience path, you can evoke a strong response in it with even a very small interaction (think iPhone). You can leverage the historic cumulation of experiences to evoke a disproportionate emotional response… for better or for worse.
Each little experience doesn’t just add to the effects of the previous ones, it builds upon them. The speed and intensity increase, up to a certain point. You get more bang for your buck. And you create passionate user-device relationships.
I learned to type in high school on manual typewriters (yes, they were outdated even then!). Typing on an IBM Selectric typewriter was a whole lot easier, but it took some time to adjust the force of my typing — the electric typewriter required a lot less force to activate. This made typing easier, but, in an odd way, also less satisfying. Pressing “Enter” is not as gratifying as slamming the carriage return back over.Of course, if you slam the keys of an electric typewriter, you’ll break them. So you learn to type more lightly, and is uses less energy, and it’s easier. But less fun.Not long after, we moved to computers. 386-processor IBMs and a Mac Quadra 700 running the brand-spanking-new OS 7 (boy, am I dating myself in this post). These were so much easier to type on than the IBM Selectric. They required much less force on the keys… it was easier, but took some getting used to. The MacBook I bought last month demands a lot less finger power than the PowerBook it replaces. And on and on.Were I to type on my MacBook with the force I used on a Quadra 700 — let alone an electric or manual typewriter — I’d destroy the keyboard in days, if not hours. So I learn to use a lighter touch. And my interaction is less visceral as a result. Still, there is a very tangible physical contact between my fingers and the keys which provides constant feedback and response.Nintendo Wii has been a huge success, and it’s not just because it costs less than Sony Playstation and Microsoft XBox. Using the motion-sensing remote control creates an immersive, physical, visceral experience… in other words, it’s fun.The iPhone has set the mobile world on its ear by making interaction with the phone fun (see my earlier comments here). Using a touch screen has lots of usability advantages, but what makes iPhone stand out from the rest of the touch screen crowd is the visceral, physical sense of direct interaction with the data and lists. It’s fun.Competing manufacturer response has been (duh!) to start making more smartphones with touch screens. Bigger touchscreens, faster touchscreens, projective touchscreens. Which misses the point. In fact, it may do worse than miss the point… When you move to a more sensitive input method (for example, a more sensitive touch screen, or a screen that can sense your input even before you touch it, or voice activation, or camera-based gesture recognition), you don’t have to use as much pressure to activate the device. In other words, you need less physical interaction, and less intentional activation to generate a response.Sarah’s rule states:
More sensitive device input [device sensing] + more sensitive devices [device fragility] = lighter, less visceral contact/interaction.
Do you want to create a product that makes people want to spend time with it? Follow Nintendo’s lead, and give it some real physical interaction. The more visceral, the more engaging. You’ve been warned.
In my previous post on Cover Flow, I wondered:
“The problem of losing your own “long tail” of media files really interests me. It seems to me to be connected to the greater culture of social media / viral marketing / user ratings, where things “float to the top” based on popularity. “Floating” promotes quick discovery and direct access.
“[…] what happens to the 80% or 90% or even 99% of products/files that don’t appear in the Most Popular lists? Do they get discovered? Even within your own little digital galaxy of computer, iPod, cell phone, etc., you can create your own Most Popular lists (“Recently Viewed”, “Most Frequently Listened To”, “Recent Calls”) that both speed your access to favorite data and impair your reach to the other stuff. Your favorite old songs, books, or art may slide down through the ranking system over time, effectively erasing the value of ownership.”
Yesterday, I came across a related idea in Nudge (a book I highly recommend):
“Consider some evidence involving music downloads. Matthew Salganik and his coauthors (2006) created an artificial music market, with 14,341 participants who were visitors to a Web site popular with young people. The participants were given a list of previously unknown songs from unknown bands. They were asked to listen to a brief selection of any songs that interested them, to decide which songs (if any) to download, and to assign a rating to the songs they chose. About half of the participants were asked to make their decisions independently, based on the names of the bands and the songs and their own judgment about the quality of the music. The other half could see how many times each song had been downloaded by other participants. […]
“Were people nudged by what other people did? There is not the slightest doubt. […] individuals were far more likely to download songs that had been previously downloaded in significant numbers, and far less likely to download songs that had not been as popular. Most strikingly, the success of songs was quite unpredictable, and the songs that did well or poorly in the control group, where people did not see other people’s judgments, could perform very differently in the “social influence worlds.” In those worlds, most songs could become popular or unpopular, with much depending on the choices of the first downloaders. The identical song could be a hit or a failure simply because other people, at the start, were seen to choose to have downloaded it or not.”
This has to make you wonder if the music business is changing even more drastically than we’d assumed. Everyone knows that music is sold online now. There are fewer CDs and more Music Store downloads; fewer full albums, and more singles. Let’s not even touch the issue of music piracy.
But is there a skew in the number of singles being sold? In other words, are more copies of fewer songs making it big? This would seem to be the logical result of buying music online, in the context of “social influence worlds” of iTunes & Co. What’s startling is that this result implies a far more drastic curve than the oft-predicted Long Tail. The Long Tail assumes that there is a statistically meaningful market “under the tail”, and that the internet makes it both possible and economically practical to find and distribute accordingly.
If, however, the internet’s effect on media (of any type) is to drive the peak higher and flatten the Long Tail yet further, will there be adequate incentive to populate that Tail with marketable media — with niche books, niche music, niche applications? What will this mean for those who create content; recording artists, writers, programmers? Will it become just too hard to be discovered?
I just upgraded to Leopard (Mac OS 10.5), and its option to let me browse my files in the Finder using Cover Flow stopped me in my tracks. Even at its best, Cover Flow seems wrong — even clunky — as a user interface for large numbers of items, say, more than 40. At its worst, Cover Flow has trouble coordinating with finger scrolling on the track pad, skipping items, zooming past others, and making it difficult to hone in on precisely the thing you want.I threw a question out to the Twitterverse: ”Does anybody actually use Cover Flow to browse their media? #UX”@theproductguy responded:
@Power2B i would b surprised if coverflow is used when people have tons of music; it is nice eye candy but not strong that area of usefulnes
The real use (for me) of “live” page visualizations is for small icons (eg. OS X dock/stack cons) that provide pattern cues to content. #UX
@Power2B Can you please explain in more detail? This sounds like a cool technique.
@Power2B [tweets combined for your reading comfort]:
@Stuporman Not a technique, just a great, usable design. OS X dock icons are an excellent way of quickly navigating apps/docs: the icons show the content (eg, an open mail window minimized to dock actually shows its content miniaturized).
Stacks in Leopard adds another dimension (up in vertical) to the dock, extending the capabilities. Here, icon-as-content browsing is great, b/c it helps compensate for small viewing area, and reduces clicks (vs opening Finder window).If there were a command line (a la DOS or internet address), that would be even faster. Closest equivalent is keyboard shortcut (command-tab) to switch apps; that is even better than dock for app switching. Perhaps gestures will be even better?
But for cover art and for web site browsing, I don’t buy into the visual-icon-browsing model. Too slow. As @theproductguysaid, it’s eye candy. The pity is, if you direct command line/gesture to a file, you don’t browse, and you tend to forget about the 80% of media you access less often, and thus lose use of it completely. Whereas browsing reminds you of things you may have not considered.
The problem of losing your own “long tail” of media files really interests me. It seems to me to be connected to the greater culture of social media / viral marketing / user ratings, where things “float to the top” based on popularity. “Floating” promotes quick discovery and direct access. Popularity, though, depends strongly on a lot more than the quality of the product; it relies heavily on getting a couple of votes early on which trigger more interest and more votes to build momentum (this is why advertising is so important).There are many pros and cons to this system, but the item under consideration now is: what happens to the 80% or 90% or even 99% of products/files that don’t appear in the Most Popular lists? Do they get discovered? Even within your own little digital galaxy of computer, iPod, cell phone, etc., you can create your own Most Popular lists (”Recently Viewed”, “Most Frequently Listened To”, “Recent Calls”) that both speed your access to favorite data and impair your reach to the other stuff. Your favorite old songs, books, or art may slide down through the ranking system over time, effectively erasing the value of ownership. (Is this why we’re seeing the shift to online movie rentals over purchases?)Contrast that to the experience of books on a shelf (the metaphor that Cover Flow seeks to emulate): You have a spatial reference that leads you to where the book is that you want — at least, if your books are reasonably well-organized — but you never see just one book at a time. This leads to fortuitous discoveries, reacquaintance with old friends and stories. It adds value to the history, the collection-as-a-whole.Cover Flow seeks to recreate that experience. However, while you appear to have the added advantage of serendipitous discovery based upon spatial proximity, in fact, there is no spatial point of reference. The item you’re looking at is always at the center. Data organization is still at its essence a list: alphabetical by author, by album, by recent use.Consider the response of a friend via Facebook to my original question:
On my ipod classic, yes, sometimes.
Wow. May I ask about how many songs / media files you have on your iPod? (10? 100? 1000?) Also, any thoughts you might have on when/why you choose to use Cover Flow to navigate vs. the linear list of songs/artists/albums/genres would be really illuminating. Thanks!
I have 2392 songs and 3 video files. I usually use cover flow when I’ve forgotten what I have on my ipod. Ie, after loading a bunch of stuff on or when I’m too out of it to remember what I have and/or what I want to listen to. Don’t know if it makes a difference to you but the most irritating thing with cover flow is its poor treatment of various artists. If you have a couple of compilations with ~20 artists each, your cover flow becomes rapidly inundated with the same album cover. Grouping them all under “Various Artists” would be much more reasonable.
I welcome your input and feedback.
It’s worth watching this 1984 presentation by Steve Jobs. Aside from the enjoyment of seeing anyone that deeply proud of his work and excited to watch the audience’s reaction to it, there is the real drama there.
Everything that makes Steve’s keynotes so incredibly good today was already in place 25 years ago: the stunning moves into far-advanced technological territory; the purity and simplicity of the product design; the passion for powerful application controls, direct object manipulation and delightful user experience… even today, this video is exciting and awe-inspiring. Not to mention historic.
[Thanks to @CharlieKalech for the tip.]
My computer is nearing the end of it’s professional career (it’s almost four years old), and about ready to head into its golden years of volunteer service to advantaged children.
It has given me a good opportunity to think about applications, functionality, and priority: Which applications do I use/need every hour? Which every week? Which every month? Which less often?
The Big Four
The every-hour ones come to mind quickly: Email (Mail), Contacts (Address Book), Web browser (Firefox), and Calendar (iCal). Rarely does a quarter of an hour go by without my using all of those applications. My “Big Four”.
Every day? PDF viewer (Preview), iTunes, To-Do list tracker (Things), Basic word processor (TextEdit), iSync. Most of these I use several times a day, but they’re not in constant use in the way that the Big Four are.
Every week? Page layout (Pages), PDF distiller/editor (Acrobat), Photo managment (iPhoto), Presentation application (Keynote), Photo manipulation (Photoshop), RSS reader (NetNewsWire), OmniOutliner (simpler for tracking many data sets than Numbers or Excel), MicroSoft Office suite: Word, Excel, Powerpoint, for reading files created by other people.
Monthly or less: iMovie and iDVD, QuarkXPress (down in the ranking since its heyday as my every-minute-core-of-the-workday application), Illustrator, Numbers / Excel, Skype.
There are “luxury” applications, of course, that I use frequently, but can get along without, like Twitterific and Calculator.
But with my computer having difficulty coping with the activities of daily life (and thus qualifying to collect on its Long Term Care Insurance), I’m reminded that the most critical functions aren’t even used hourly: they’re used every minute, or even every second.
Functions like the keyboard (working, and working as expected), mouse, real-time operating functions that let applications use resources in the most efficient priority order, display activity (including the ability to show presentations on a second screen), on/off, power management (and battery charge), trackpad and trackpad button reliability (the latter not an issue for new MacBook users — whether you like it or not), internal clock accuracy, a functioning internet connection (OK, that’s not necessarily part of the computer).
If any of these aren’t working, go see how impossible it is to manage for an hour, let alone a week.
But this isn’t a gripe post. I want to dig a little deeper; I want to look and see why the above is actually a product trend driver.
Several years ago, a team at Nokia started studying “mobility” in general, and “what people take with them when they leave the house” in particular. What they found? Three things that people don’t leave the house without: keys, money, cell phone. There’s a lot to learn from this about human needs, but for now, I’d just note that there’s been some nice progress in incorporating the money (and less so, the keys) right into the mobile phone. That’s a nice trend, but at it’s core “unnecessary”, because people will carry those three items even if they represent three discrete packing hassles.
It gets more interesting when you start looking at “luxury” mobile technologies. If you manufacture a mobile product (eg., camera), you’d darn well better make it integrate-able with a cell phone, or it will be(come) a niche product.
If You’re In, You’re In. If You’re Out, You’re Out.
You have only to look at the camera industry to prove the point: from film to digital to camera phone, just think of how our expectations about picture taking have changed in the last decade: we accept lower quality photos in exchange for the potential to snap a memory at any moment. “The best camera is the one you have with you” — that means the camera in your cell phone. The same goes for video recorders; the same goes for watches; the same goes for GPS devices, PDAs, handheld gaming computers, portable DVD players, even
iPods sorry, personal music players.
Today, the Blackberry isn’t just the hallmark of high-flying businessmen (well, in countries like Israel, where BB is still only available under corporate contract). Blackberry Pearl, Palm Centro, Apple iPhone, Nokia E62, T-Mobile Sidekick… these have brought smartphones to the masses, and the masses want them badly.
Why? Look back at my Big Four applications: Email, Web browsing, Contacts, Calendars… those are served adequately by a good smartphone, such as Nokia E71, Blackberry series, Palm or iPhone, although each of these has strengths and weaknesses in these applications. Voila! I don’t need to carry a laptop if I leave the office for a couple of hours.
The smartphone represents the integration of the Big Four application needs right into your mobile phone, alongside your camera, your wallet, and your watch. You’re going to take that phone along with you in any case, right? Getting those applications integrated into the mobile phone makes them necessities — everything else is just a niche product.
Which brings us to…
* * *
The Birth-Pangs of the Netbook Computer
What about the applications that I can’t get through the day without? PDF reader, iTunes, To-Do list tracker, word processor, iSync. PDF reader? Lousy for mobile. iTunes? Good if you’ve got an iPhone; not worth mentioning otherwise. To-Do lists? Depends on the phone you have, and the tracking software you choose. Word processor? Nada nada nada. iSync, OK.
Which means that if I go out for the day, I do need to take my computer, otherwise I’ll need to defer a lot of activity until I get back (blog posting, reading attachments, significant letter writing, major document creation, etc). Laptop computers are mobile. They’re also heavy. Either I’m shlepping a heavy laptop (after an hour’s hike through Frankfurt airport, or six hours walking a convention floor, you’ll see what I mean), or accumulating a backlog of tasks. Ouch.
This “Ouch” is what drives the growth of the new UMPC (ultra-mobile personal computer, or “netbook”) computer market. It’s a market category that seems obvious: make a laptop that’s light enough to really carry around, and that can get you through all your normal daily application needs, and most of your weekly application requirements. It meets a true need, so long as the real fundamentals (reliability, trackpad, etc.) are well-met.
Why did the netbook market take so long to gain traction, and why is it finally moving now?
Netbooks aren’t in the top-three items people won’t leave their homes without. So while they do meet a need, they don’t meet a Need, if you catch my drift.
For a netbook computer to make sense to me as a consumer, it needs to fulfill more needs than my smartphone, and offer some kind of major advantage over a laptop. Why? Because I’ve already got a phone of some sort (and won’t give that up), and I’ve already got a computer of some sort (which may as well be a laptop).
The netbook can’t replace my cell phone in any case; the best it can hope to do is replace my laptop (unlikely, unless I prefer a desktop computer as my main computer) in situations where I simply cannot manage on a smartphone alone. In other words, a netbook is a luxury.
So, what has changed, then? Why has this market now gained traction? How has the netbook moved itself from luxury to necessity?
Their Heads in the Clouds
Essentially, it boils down to the critical “back-office” functions: hardware, software, OS, broadband mobile data connections, and cloud-computing competence (to keep the applications and data available, usable, secure and in sync). Of those functions, the latter two are not under the control of the computer manufacturers, who have had to wait for them to catch up.
That “wait for them to catch up” vulnerability has, to some extent, been responsible for the move of mobile phone manufacturers into the internet content space (Nokia with Ovi, Apple with MobileMe, RIM with Blackberry Internet Service for individuals). You can focus on their sales of content, but that represents the raindrops — the real focus should be on their ownership of the Cloud. When you own the Cloud, you don’t have to wait for someone else to build it in order to provide the service.
The mobile phone manufacturers “got it” — the computer manufacturers didn’t (well, with the exception of Apple, which is probably why they became mobile phone manufacturers in addition to creating a cloud). So the netbook manufacturers sat and languished for years, trying (mostly futilely) to bundle cellular broadband cards into their machines, which just didn’t go far enough.
Today, though, the Cloud has grown. It has developed so drastically as to be competent to take over synchronization of personal computing functions that represent daily, weekly and monthly needs (email, documents, calendars, photos on Picassa and Flickr, etc.). While it’s still true that “cloud computing” exacts a toll in lag time while data is accessed, that inconvenience is bearable for applications that aren’t accessed on a constant basis. Google in particular is building the back-end infrastructure that allows the netbooks to succeed on a functional level.
With the support of the Cloud, a netbook can handle almost every personal computing need — at half the price of a laptop computer. It is the that Cloud takes the computing and storage burden off the mobile devices, allowing them to provide the necessary applications without actually providing them.
The ultimate set-up, of course, is a transparent set of perfectly synced devices: phone, ultra-mobile, and desktop sizes, from which any documents and data sets can be retrieved. Whether those devices are actually one core device with a number of corporeal states (a la Modu), or cloud-computing-served units (iMac + MacBook Air + iPhone) is a question of technology and security.
(Technology = Can the synchronization be maintained for discrete devices? vs. Can the cloud have little enough downtime and great enough bandwidth to be able to serve up the data on demand? Security = Distribution of multiple hardware units containing sensitive data? — think of UK government security issues, with computers and data files left on public transport — vs. Can the cloud be secure enough to entrust with all sensitive data?).
We anxiously await mobile utopia.
Predicting user intention has a long history. There’s always the hope that you can train a computer to anticipate the user’s next move and launch the desired application or function at just the right moment, without requiring a user command.
The question is, how do you predict? How do you know what a user wants to do next?
The traditional methods can be generally categorized as:
- Statistical methods. Study ten or a hundred or a thousand people using your program, and discover which functions are usually requested after which other functions. A common example: you might find that after launching Word, 90% of the time users next create a new blank document. Therefore, when launching the program, automatically cause a new file to be created immediately. Another common example: Apple Mail recognizes an email address format or internet link format in text, and automatically creates a clickable link within the mail body. There are mountains of ethnomethodological studies that try to provide relevant data for predictive use.
- Track individual user habits. Allow the application to track a user’s actions, and learn the user’s behavior patterns. Then activate functions automatically based upon past use.
A non-real-life example — more of a wish — from JK On The Run:
After I finish doing my email, or even before I’m done if there are too many emails to do them all, I want to go to Google Reader to check all the items from my RSS feeds overnight. I can open up Firefox or just say “check the feeds” or the equivalent and the [Intuitive Interface] knows to fire up Firefox with the Google Reader page loaded. The key to the learning capabilities of the [Intuitive Interface] is that just because I use Firefox doesn’t mean you do. If it’s learned from your actions that you use Opera or Internet Explorer then that’s what it will use for you. No overt training required, the [Intuitive Interface] can learn volumes about your preferences and what you normally do just by paying attention when you do them. After just a short time of doing this the [Intuitive Interface] can be working WITH you, not just for you. It will become a very intelligent personal assistant that works the way you do when you do. It’s always watching what you do and WHEN you do it as most people’s work days are very routine when it comes to schedule.
3. Allow the user to control and register actions and preferences. Photoshop does this by recording your action history, and then letting you not only undo actions, but also “record” sets of actions for future application to other documents. The Mac OS does something similar in helping you set which applications are used to open which documents.
What everyone yearns for is something like the first two categories — where the user does nothing, and the computer comes up with the right action “like magic”. The problem is that in real life, only category three is really useful. Why?
Consider the following two reports:
One of the features on my three-year old Acura that I’ve come to enjoy is its keyless entry and ignition feature. Walk up to the car, touch a button on the door handle to unlock it, and start the car without inserting the key. All while the key stays in my pocket. It’s a feature now found on many cars and eliminates the need to find your keys in a pocket, briefcase or purse.
It can even tell the difference between my key or my wife’s. This can have some unintended consequences. If my wife enters the car first from the passenger side with her key, all of the radio stations and other settings default to hers. (She thinks that’s great as it reminds me to be a gentleman and open her door first.)
[from Phil Baker’s Concept to Consumer blog]
Blackberry has this nice feature where you type a word without bothering with capitalization or punctuation, for example, typing “im” for “I’m”, and it changes it on the fly. (Funny, because there’s no actual spell-check…) It’s a feature that’s convenient, although I tend to under-use it.
Anyway, little glitch, I tried to send someone my Israeli email address the other day. It ends with @netvision.net.il. Except that my alert Blackberry insisted it was @netvision.net.I’ll. I went back to erase/change/fix maybe 6 times, unsuccessfully. Not a helpful feature, in this case! Why should I be in a power struggle with my cell phone? […]
Found another one: can’t type the word “id” (as in Freudian), or the initials for identification or industrial design (ID). I just keep getting “I’d”.
When is the tradeoff of 95% accuracy offset by the 5% error rate (uncorrectable errors)? Another long tail question? Kind of.
[from Feature Power Struggle, posted in this blog]
You get the idea. I’m sure you can draw examples from your own life. Unless a use-case prediction is true 100% of the time, the frustration of an incorrect prediction has to be allowed for. If the error is minor or easily corrected for, then the predictive action may be worthwhile (eg, having applications create new documents at launch — closing the new document window is a minor inconvenience, and the extra wait is unnoticeable). If the error is harder to correct, or more annoying (How do you tell the car who is really driving? How do you override Blackberry’s auto-punctuation?), the frequent convenience may not outweigh the occasional frustration.
It’s worth pointing out that anything in categories 2 or 3 will benefit from unshared use of the device. Sharing machines/phones/computers/cars when preferences have been customized or learned for a particular individual will entail even greater frustration than if there had been no customization in the first place. Which leads us to more “Me”and less “We”.
[Disclosure: I work for Power2B, who are developing a 3D touchscreen and interactive TV interface that predicts user activity by tracking actual trajectories in real time, rather than through any of the above systems.]
I’m from Los Angeles. In L.A., we say “You are what you drive.” Sad, but true.
When I was a child, the car was a vehicle. My grandparents had cars (one per family, not one per grandparent) with bench seats front and rear. I climbed in and sat between Grandma and Grandpa, and we talked while we drove. If it got hot, there were these neat triangular vent windows that popped open in back, and roll-down windows that took about five minutes to roll back up (and an equal amount of time to recover from). Maps went in the glove compartment. Eating and drinking in the car were not conceivable.
When I was a teenager, the car had evolved to become a second home. My parents’ cars (one per parent) each had air conditioning, radio with five station memory buttons, power windows, console storage and a cupholder. The map was a fat Thomas Guide stuffed in the seat pocket behind the front passenger seat. That was new, too: the front passengers each had their own adjustable bucket seat (slide forward/backward and recline). We didn’t talk as much together in the car; we listened together to the radio. Usually the driver chose the station, so it was either news radio (both parents), sports, pop psychology, country music, golden oldies (dad), or classical music (mom).
By the time I finished school, the car had become an extension of self, part of a person’s identity. When you got your first drivers’ license, you started thinking about getting your own car. When my dad handed down his (totally cool) car to me, the first thing I did was earn the money to install a cassette player. I didn’t talk to anybody (car phones were so new that I only knew three people who had them, all in their forties), except sometimes my little brother, when I took him to school. When my first children were born, we drove and sang along to tapes and CDs.
Today, car interior design has gone farther than ever in cocooning the individual rather than the group: DVD players front and back, separate headphone jacks, individual climate control (front and back; driver and passenger). Second- and third-row captain’s seats. Cup holders in every door, seatback, and floor panel. iPod and mobile phone jacks. Memory storage of your seat’s height, location, and degree of lumbar support.
“You are what you drive.”
Step back for a moment, and you’ll see that these design trends paint a larger cultural picture. The car has moved from a shared space (bench seats, no entertainment, little customization) to a highly personal space that is unlikely to be shared. When it is shared (for example, in a family mini-van), every effort is made to create as much private space as possible (individual seats, individual climate control, individual cupholders, individual entertainment and entertainment controls).
It’s a very different attitude about the car and how you spend time in it.
To me, it’s speaks of a very Western interpretation of mobility: Freedom, Entertainment, Movement, Privacy, Independence. Mobility = Individuality.
This attitude and the design ethic it inspired isn’t limited to cars. It has been the driving force (sorry) in mobile phone design for years.
Listen to the usability experts up until about a year ago. Everything was about how “personal” the mobile phone is. Studies showing that a high percentage of people don’t feel comfortable sharing their phone, or letting someone even use their phone briefly. The personal messages, notes, contacts, call history, browser history, photos.
Even more, there’s a sort of personal identification and relationship with the phone itself. Going further, your mobile phone number is more meaningful that your social security number — it’s one of your names. Your mobile number represents you, unlike a landline number which represents a location, and doesn’t follow you around.
I have a book here on mobile phones in Japanese life called Personal, Portable, Pedestrian. That pretty much sums up what UI thinkers saw as being important to users.
It’s all true, but there’s a big problem with all this: it’s all based on “Western” cultures. Cultures in which individuality, freedom and personal space are high on the list of life’s priorities.
Paul Adams (User Experience Researcher, Google) at the MEX conference pointed out in his presentation that if you look at countries like India and China, there are people everywhere.
Americans look at these teeming masses and say, “chaos”. But it’s not chaotic to non-Western eyes. What we perceive as “chaos” may be perceived locally as “shared space”. Paul gave the example of Southwest Airlines’ seating system, which for years was a “first come-first served” arrangement, proven to be faster than assigned seating. For Americans, this was perceived as chaotic. We prefer assigned seats because we place so high a value on our unique, personal, private space. It defines us. (Southwest has since changed over to a numbered boarding order — with it’s own adorable website to explain it. Which already tells you something.)
But that isn’t necessarily true of people in other countries, other cultures. What is valuable to one person may be undesirable to another.
Even in our “own” Western culture, feelings about personal space are changing. Definitions of privacy (personal secrets that you share with 800 blog readers…), of space (virtual, real, contained within a particular device or account) are changing.
Spaces that were once shared (eg., living room, public bus) are now personal (iPod as a “sphere of isolation”, killing time with mobile broadband). Spaces that were once personal (eg., Walkman music player, internet browser) are now shared (sharing headphones, Zune WiFi, Facebook Wall, IM, location based services).
I just got a Nokia 1208 as a gift; an upgrade to my Kosher Phone account. (We’ll talk about kosher phones another time. Suffice it to say for now that a kosher phone is a phone with no data capabilities.)
If you’re reading this blog, a dual-band Series 30 phone [bet you thought S30 was extinct in the wild] probably isn’t on your mobile tech wish list. It’s three main selling points are:
* Get instant access to phone features [one programmable softkey]
* Add a little color to your life [lo-res color display and exchangeable color faceplates]
* Monitor and manage your costs [calling card tracking and call timers]
Notable features on the 1208 are an integrated LED flashlight on top (where some phones have the power button or IR window), speakerphone, support for multiple user contact lists, pre-loaded polyphonic ringtones, dust-resistant keypad, durable materials construction with non-slip backing, and a very long battery life (7 hours talk time / 15 days standby).
You may have noticed that the feature set doesn’t exactly match your checklist of phone features. That’s because the 1208 was designed for… well… less-developed countries. Despite the fact that its being sold everywhere (which is pretty interesting), priorities in the design were cost reduction, durability (many users, dusty climates) and sharability (if you can only afford to have one phone per household — or even per neighborhood — then making sharing easier becomes very important).
Which is exactly why the 1208 was on my Wish List; it’s a great example of the new attention being paid to read people, real cultures, real usage needs in the design of products and services. It has taken a long time to recognize that overall, we have enough feature. It’s about delivering them in a meaningful way, and hearing what people truly need.
It’s also about respecting other people enough to accept their own mobile identity definitions and priorities (family, community, participation, responsibility, communication), without trying to impose our “better” systems on them. In doing so, we honor others, while creating new design and product possibilities that benefit everyone.