Tuesday, October 5, 2010

F8 and Be There - What Mobile Convergence Means

I only took so many notes, but I /think/ it was Josh Clark who said at Design for Mobile 2010 the other week something along the lines of "the best notepad is the one you have with you." And went on this for a while, then I left the room to solve some other crisis, I am sure. I also don't think it was this presentation but that one's pretty good also. So read it.
I was wrong. Jason Grigsby wrote to say it was his presentation. Which I cannot find, but all of his are good, so go browse some of them: http://www.slideshare.net/grigs
My busyness trying to run the conference – among other reasons – is why I am just now writing about this. I probably missed the good bit. And I had to let it stew a bit, and wait for my brain to get back into designer-mode. But it immediately reminded me of some stuff. And that stuff reminded me of... something. Which I think I have a handle on now.
My dad was a photojournalist (then a PR guy, notably for the KC, MO police department, and so on. But that's not important now). He raised me right, photography-wise, which is why I am always the photographer (such as at d4m2010). I have, for example, no lenscaps. Before there were "Auto" settings on the dials, photographers referred to their exposure settings as "aperature at speed." F5.6 at 125th. And so on. A story he relayed to me, and which I heard later in many similar ways, is that the cub reporter is sent out to cover, oh something. He asks the competing, but friendly old coot next to him how he should be shooting this particular news event, which will happen at any moment. The reply is "F8 and be there." Now, the key of this isn't that F8 is the right exposure for everything (though it's not bad for outdoors, with reasonably slow film), but the "be there" part of things. Portable device convergence, and the evolution of mobile devices. I drew this. Click to grab a PDF copy of it. The above is a diagram I drew for another presentation. If too small, grab the PDF. I drew it two years ago, actually, so it is predicting the future in this diagram. If anything it understates the convergence. For example, sales of dedicated MP3 players (the thickness of that green line) should be shrinking even more, as even larger numbers are finally to the general mobile devices with embedded players. But what does it mean? Not just convergence in general, which could confusingly mean anything. Does it mean devices are confusing? Does it mean that sales of other items will be cannibalized? More importantly, what do I do about it? Well, what Josh's comment made me realize is what this means. It's that we need to design for these everyday cases. A key context is "convenience." Can everyday users be aware of, find, and use all those add-ons, and add value to their lives (and stickyness to your device, os, app or site) as a result of it? Contextually, the mobile can be a notepad, a camera, a game, a message center, a music player... No, that's wrong. At any one moment, for any particular user, it can be the notepad, the camera, the game, the message center, the music player. The one and only version that matters, at that moment. No, I don't always carry the notepad, and the camera isn't pocketable, but it'll do for the point of the story. I carry... okay, most of this stuff every time I leave the house, and still end up using my phone as a flashlight, or to take notes, and am sad I can't pay bills with it. If it had a folding knife, I'd be set. If I was making my own choice of device for maximum productivity (vs. being a full time mobile nerd), I would probably pick one with a darned good camera, because I care most about that. So one key tactic is that you can design devices that are particularly good for a market. Photography, music, messaging. These exist. Eventually we'll see a game phone that sticks. But phones are no longer phones. They became general purpose computers some time back. And I don't mean the CS definition but the utility definition. The mobile device (you can't call it a phone anymore) is suitable, or satisfactory, for a large set of needs. Indeed, it's satisfactory for an arbitrarily large set of needs. And a key attribute of smartphones (with their installable apps) or practically any connected device (with the web) is that it's infinitely customizable, and changes moment to moment. Mobile phones, even into the text messaging era, were among the most pure appliances that maybe we'll ever see. Now they have turned into anything devices (and merged with other appliances, like PDAs and GPS), the convergence chart means any task a person can do, that is at it's heart information-centric will be subsumed into the greater mobile experience. Sensors mean that lots of not-pure-information tasks will begin to merge with this also. And if that sounds like the robot apocalypse, it's not. Quite. Remember, this is still satisfaction, not always delight. Not always perfection, or professional-grade, or the most efficient way to do the work, or even the most satisfying experience. It's the good-enough device, because it's always with you. There will always be a market for pen salesmen, and professional cameras.
So my key takeaway for designers (and product developers, and marketers, and everyone else really) is to make your mobile services decently useful, pretty darn usable, and really, really easy to find. If your MP3 player or payment scheme is buried under menus and legal agreements every time it starts (like GPS often is), customers will just keep carrying an iPod or wallet anyway. It becomes functionally un-converged, and you missed out. Or, they buy someone else's device that is converged enough. I also think it's important everyone (at least at work) stop saying "cellphone." Do everything you can to get your mind wrapped around the world we already live in. It's not tomorrow, but has already been going on for years. While telephony is still a key killer app, it's an app. Literally software that can sometimes be replaced with another – just one application among many. The device in your pocket is no longer a phone with add ons, but a general purpose computer that fits in your pocket. The future is here. And it's mobile.

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