Wednesday, November 10, 2010

More on Context: Musing on Multiple Screens

Aside from spending all my time looking for work (please hire me!) or writing in excessive detail about mobile design, I've been slowly noticing myself doing things like this: Two handsets on the seat of a car. Shhh... I promise I just look when stopped at lights. Anyway, one has the meeting pulled up, the other is navigating. I have a couple additional handsets that are active (thanks, various old clients), and I sometimes carry the extras around. And I find myself not so much switching to the coolest, newest one, but using all the tools I have available, often at the same time. Yes, they now all multitask just fine, so why am I doing this? At first I thought it was just that I'd found something else to gripe about. The switching is bad. Or they don't link up well so I might as well be typing. But I don't think that's it. Because when I started becoming conscious of this, I noticed doing it a lot more. And in all sorts of places. Like this. The handset provides alternative access to the DVR, by looking at the programming recorded on it. The computer can be used to get more info. Annoyingly, by typing and so on, since no one will give us show meta-data that links to anything. For example, I'm watching something on the DVR with the family, and using the Sling-provided function to see what is on the DVR (to make sure the show we want is being recorded, to find out what we can watch next) without interrupting the viewing, and using the computer to read the IMdB page about the movie for other types of entertainment. And that's not even counting doing Facebook or Email or Twitter or blogging while watching TV. Very often, I am extending the experience with another device. And yes, sometimes I do that with more than one handset, instead of a computer. But I am not sure it matters. A few others have been talking about use of multiple screens lately. Most notably, I'll mention these two posts by Russell Davies (no, not that one) on using multiple handsets, and ancillary screens. And I've known people for years who are similarly issued a work phone (perhaps a high-security one), and have a normal phone for the rest of their lives. And I haven't even gotten to iPods, in-car navigation, kiosks or those annoying video-playing screens on gas pumps. But back to what it means: I am not sure. Working on it, but it helps to type things, and maybe you can contribute. I am sorta thinking along two paths now. First, the "fourth screen" thing may not be what I think a lot of tech pundits seems to want ("Technology Y is Dead!"), which is generational improvements, but /additional/ types of interfaces. And they don't necessarily displace, but can be used in addition. Like my use of mobile and computer while watching TV. The other is about context. Where, again, I think I work best with photos. Computers are anti-context machines. They think the whole world lives inside their glowing rectangle. The desktop, as I've mentioned lately when discussing context, is about what happens on the big glowing rectangle. It can assume you are sitting right in front of it, and all the interaction happens in windows within the display rectangle (or, to me, two adjacent rectangles). Laptops are not much different, and still assume they are more important than the surroundings. You don't carry a screen around with you out in the world, but can carry (or place, or mount) an arbitrary number of screens in the context in which you live; the whole world. Previously, I had really considered context to be a screen bound to the viewport or device and strongly influenced by the way the user worked, and the environment they live in. Even though I have drawn pictures of the device in context, I wasn't quite getting that it literally lives in the context of the rest of the world. So, I have yet to decide how this impacts how I might design a service. Certainly somehow, at least for entertainment and CE products. And probably some for everything else. If I come up with more, expect to see additional ranting, or topics in the book. I think there might be something to say about remote input as well. To which I'll remind everyone: please visit, provide feedback and contribute to the mobile design patterns and information wiki at 4ourth Mobile.

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