Saturday, October 22, 2011

Stop that desktop thinking

Since all my employers are east coast, about six months ago I stopped changing my watch every time the plane landed (or took off... I never could decide which) and just leave it on Eastern Time. And I am comfortable with this. I just have a part of me always out there, and then adjust the time in my brain. Not a big deal, really, as I do lots of stuff on 24 hour clocks and am adjusting the readout in my brain anyway.

I also asked a friend who was formerly Air Force special operations, and he said when flying about the world, you just leave your watch to UTC, and know where you are. But that's a watch. It's deliberately an old, mechanical item. Mine is specifically one of those that winds itself as you move about, so as cool as an iPod Shuffle watch would be, I don't have to worry about it failing to synch, running out of batteries, etc.

Okay, now, tell me why my laptop is always set to Eastern Time. Better, why should I have to change it myself through a control panel? Why, if I do change it, do a series of applications yell at me to find out if I want to change the time zone within themselves, separately? I think it's because of something I think I'll declare Desktop Thinking. Desktops are dumb. They are shiny and "easy to use" but are just a few generations from terminals, used to access the unfriendly mainframe, and there's still this same mentality. The user will perform operations, the machine will respond when it feels like it. The user requests information, or to begin a process, and the machine starts doing it. But not a moment beforehand.

Embracing mobile, on the other hand, means you think about information the user needs, you don't ask for information you already have, and you don't throw away anything the customer entered or might need later on (within the constraints of privacy). Google Calendar is one of those tools that (at least on the website) incredulously asks if you want to change the time zone. Apparently, they are of the mindset that changing time zones only accompanies selling your house and moving across the country. Whereas even this typical desktop website, just for one example, takes a stab at determining my position, and defaults the information to that region.

Which brings up, believe it or not, some thoughts on location I touch on in Designing Mobile Interfaces. How do I set my watch, or make sure that my laptop is in the right time zone (or that it's set right with Daylight Saving changes)? More often than not, I consult the clock on my mobile handset, of course. Location only needs to be as accurate as it needs to be. If you want a weather report – or to know what time your meeting starts – there's no reason to turn on the GPS to find out where you are. Very rough location, often just to within a few dozen miles, is just fine. But it needs to be there. Don't disable functions in favor of only offering the highest precision. If an approximation is good enough, or faster, use that.

This is some of the stuff I am talking about when I say that context matters. And when I say that it's not the same as user intent, or user goals, the physical environment, or whatever else you might want to use to replace the notion of "context." I mean that the device should be intelligent. And as much as I like – say – Siri's way of being aware what you just did so the next task is more useful, I want it to do more. Something as simple as knowing what time zone I am in, and reacting appropriately to that is what you might call pre-emptively contextual. And now that I write it, that sounds great. Mobile tends to do this. Sure. But only at the most surface level still.

I think a lot of apps do this just because they get the time from the handset. But I still see Desktop Thinking during web and app development, even on mobile. The user will sign on. The user will pick a link. Even just: once the user clicks our icon and launches the app. And often I ask, why? Why can't we make a widget, or a notification that lets them launch the app when we tell them something neat has happened, or... anything that predicts and offers information at a glance, or helps the user when they didn't even know they needed it? Think about not just your assigned silo, but how your user can get real benefit from the information, intelligence and processing you have available.

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