Tagged technology

More than half the world has a mobile phone. Let’s build for them.

I love visiting my extended family in Colorado. I get to watch my cousins grow up, hug my grandparents, and hike a fourteener to work off the massive amount of home-cooked food consumption. On my last trip there I discovered another benefit – testing my products on three generations of users.

I could sit and watch my teenage cousins on their iPhones for hours. They have crazy high expectations for speed and efficiency, and I watched them abandon three apps in a row when they hit a loading spinner longer than a few seconds. And Marissa Mayer’s two tap rule? It’s a thing. If core functionality wasn’t immediately obvious or easy to access, they’d shake their heads and move on, usually to Snapchat.

Doing the same with grandparents is even more captivating. I heard a story from a friend recently about an elderly woman in her family who uses her iPad daily to go on Facebook, Skype with relatives, and send emails. But a totally foreign word to her is “Internet”. Yes, Internet. It sounds crazy, but when you stop and think, it makes total sense! In her own words, she “opens her iPad and presses the Facebook button”. The concept of the Internet and what powers that button is irrelevant to something that’s become just another part of her routine.

I bring all this up because those of us building products (designers, product managers, developers, UX designers, etc.) tend to optimize for an ideal user, and trust that the rest of our user base will follow the tech-savvy millenials, assuming it’s all learned behavior anyway. And in the US at least, that strategy has generally served us well.

But what happens when that methodology extends globally, to users who have adopted technology at an entirely different pace with different devices and different connectivity? Maybe it’s a strategy that scales regardless of surrounding factors, or maybe we’ll unearth an entirely different approach to meet global needs. Regardless, it’s a fascinating road ahead.

The immediate question a lot of global companies are facing is how best to optimize their products for users with poor connection or low-end phones. That beautiful, responsive, javascript-heavy site might look pretty wonky for someone accessing it in India on their Nokia 110. Or it might take a minute to load for a user in Nigeria on a 2G network. Facebook and Google are leading the way with initiatives like internet.org, and some global sites have pared down experiences for feature phones. As more companies scale to emerging markets, it’ll be intriguing to see how these strategies evolve in parallel to improvements in connectivity and functionality.

But even more interesting are the non-technological factors that could represent fundamental differences in the way people interact with digital products. Differences that can’t necessarily be overcome by simply providing faster connections or high-end devices. I can’t even begin to scratch the surface on all the possible factors, but these are some that come to mind:

  • Literacy – As products reach developing countries, the challenge of designing for illiterate users who may use voice commands, play music, take photos, etc. is a real one. Of course, there is also wonderful opportunity to increase literacy rates with educational apps.
  • Language – This is an obvious challenge when trying to scale, especially for news organizations. But product designers will also need to understands the nuances of various languages and how they affect the core interface.
  • Mobile Only – We hear a lot of “mobile first” strategies as usage dramatically shifts away from computers. Yet some markets are mobile only, which means the majority of users are interacting with digital products for the first time on mobile. The A16z podcast did a great episode on Myanmar’s 0–60 adoption of smartphones. Will we see any fundamental differences in behavior for these mobile only users?
  • Culture – Are there other cultural factors that might demand a localized product? This is a bit of a catch-all, but I’m curious to learn more about differences in user interaction that display uniqueness of cultures.

Ultimately product creators will face a lot of these challenges as they tap into emerging markets. As the world’s population comes online at an exponential pace, it’ll be fascinating to see how we evolve the way we build digital products.

Gadget Geek Fatigue

I was a little girl who loved sports and gadgets. Thanks to a computer scientist dad and a feminist mother, my sister and I went to basketball camp instead of Girl Scouts, and played with Lego Mindstorms instead of Barbies. Our grandfather, also an engineer, contributed to our tomboyish upbringing via his obsession with any new piece of technology. Instead of the zoo or playground, he’d take me on a monthly grandfather-granddaughter excursion to…(drum roll please)…Best Buy! We’d roam the aisles and try out any random gadgets we could find, until we each picked out something new to buy. I’d come home beaming with the latest calculator or digital pocket organizer in hand, and spend hours in my room learning all its features.

Sometimes I miss that innocent excitement for the next coolest thing. At that age I never cared what the long-term benefits were for the Casio Digital Diary in my hand, or if it would work in tandem with the closetful of devices I had back home. In a pre-cloud era, it simply didn’t matter.

In today’s saturated technology market, I find myself constantly assessing products in the context of their ecosystem. I own a Macbook, iPad, and iPhone and the seamless experience of transitioning between Apple devices has me locked into their products. The same goes for Google – my online identity is so tied to Google via Gmail, Google+, Maps, and more, that I’ll immediately switch to using any new Google product so I can tie more of my experience to a central entity. I love Evernote, but I’m moving to Google Keep the second it comes to iOS.

The idea of creating yet another identity from scratch feels cumbersome – setting up a profile, choosing preferences, and downloading apps. It’s why we prefer signing into sites with Facebook, Twitter, or Google instead of using custom registration. But it also brings a wariness of new devices that don’t fit into our current ecosystems. It’s why I won’t consider buying a Samsung Galaxy Gear (other than the negative reviews), when I could wait for an Apple watch that syncs with my laptop, tablet, and phone. It’s also why I prefer my Apple TV over a smart TV, even if some of them have better apps. While it’s great to approach purchases from a holistic perspective, I sometimes yearn for a time when I didn’t care about the permanence of that shiny new gadget and just bought the damn thing!

The Power of Nostalgia

I was in the middle of a much-needed emotional break from yesterday’s Denver-Dallas shootout (my fantasy matchup had five Broncos players between the two of us), when this Samsung Galaxy Gear commercial froze me mid-laundry folding. As it cycled through my childhood via sound bites from the Power Rangers, Inspector Gadget, and Star Trek, I was completely hooked. Maybe I’m just a sentimental 90s kid, evidenced by the multiple episodes of TaleSpin I watched on YouTube this weekend, but I thought Samsung’s appeal to our nostalgic side was pure genius.

It got me thinking about the power of nostalgia, and the role it plays in today’s obsession with the “now”. Twitter, push notifications, wearable technology – we constantly strive for the instantaneous. But at the same time, we place that much more value in looking back and memorializing our lives. One of my favorite apps is Timehop, a daily time capsule that shows your day today 1 year ago, 2 years ago, etc. My Timehop today showed me a restaurant I checked into on Foursquare last year, a couple self-loathing posts I wrote about the Jets on Twitter four years ago, and a charity event I helped organize in college seven years ago. I love kicking off my morning with some quality reminiscing time, and reading the yearly emotional rollercoaster of a Jets fan is always masochistically amusing.

Of course, I couldn’t use Timehop without services like Foursquare that chronicle my life on a daily basis. Quantified self apps are slowly entering the mainstream – Moves, Chronos, and even Google Now record every second of our day, leveraging the data to understand our lifestyle patterns.

This massive amount of data is yet another way for us to document our lives, motivated by the same reasons we take pictures on vacation or write blog posts and journals about our travels. In ten years I can look back on my day today and know that I walked 8,500 steps, ate at my favorite Singaporean restaurant with friends, and cheered on the USA national team at Jack Demsey’s. As we become increasingly intent on chronicling our lives instantaneously, we feed our nostalgic side even more, so our future selves can see exactly how awesome it was to be our 2013 selves!