Mobile Apps for the Uninitiated

Last week I gave a presentation at the Web Managers group in London, giving a general overview of what is involved in getting into mobile apps, and some of the key considerations involved. I was a little surprised that of those who were not agency-side, none had yet created an app. Whilst this might be interpreted as a lack of appreciation of the importance of mobile, talking to the web managers it was also clear that this could be seen as a sensible caution over getting into a new platform just for the sake of it.

You can get the content of my presentation from here.

How mobile fits into a broader content strategy is a difficult question to answer – it depends on  the nature of the content that an organisation is providing. In order to have any kind of ongoing usefulness, a mobile app needs to be focussed on making commonly undertaken tasks more convenient to complete or on providing rich and entertaining interaction that has some possibility for progression. Given the propensity of users to offer feedback freely, creating an app with a contrived need runs the risk of negative reviews and damage to the corporate brand.

  • If your audience have a frequent engagement with your services, such as maintaining an account, ordering, obtaining guidelines or updated materials, or engaging in communication, then there is probably a case for creating an app.
  • If you provide regular content updates to your audience, but only in small volumes, then an RSS feed, or a mobile friendly site is more likely to be a good means of engaging your mobile users.
  • If you do not have regularly updated content, or news about your services or events, then a mobile friendly site is probably the answer.

Depending on the precise needs of your audience and your business, there are a whole range of options available for reaching out into the mobile space:

  • RSS feed
    not mobile specific, but can be consumed easily by smart phone users
  • Mobile friendly site
    a good starting place, but remember, just creating a mobile-skin for your site is not enough – your content and navigation must reflect the specific needs of mobile consumption – your content must be bite-sized and succinct
  • Site in an app
    brochure ware for the mobile – effectively a website wrapped up as an app – quick to produce, you can say it’s an app, but if you don’t do it well, your audience will be disappointed
  • Cross-platform HTML5 hybrid app
    implemented using a cross-mobile framework such as PhoneGap, AppCelerator, RhoMobile, AppMobi (and many more) – good for multi-platform, provides access to some of the phone’s underlying functionality, allows reuse of code – these frameworks keep getting better, but they are still not as slick as a native app
  • Native app
    created separately in the native language for each platform – provides the slickest experience, but at a price

There is no one-size fits all approach to success in mobile. The mobile space is fast changing, and there are lots of options for getting involved – mobile apps being only one form of engagement. The important thing is to be clear about your aims and your audience – reach out to them early, get user groups involved in appraising prototypes and get plenty of feedback before launching.

 

What should you expect from your CMS?

Content is key to raising your profile on the web, and having good quality, relevant, accessible content is essential to attract good search ratings. Good quality content is time consuming to author and approve – so being able to reuse it is important for increasing the returns, in terms of visits, revenue and long term interaction, that it can help to generate.

Implementing a web site using a Content Management System (CMS) is a major undertaking. The end result should be a platform that will facilitate the growth of relevant services and channels of communication for your key target audiences. A good CMS should make it both quick & easy to author content and to reuse it.

Adapting to new online behaviour

In the digital age, users expect content to be up-to-date and relevant to their needs. What is relevant at one point in time may not be relevant at another. Patterns of engaging with content are also changing rapidly with the explosion of mobile internet. The market for smartphones and tablets has already surpassed the sales of PCs[1]. Already 90% of mobile phone subscribers have phones that can browse the web[2] – but the actual use of mobile internet will eclipse that of the fixed internet within the next couple of years[3].

With mobile internet rapidly becoming the primary means of accessing the web, users will naturally expect content to be provided in a form that is appropriate for mobile devices. More and more users will be accessing your content directly from search, or from links in recommendations in social media.

In order to maximize the returns from your online presence, your strategy will need to adapt to accommodate these changing patterns of usage. Your online strategy will need to support these changes in patterns of usage and your CMS platform should enable you to easily adapt your existing content, with little modification, to use in these new channels.

The end result of a successful CMS implementation is a platform that enables you to keep up with your users by providing these key benefits:

  • Easy to author and maintain content
  • Easy to reuse and repackage content across different site areas and web browsing platforms
  • Easy to re-theme content where required, keeping content but changing its appearance
  • Easy to make content searchable and findable
  • Easy to set up new data captures and communication channels with your users
  • Clear APIs extending CMS and storing data within CMS structures
  • Easy to upgrade your platform and take advantage of new features

There are no doubt many CMS systems that can offer these benefits – but the best ones are those created by a development team that are focussed on their clients with a clear roadmap and vision for the future. Fortunately for my agency, these are things that have been abundantly provided by our chosen CMS supplier – Kentico.

KISS with CMS!

KISS – “Keep It Simple Stupid” – is often mentioned in relation to technology, but not very often observed. User Experience may be well established now as a discipline, but many systems are still woefully lacking in due consideration for users, requiring them to jump through lots of hoops to achieve their everyday goals.

Content management systems (CMS), including intranets, are an increasingly important kind of technology, one that more and more corporate staff are expected to deal with. Given its expanded role, it is vital that users should feel comfortable using their company’s system whenever they need to. For some users this will be an every day experience, and for others once a week, perhaps. Some users may access the content over the web on their PCs, others on their tablets or mobiles.

However frequently it is used, and on whatever platform, it is vital that users find their system intuitive and engaging – they should only be presented with the minimum level of complexity required to complete the task at hand, any extra complexity should be accessible in the background, but neatly tucked away. The tasks that take up 80% of your time as a user shouldn’t be slowed down by the ones that take up 20% of your time.

Being Useful Means Being Usable
It may be a tautology, but it is still one that is worth spelling out: a system is only useful if it is used, and it will only used if it is usable – hence careful interface design has a major role to play in the effectiveness of information systems. In an age when organisations are expected to produce a constant stream of timely and appropriate content, it is in their interests to decentralise the creation of content and the sharing of knowledge, to avoid the ever present problem of content bottlenecks. It is thus also in the interests of organisations to make their systems as easy to use as possible.

I have witnessed many different CMS systems in use, of all shapes and sizes, and some of them prove to be difficult to use because they employ inconsistent or unclear metaphors for interacting with content. I have sat through training sessions on some of the market leading CMS systems, where most of the time seemed to be spent explaining away idiosyncracies of the interface. The success of such systems often reflects the fact that sales are sometimes made purely in the boardroom, rather than with reference to everyday users.

A CMS system may in itself be excellent, but if the agency implementing a website or intranet is lacking a deep understanding of its inner workings, and best practices, you can be sure that users will have a hard time getting to grips with the implementation. On a number of occasions I have had to pick up projects where an agency has thought that a CMS just means editable text, rather than structured content, meaning that users were expected to user HTML in their editing process, when properly implemented the users should only need to worry about their own content.

The Influence of Software as a Service (SAAS)
If there is something that the explosion of Software as a Service has demonstrated, it is that given the right kind of intuitive interface, users can be up and running in moments with doing what they need to do, even if the more complex side of their activities may require some extra training or research. It should be just the same with a CMS system – get up and running in minutes, while you find out more about the advanced features as and when you need to. A good CMS system should be effectively invisible to users – if it is working, it should not draw attention to itself, the focus should be the creation, the curation and the consumption of content.

Kentico CMS – Easy and Effective
There are no doubt many CMS systems that could be used to achieve the appropriate mix of simplicity, engagement and sophistication for users, but my own personal preference is Kentico. Ever since I chose this as my agency’s preferred CMS platform, I have been consistently impressed with its mix of features and simplicity – when properly implemented, users find it so easy to get to grips with that they hardly need any training. At the same time, it can do anything it needs to, as well as being easy for developers to extend in any way required. Whichever tool you use to manage your organisation’s content – don’t forget to keep it simple!

Roundup of the Week (w/e 20/02/2011)

Last week’s tech headlines were filled with the endless stream of model releases and general hullabalo of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. To mobile vendors and resellers alike it was certainly a key event, but remarkably little news of substance emerged – predictably given the difficulty in getting one’s message heard above the noise.

No doubt about it though, Google’s made a huge impression with their sushi-bar style display with Android handsets passing tantalisingly by the assembled journalists, the mainfold shapes and sizes of Google’s challenge to Apple. Whilst this year will continue to be Apple’s in mobile and tablet terms, something tells me that next year will be Google’s.

Market News

  • Mobile Subscription Wars – Apple Demands 30% Share of in-App Purchase Revenue, Google asks for 10%
    Apple is now demanding a 30% cut of any revenue passing through its market place (gross, not net). If content providers want in on Apple’s platform, they can’t offer their content cheaper anywhere else. The predictable reaction from content providers suggests that many of them will simply look for alternative platforms…In a direct counter to Apple, Google announced it’s One Pass subscription model with a more modest share of 10% going to Google and the user data passing to the content provider – a deal that is clearly going to be much more attractive than Apple’s for publishers and the music industry. Over the long term, I can’t help thinking Apple have got this badly wrong. For the analysis in full see https://takenobabble.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/that-30-revenue-cut-subscriptions-and-the-end-of-apple%E2%80%99s-empire/.
  • This Weeks Punch-Up – Mozilla v. Microsoft over IE9
    Last time round Microsoft received a savaging from Google over the ownership of search results and Bing. This week, Mozilla suggested that IE9 was not a truly modern browser, given its poor support for HTML5 and its second-rate CSS compliance. Anyone in the web design business could tell you a tale of woe about time, effort and money wasted on the non-compliance of IE6/7/8 – let’s all pray that in practice Mozilla are wrong – and certainly this hasn’t put off the 2 million who downloaded the release candidate within a week of being published.
    http://opensource.cbronline.com/news/mozilla-attacks-microsoft-claims-ie9-not-modern-170211

CMS / Knowledge Management

Web

  • IE9 Offers “Pinning” to the Task Bar in Windows 7 as a Key Traffic Builder for Sites
    With the advent of IE9, it is now possible to have your site, rather than just the web browser, pinned to the task bar on Windows 7.  This is already proving a major traffic booster to sites that are using it, even though IE9 is still only in Released Candidate.
    http://news.cnet.com/8301-10805_3-20031845-75.html
  • Google Nearing Completion of Google Native Client for Browsers
    Anyone who attempted to use Microsoft’s ActiveX client plugins for delivering complex functionality to the web in years gone by may well have some apprehensions about the complications of using a similar platform. Google, however, assure us that the new Google Native Client will have none of the complexity and security concerns of Microsoft’s aged technology. If Google pull it off, it will herald the advent of full-powered low-level code running at high speed as proper apps within browsers – let’s hope they succeed.
    http://www.engadget.com/2011/02/20/googles-native-client-almost-ready-for-takeoff-ready-to-make/

Social Media

  • Twitter banished UberMedia, then readmits them
    Twitter doesn’t often make the news for reasons other than growth or potential mergers and acquisitions. This week, however, Twitter suspended use of its API by UberMedia’s popular Twidroyd Twitter app, citing irregularities in manipulation of user posts for money. This caused somewhat of an outcry, as it immediately led to the blocking of access to Twitter, through the app, of a large number of users. Twitter has relented on the basis of reassurances offered by Ubermedia – though this will require an application update to be released by the publishers.
    http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/androidcentral/~3/pbRCEttK-W0/ubermedia-responds-twidroyds-suspension

Tablets

Android Market Growth Outstripping Apple Store

  • The App Genome Project by Lookout Security compared in detail the development of the Android Market with that of the Apple Store, highlighting some eye catching trends. Over the period since August last year, the Apple Store has grown by 44% and the Android market by 127%. The proportion of paid apps, and particularly paid apps over 99 cents in the Android Market has also markedly risen. As one might expect, as a more mature market, the Apple Store is nearer to saturation – but if these comparative rates of growth are sustained, the Android Market will surpass the Apple Store at some point mid-2012.
    http://www.pcworld.com/businesscenter/article/219780/app_genome_project_finds_android_apps_outpacing_ios.html

Mobile

Desktop

  • Mac App Store off to Good Start – Microsoft an Early Publisher!
    The launch of the Mac App Store is yet another significant move for Apple, bringing the tendency of users to buy fragments of functionality, rather than major app suites, to the desktop.  To a lesser degree this experience already exists in the form of Browser Plug-ins, particularly on Chrome, but the move by Apple is sure to be duplicated on other platforms, thus changing the dynamics, not to mention the economics, of the purchase of desktop software. Ironically, Microsoft were in on the game early, providing a Mac based version of software to connect to Windows 7 mobile.
    http://feeds.arstechnica.com/~r/arstechnica/index/~3/KOHgUntq_N0/ios-developers-making-leap-to-the-mac-thanks-to-mac-app-store.ars

This Week I got Excited About

  • Evernote
    I have tried all manner of personal knowledge management tools – but have only recently tried Evernote – and I’m mightily impressed – specifically because the variety of apps and browser plug ins available means that you can capture virtually anything you are up to on the fly, and have it synced via a web account with all of your devices. For a good overview of what you might want to do with it, see http://www.openforum.com/idea-hub/topics/the-world/article/14-practical-ways-to-use-evernote-guy-kawasaki

A “Marriage Contract” for Successful Projects

When a client engages the services of an agency on a major project – an intranet or major web site for instance – the important elements of the contract are not necessarily those written on the paper to which the signatures are added. Given the high level of mutual dependency, intense frequent contact and joint expectations, this relationship can often feel like a marriage.

If it is going to work, the relationship must be fair,  the “marriage contract” must allow for trust and understanding on both sides. The agency, for its part, must undertake to keep the client’s goals firmly in mind, offering a good level of flexibility and understanding, as well as a commitment to a high quality outcome without trying to pump the price up every time anything changes. On the other hand, the client must understand that not everything can be known in advance – there will be human, organisational and technological challenges that crop up along the way, delaying the project, or requiring more effort and resources. The client must also understand that the agency is a business, that work costs money and that changing decisions costs time. Most importantly, perhaps, they should be willing to listen to informed advice and accept that any agency worth its salt will have some useful insight into what works and what doesn’t work in their own particular medium.

Like all marriages, the one between agency and client must involve mutual empathy and respect – liking each other helps too. Working in an often very exposed position, dealing with the high and often conflicting expectations and desires of the many and varied project stakeholders, the client Project Lead needs the agency to understand the pressure to deliver, they need to be know that when their neck is on the line, the agency will pull out all the stops to make good on promises made. Similarly, on the agency side of the fence, the project manager knows the importance of regular praise and thanks for their team – designers and developers work best when they know that the pride they take in their work and the time they spend debating the minutiae of interface design is being appreciated by the users.

Let’s be honest, we all spend a vast amount of time at work. When we are working hard, when we are putting our all into a joint enterprise, we need to enjoy ourselves, to feel fulfilled, to receive encouragement and positive feedback when it is deserved, in the client and agency alike. When the relationship goes well, when everyone feels liked and fairly treated, when everyone is looking out for each other, that is when great things happen, when the ideas flow.  At the same time, just like in any other marriage, there will also inevitably be some habits that may annoy each from time to time – but such is life – sometimes we must all bite our tongues.

Now the project is over, just one question remains – who gets the bouquet?

 

Design, Technology and Metaphor

I find it useful to think about most creative activities as being centred around the notion of metaphor. In advertising, for instance, a very common metaphor is the equation of success in life, and most particularly success with the opposite sex, with the purchase of the appropriate product. Indeed, branding is all about the metaphorical association of the abstract brand with a desirable character trait, such as Coke = happiness, or Guiness = invention. Brand managers strive to ensure that this metaphor is implemented coherently and consistently across all points of contact between the consumer and the brand – from advertising and promotion, through purchase, the actual moment of consumption itself and how consumers describe the brand thereafter.

Just like above the line activity, interface design and user experience, on the web and elsewhere, is all about constructing and maintaining a consistent metaphor. The most obvious example is the common computer Graphical User Interface (GUI) itself – the desktop, borrowing as it does some elements of the now-antiquated real world office – such as folders, and trash can. Just as you can change your mind about stuff you have thrown away, provided the office cleaner hasn’t emptied the trash, you can change your mind and retrieve items you have thrown away on the computer desktop. In constructing such a metaphor, not all aspects of the office are implemented in the interface – we don’t get a choice of chairs, for instance – though our virtual desktops do get messy, and we frequently put pictures of loved-ones on them. The creation and maintenance of interface metaphors is usually considered to be a design discipline. For successful interfaces, however, design and technology must work seamlessly together – which is often quite tricky to achieve.

Historically there has been quite a big divide between the disciplines of programming and design. This goes back to the days when programming computers involved the laborious writing of lines and lines of code, and using software involved entering some mystic incantations from the keyboard and viewing the resulting lines of text – neither mouse nor pointer to guide the way. In some ways, the creation of code still has something in common with those early days – particularly the focus on the linguistic and algorithmic aspects of code – aspects that can’t be captured easily in a graphical environment. Whilst design aims to look at things from the user’s point of view, the abstract linguistic orientation of code keeps some developers at arm’s length from user’s experience of the interface, whilst alienating many designers from the undoubted benefits of the deep understanding of interaction that can be derived from understanding code. Indeed on of my own preoccupations, both personally and professionally, is overcoming the synthetic divide between design and technology – which was one of the driving forces behind Lime Media being set up in the first place. At Lime we insist that our developers always keep their eye on the experience of using the system, whilst we expect our designers to understand the technical framework being used to implement their designs.

Given the way that software is often purchased these days – online, or on a mobile, at low-cost, for immediate use – it is unreasonable to expect user to delve into the recesses of a help system. When was the last time you used a user-manual, even when one was provided? If you are like me, probably a very, very long time ago. In most cases, except when using specialist or proprietary systems, user do have it relatively easy, finding themselves able to use new interfaces on first exposure, with little or no instruction. Why do they find it so easy – if the agency has done their job it is either because the interface has been designed in accordance with accepted or de-facto norms of behaviour, or, if it the design is quite innovative, they will have clearly indicated the metaphor being set up through visual and interactional cues.

When you innovate, you must provide clear sign-posts about the metaphor you are using. Here is where the bridge can be built most effectively between design and programming. User interface design is all about the visual cues for use, as well as the seamless progression of related actions involved in undertaking common tasks. If done well, the user will hardly notice it has been designed at all. The code implementation, however, is vital to support the consistency of the metaphor – it provides the depth and the behaviour over time that leads the user to trust that the GUI will not suddenly do something unexpected, that it will behave as advertised by the visual cues, that it will intelligently reuse information provided and not, for instance, ask you more than once for your name and address – unless doing a security check.

For the user, the experience of an interface can’t be broken down into component parts. The smoothness of movement on the interface needs to be matched by the information handling and vice-versa. If everything is right, then they will only be thinking about what they are doing – finding information, making purchasing decisions, amending information – instead of the interface. As soon as the metaphor of the interface breaks down – through inconsistency or unexpected behaviours – that is when the interface design, or lack thereof, becomes apparent.

Just like art, design and technology are ways that we reshape the way that we engage with the world – rearranging what is important and how we take our bearings. Art often likes to do this through metaphors that jar and provoke, through drawing the viewer into a world in which confusion and shock are the order of the day. By contrast, interface design is all about making the user feel at home – with design and technology taking a low-key role, keeping users focussed on what they are doing.

In order to create an engaging user-experience, and hence make systems useable and useful,  design and technology must work together to create consistent, coherent and intuitive metaphors for engaging and guiding users in what they really want to do.

Why it’s not always bad to be a Techno Sceptic

According to the philosopher Paul Virilio, our communications technologies have been placed our society in an accelerating state of never satisfactory speed – both physically and electronically. Such speed, he suggests, has eroded our environment – both through the destruction physically wrought by roads and cars, and so on, but also, and perhaps more importantly, be divorcing us from any direct sense of scale of that environment.

For each invention comes, so Virilio says, its other – its accident. With the ship came the invention of the ship wreck, with the car came the car crash – and one might add, of course, with the electrically linked global market came the global stock-market crash.

One might be inclined to take Virilio’s statements with a pinch of salt – after all, for those operating within the milieu of French philosophical academia, making grand statements, particularly those either damning eternity, or lauding the immanent arrival of utopia, are a necessary part of professional brinkmanship. I, however, am inclined to believe that Virilio’s point is well made yet understood by those who constantly tout the next big thing.

The endless expansion of both global and local communications has led to us being swamped by information we can neither contextualize nor process. Each moment is captured by a dizzying array of sound, image and video recorders. Each event is commented upon by a thronging gallery of bloggers, tweeters , journalists and PR agents to create a cacophony of competing streams of consciousness. At the same time there is an ever-expanding apparatus of capture working to record what is being endlessly documented. Despite this dizzying volume of stuff going on, of online archives and hubs, the intellectual inheritance of our age becomes ever more fragile.

In a thousand years time, when the light and the rest of what relies on electricity has failed many times over, or perhaps has been swept away entirely, what will be the inheritance from our age? A mass of not-yet-pulped biographies of WAGs and celebrity mediocrities, a towering pile of tax returns and corporate marketing plans?

With each “intelligent” technology, we not only enhance an existing human capacity, we also externalize and atrophy our ability to operate independently and engage with a direct form of experience. As we place all of our appointments on our PDAs, we start to lose the capacity to remember what we are doing with our lives. As we use mobile phones to maintain a last-minute bidding war on choices of what to do, so we lose our ability to act decisively and to stick to a plan.

What do we do to our children, allowing them early access to video games? Show me a child who can play with a cardboard box, and I will show you a child who can bring an entire world into being with sheer force of childish imagination. Show me a child hunched over their Nintendo DS’s aged six, and I’ll show you a child with a problem concentrating on anything else, and an ability to imagine only what is put in front of them, imagined for them by their computer and their TV.

Do I hate technology? Not at all – I think it is special, and mourn its passing into the prosaic fabric of life. As Will Self observes, it is a tragedy that air travel has become so mundane – we should be waved onto our airships by stewardesses decked out like Buck Rogers, and the pilot should hoot with delight as we get off the ground. When did anything as improbable as flying become boring? Instead, it, and every other technology, is design to fit into the background, to be as unobtrusive as possible – cosseting us from the hard realities that lie underneath – the potential accident – the plane crash.

It seems to me that much of our information technology these days is focussed on protecting us from that endless stream of stuff, is designed to help create a space in which we can find our bearings and make a space in which it is possible to think and act, to make informed choices about what we want to experience. However, we would not need such space if would could disconnect ourselves periodically of our own volition – if we could listen to the sound of life without adding an endless soundtrack from our iPods, if we could act without thinking about how it will look on video or camera, if we would spend our journeys out of touch, instead of always being attached to one or other of our digital communications umbilicus.

I fear that this reliance on technology is bad not only for us, but for our appreciation of technology itself. We forget how special what we can do is – we erode it by taking it for granted. We obsess about technology, play with the latest gadget then onto the next big thing, casting aside the last. The wheel, the hammer, language, paper – these are technologies that have defined, and continue to define us. As I type this last line I think about how short will be the life of these words – how they shall ultimately be auto-deleted, or lost as a server fails.

Maybe I should just go out for a walk…now…what should I listen to?

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