Feb 14

Staples have it right !

Staples, the office superstore, announced that they are abandoning Responsive Design and moving towards building different applications for mobile vs the web. See story here.

I think they made the right decision.

Responsive design is a concept that allows for the development of a web application in a such way that it can be rendered on multiple devices accounting for the screen sizes of those devices without having to build a special version for each device. The basic idea is to think of a regular website to be made up of a number of columns and rows like a grid. Content is then assigned to a multiple of these columns and rows. During the rendering of the page, CSS media queries are used to identify the device and knowing how many columns will fit on the screen, CSS is used to render the page appropriately by wrapping columns of content and stacking them one above the other. This makes it possible for the user to scroll through the entire page in a vertical arrangement on a smartphone for instance compared to seeing it arranged across on the desktop.

Historically, designers have approached the web first and mobile as secondary.  The buzz word associated with this is Graceful Degradation.  The content from the desktop browser is first gracefully degraded to fit the tablet and then further adjusted to fit the smartphone.  Mobile first argues for the concept of Progressive Enhancement.  Think smartphone first and then build up a full fledged desktop browser.  Mobile first strategy to put it simply accounts for some of the constraints of a smart phone like avoiding adobe flash, smarter use of bandwidth e.g. avoiding big image files, avoiding triggers like hover to activate something, avoiding concepts like right-click, double-click and so on.

The key reason to adopt the Responsive web design methodology is speed to market. It is hard enough getting one product ready for public use through the software development lifecycle. Imagine getting three versions of the software done. The thinking is that the team can focus on the intent of the app while accounting for certain constraints of mobile device and allow technology to make that app consumable on a number of devices.

When combined with Mobile First, Responsive design is a reasonable way to develop moderns applications. 

The need for speed exists for both startups and established companies. This was the approach we took after much deliberation in my previous company.

There are more people accessing application and sites on their mobile devices than desktops now.  It is extremely important to provide the experience that is tailored for the device rather than just adapting the content to fit the device. How users typically use the device and what actions they are used to on the device must be factored into the design.  This is especially true if you are selling something through your app. The responsive design may still be fine for content distribution.

It is time to develop specifically for the device and not employ build once use everywhere mindset.  Whether you build Native applications or Web applications that run on the device is not that important as long as you are complying with user expectations and making the application easier to use on the device – living within the constraints but also making use of the richness of sensors and input capabilities (touch, camera, microphone for example) of modern devices.

The typical use of the Staples site is to buy something you are looking for. Making it easier to search, compare and buy on the smartphone is as important as making it easier to search and buy on the desktop via a browser. While the end goal is the same, the how you get there is very different on the two devices.

I think Staples has come to the right conclusion by putting customer first and making it easy for that customer rather than ease, time and cost of development.

Feb 14

Whats the matter with all the new iOS apps?

in 2010 we gave my mom (completely computer illiterate) an iPad and my father in law (self thought savvy computer user) an Android tablet (the first Sony tablet).

Four years since, my mom is googling, youtube-ing, facetime-ing, emailing, photographing, shopping and cannot imagine her life without her iPad. My father in law returned his tablet to us last year very dissatisfied. He moved to Windows Surface Pro. He just could not figure out Android.

The simplicity and consistent behavior of iOS is one of the primary reasons for its adoption. Just three basic gestures to learn – swipe up/down, swipe left and right and pinch zoom and you were never lost in the navigation because of the single page app design and big bold navigation buttons that gave you the option of what is possible – Back, Next or cancel. It was impossible to get lost in the navigation tree.

Most apps today are no longer complying to the standards. Most apps just run in a container on the iOS but are really web apps. There is a competition to dream up the next user paradigm, the next cool UI. It is making the apps hard to use and will eventually hurt iOS because no longer will there be a difference between the app on iOS or Android.

Apps now need a manual on all the gestures that are needed. Not intuitive any more. Take the Facebook paper for instance, Swipe up does not scroll as you would have expected, it navigates you into the story and when you are in the story, swipe up will go further into the story by opening the video or the link in the story.

I recently started using two apps – Inside and Facebook Paper. Both do essentially the same thing. They help navigated stories – stories within a category and stories across categories. Each of them accomplishes this very differently – almost opposites.

Consider the problem as follows. Imagine a large table on which stories printed on paper are arranged in rows and columns. Stories that are of the same genre are arranged one below the other in a column. Each column then represents a genre. You start with the first story and decide if you want to read more stories in the same genre or move to another genre. The process repeats in each genre. This is essentially the navigation that both Paper and Inside are enabling.

The way to navigate in the Inside app is that you scroll through a genre (swipe up and down) and you switch genre by swiping left and right. Simple but you still need to read the instructions since it is not obvious that one can/should swipe right/left. But not a big departure from how you use other apps.

Facebook Paper on the other hand splits the screen into two. The top shows you a story in a bigger frame. The rest of the stories are arranged in film strip like fashion at the bottom of the screen. The gesture to navigate is swipe left and right. It matters where you swipe – if you swipe on the strip at the bottom you are navigating stories within the same genre. If you swipe on the big frame at the top you are swiping between genres. You select a story by touching the story. Once in the story you can swipe up and down. Swiping up and down means different things depending on the story. If the story is longer than the page up and down scrolls the page. If there is a link to another story then swipe up navigates into that linked story. You better remember where you are and the actions that got you there so that you are reverse your actions to uncoil back to where you want to be.

The animation and movement is cool but it makes Facebook Paper hard to use without first reading and committing the instructions to memory because there is nothing within the app to help you remember the gestures.

The navigation problem that both Inside and Facebook Paper deal with are the same ones that existed from the very beginning and one that almost all apps dealing with content face. Navigating within a context , navigating across to another context and drilling down to details of an item within a context.

Whats wrong with an overlay that shows navigation possibilities (back, next) and leave the gestures as they are? Why the fascination to dream up new ways to navigate and all by gestures alone? I am all for new ways of doing things but I believe it is the designers’ responsibility to know the difference between a better way and just a new way. Just to be different.

I am afraid to upgrade any of the apps on my mom’s iPad anymore. They may render one of the best things in her day useless.

Feb 14

Is “curated” content the new normal?


For the past couple of years I noticed that I like curated content more than raw content.  I know this because of the types of apps I use and the sites I frequent.  For e.g. on most days my first stop for news is google news and then my feeds in Feedly (I used google reader until it was decommissioned).

My interests are diverse and it is hard to keep up with a large number of sites.  If there is something out there that can help me stay in touch with my interests by sifting through all the noise, I am all for it.

I want to go to a few hubs of information and get what I am looking for.

The big companies and individuals with big ideas detected this trend a while ago and starting retooling towards this new reality.

Move towards curated content

I am moving more and more towards curated content… relying on experts (algorithms actually in most cases – more on that later) to help me get to best information.  Being a consultant myself, I want the best consultants helping me with the most important news, the best music from around the world, the best games, the best entertainment, the best restaurants, fun things to do in a city, etc.

I am moving to Apps/sites like Skimm (a delightful way to start the day by the way) and Inside. Or Alltop for whats trending…

I love Pandora but I am beginning to prefer Songza – which introduces me to delightful new music I would never hear but for the curators.

I like architecture and design of spaces and from various websites/blogs I find that I like Houzz better.

There is a clear move from all the big players towards surfacing content of interest from the noise generated by billions putting forth their thoughts of a number of issues – most mundane but some profound and interesting. Lately, there is more breaking news as people tweet from the location of historical events as they happen.

The constant stream of updates and tweeting and retweeting creates a cacophony in which noises I want to hear are lost.  The noise is deafening ….   Blogs like this being part of the pollution.

Facebook just announced Paper.

Google added Explore to Google+.

Jason Calacanis and team just launched inside.

My favorite curated content source is Feedly… it has all my feeds – content curated by me… hard to argue about the relevance of this information !

The next step will be to offer true experts who will personally ensure that you are getting what you are asking for.  This trend is already here in fashion.

When it comes to fashion – people need help. There are a number of Curated Fashion Sites on the internet today.  Better yet, there are personalized shopping sites that do more than help, they deliver (like fruit of the month club) a box with fashion that is selected specially for you based on your tastes and your profile.  The trunk club being just one of them.

But will you like the results?

I believe experts matter.  I find their inputs and first attempts to surface information of interest to me is useful.  It is a much better start that me having to sift through the information.  I know the information is biased therefore it is important for me to know who/what is behind the curation.  If I know the person or the methodology, I can appropriately deal with the information.  In most cases, I can fine tune what is shown by providing proper feedback on the results being presented.

It is no surprise that with the volume of information, most sites use algorithms to help in the process.  An algorithm that curates news is no Walter Cronkite but it still helps me and I can tune it further to my liking.  Many sites use simple ranking algorithm that floats news that is most talked about (the definition of talked about can vary from the number of likes, or comments, trackbacks, or tweets/retweets,  etc).  If there are topics that a large number of people are interested in, then I want to know about it. If nothing else then to be participatory in a water cooler conversation.

So who is more valuable in the future: the ones who create original content, or those who filter through the noise to curate the most valuable content?

While I do not see the spate of new apps as truly curating content, I am expecting that things will evolve.

Jan 14

6 Interesting App I used last year

I like apps.

I am constantly downloading apps both paid and free.  I try to use them, learn from them and appreciate the creativity and evolution of user experience design.  This post is to share some interesting apps I have used in the past year that I really liked and stood out for me.

1. Uber

I absolutely love this app.  Used it extensively in NYC to get from the Airport to Manhattan and back.  Also used it for trips within the city.  The cars were always clean and drivers always courteous.  This app makes using taxis pleasurable again.

The app is very well designed.  It uses all of the information it already has or knows from your smart phone and requires little input from you.  Using GPS you set the pick up location.  Based on the location of the driver who will pick you up, gives you an estimate, tracks the driver’s progress and texts when the driver shows up. So that you are not confused, the app gives you the name of the drive along with a picture, the license plate of the car along with the make and model, and a way to directly contact the driver. When you reach your destination, you get out and walk away – no cash, receipts, tipping etc.

Download and read more by clicking here.


2. Drync

Never forget the name of the wine you enjoyed ever.  The app allows  you to capture the label of the wine, add your notes and save it for future reference.  The app will scan the label and allow you to buy the wine and have it delivered to your door whenever you are ready.  It will also recommend wines based on your ratings.

You can read more and download from here.


 3.  Slice

An app that tracks your packages, price drops and recalls automatically.  For someone like me, who buys a lot on the internet, this app grabs relevant information from your email (like amazon confirmations, invoices, etc) and then tracks them.  All information is in one place, easy to find and easy to track.   Also serves as a nice catalog of all the crap you bought over time.

Read more and download from here.


 4. Simplenote

I really like simple (no frills) text editing apps.  On my mac i extensively use Sublime Text.  I start almost anything I do by creating a list that eventually will be scaffolding using which I complete the task.  I use lists as outlines for documents, to capture all my thoughts on a topic, to-dos, packing, etc etc.  Using a list that simultaneously synchronizes across all my devices is important to me.  In addition, there are lists that I want to collaborate with others.

I needed something that was simple, available and synchronized across my devices and also allowed for simultaneous edits but multiple people.  Simplenote was THE solution.  All this and it also keeps versions of changes so that you can roll back to see a previous version.  I love the simplicity of how collaboration is implemented.  You simply add the email address of the person as a tag.  Thats it!

Simplenote also supports markdowns which makes formatting a breeze which still maintaining a simple text layout.  Simplenote is available only on Mac but is available on iOS and Android.

You can get more information from here.


5. Mem:o

Mem:o takes simple numerical lists and makes them visually interesting.  You can use it to track almost anything and it will present the information in a nice visually interesting way.  You can use it to track the number of miles you run every day or the number of times in the day you facebooked, or the calories you are eating, or the number of hours you worked for a client, and so on.

This app also has a number of new and interesting user interaction paradigm.  It will be interesting to see how this app will evolve and how many of the ideas will get adopted across the app space.  This is an iPad only app.

You can get more details here.


6.  Mindfulness

There is growing evidence that is linking meditation to physical and mental health.  I have dabbled with meditation on and off and could never establish any routine.  I resolved to try to make meditation a permanent part of my day in 2014.  I turned to the app world to help me realize the benefits of meditation.  I was surprised by the number of apps out there.  This app was one of the simplest ones out there.  There were apps with fantastic sound libraries, detailed graphs and analysis, etc.  I was looking for simple and this app fit the bill.

I have used his app a few times and each time it has really helped me through the process.  I introduced my mom to this app and it clearly helped her get back into meditation.  She has been through a lot in the past 3 years and was having a lot of trouble trying to meditate.  She just could not do it.  This app has helped to center her again and get her going.  Now to see if I can do better in 2014 than all the previous years.

Read more and download from here.


There are a number of apps I used and it is hard to just list 6.  These were different and each solved a very specific need for me.

Please comment with your favorite apps and I will be sure to try them out.