#Update2011 : Unusability - How not to design mobile apps!
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Today Heather and I have been at Update 2011 - a conference here in Brighton aimed at mobile developers (Twitter @updateconf and #Update2011)
First up - a big congratulations for Aral Balkan for organising a great event - hopefully we'll catch up with Aral at the after party, which we're off to in a moment!
The event was a great mix of live music, lively debates and some useful and thought provoking presentations on mobile, and design for mobile.
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If there was an overarching theme for the day, it was to keep users in mind when designing - a principle that is all the more important for mobile - where many developers are tempted to include device specific features for the sake of it - not because the user wants them.
There was also a fair amount of discussion around web apps vs native apps, which we wrote about on this blog last week.
We'll be writing up our review of the whole day, and also detailed summaries of some of of the presentations and debates throughout the week - so watch this space - and we'll also have some video to share with you all too.
However - first things first - here are my thoughts on Aral's introduction, and the first presentation of the day, given by freelance iOS developer Matt Gemmell.
Intro – Aral Balkan
First up we were treated to an entertaining and very energetic introduction from event organiser and "Geek Ninja" Aral Balkan, who belted out a version of "Let the Sunshine In" with his backing band.
This was a great way to kick off a conference (rather than just shuffling on and saying "hi"). Aral is clearly passionate about what he does and has something of the Steve Jobs about him in his delivery style.
Aral pointed out that Update 2011 is part of the wider Brighton Digital Festival (of which BrightonSEO, which we are attending later this week is also a part - more to follow on that of course!)
He was pleased to be running the event in Brighton as he sees it as a place full of ‘makers’ – whether they be programmers, developers or UI designers, they all have the power to influence, empower and inform people in the work they do.
A large part of that is down to good user interface design, which, let in to the first presentation by Matt Gemmell:
Matt Gemmell at #Update2011 : Unusability in iOS Apps
Matt took to the stage in the guise of his own "evil twin" toting a pistol which he shot Aral with - who stumbled off in throes of agony (Matt is of course an advocate of friendly mobile UI design - but used his alter ego here to make some good points about what the 'bad guys' out there are doing).
This entertaining presentation reminded me of Dr Harry Brignull’s talk at the last BrightonSEO on “Dark Patterns” – web interfaces for commerce sites etc… which are designed to confuse and con people.
Matt (sorry – Matt’s evil twin!) gave us a great overview of how to design user interfaces for mobile apps that “annoy people, let them know you hate them and if possible – create physical injury”! His evil persona argued that the “dark side is more fun” – and that the bad guys have already won.
So we were advised to make interfaces with lots of small, similar controls that crowd the screen and encourage accidental input with our fat fingers, and which are difficult to learn and master.
He encouraged us to make apps that are actually useless – using an example of an app that just provides 24 pictures of vegetables, and nothing else!
He advised us to make extensive use of “popular trends” – and the worst of what the social web has to offer – to take the most banal and tasteless of what is on Twitter and Facebook and ram it down people’s throats.
The evil Matt then preached the wisdom of creating difficult-to-use interfaces, that force users to use the app the way we, the designer, intended them to be used – to ignore considerations like landscape screen or keyboard orientation when they would be most suitable, and to make people twist their necks if possible…!
An app designed using these “worst practices” should box people in – force them to constantly see ancillary information like logos on screen, to limit the freedom of users and to create a virtual prison or “cubicle” that constrains what they can do. We should omit search functionality, encourage aimless browsing and create a “sense of helplessness”.
Of course, if you’re designing for British users - Evil Matt advises us always to use Americanized spellings and date formats, and avoid using any local customisations that will make things more useful for users. And naturally, it makes sense to make text as small as possible, and to leave out accessible design features that might make it easier for disabled users to use our apps.
It was here that the normal Matt returned to us, and provided us with a best practice checklist – which as you would imagine was the exact opposite of what his evil twin had just preached to us!
All in all - a useful summary to remind designers not to be tempted by the "dark-side" and keep users in mind. It contained genuinely useful tips and also set the tone nicely for the rest of the day.
I do like the use of this sort of reverse psychology in presentations (or “ygolohcysp”, as displayed on Matt's slide!)
A good way to consider what makes great design is often to look at the very worst, and then consider the exact opposite of that (a useful creative thinking tool is to think of how you could make a procees or product that performs as badly as possible, and then then think of the opposite functionality).
In this instance it was also a sage reminder that there are people out there who are actually making apps like this - how many times have you installed an app (even a fairly pricey one), to discover that it doesn’t render in the way that would seem most sensible, or has text that is unreadable, or is just generally pretty unusable (or plain useless).
Just as with scoping a web site – Matt’s presentation reminded us to think of the user first before we start building apps - not at the end. A useful reminder for us all at the beginning of the day, and backed up Aral’s opening statement that app developers are ‘makers’ with a power to do good, which can equally be twisted to annoy and manipulate in the wrong hands.
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