What You're Buying Is an Ecosystem that Comes with a Phone

A recent trend on technology websites has been to try to dumb down fairly complex and multifaceted matters into bite size, ELI5-type articles with the basic stance that you, dear reader, are in need of having something explained to you.

I'm not really sure why this is or where it came from, but I can see marketing folks running around the editorial room shouting "—Hey guys, great great stuff... but we need something that captures people's attention — they're seeking fast answers. Millennials, ok? MILLENNIALS!! OK!! Any questions?"

These articles are often called things like: "Here's the best TV for you", "We've picked your next fast food”, "Your next car is electrical", "Eat nothing but carrots", and so on.

The Verge is an online tech and culture website I usually take pleasure in reading. However, their latest addition to the buzzfeedy clickbait genre outlined above is called The Best Phone You Can Buy Right Now (2017). Their suggestion is the Samsung Galaxy S8:

“Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus is the best phone for most people. It’s available across all four US carriers and unlocked. It has the best display on any smartphone right now, a head-turning, premium design, a top of the line camera, reliable battery life, and fast performance.”

Confusingly, they later suggest that the iPhone 7 is an option “If you’re not into the S8’s curvy design or are locked into Apple’s ecosystem”.

There are many possible angles from which one could try to approach this article, such as who this article is actually for (assuming that most people who find their way to a semi-obscure website such as the Verge have probably heard of both Samsung and Apple already) — but let’s just focus on the “ecosystem” part mentioned in passing above.

As a disclaimer — I'm a long time user of both Apple's iPhone (since model 1) as well as Android. I currently have and use both an iPhone 6S and a Nexus 6P. I'm not a strong proponent of either and see pros and cons with each platform and ecosystem. In this, I think I differ from most of the authors of these articles, that unfortunately tend to be written by people that have a very strong preference for either Android or iOS. Android fans tend to stress superior tech specs of Android phones, especially per dollar spent, where Apple fans tend to stress the quality of the user experience and the quality of the third party apps. 

This actually gets us to the point here. When you choose a phone in 2017, you’re basically not primarily picking a phone, you're main decision is choosing between two competing, behemoth ecosystems: Apple or Google.

Sure, there’s a bit of overlap, especially Google's ecosystem can bleed into Apple's and Apple has made a few lame attempts at providing some of its services on other platforms, but basically, you pick one or the other as your go-to place for things like cloud storage and backup, mail and calendar, and media consumption.

The phones that are currently for sale are in some sense just the latest physical incarnations of these competing ecosystems, whether they are from Apple, Samsung, Google, Nokia, HTC, Huawei, LG, OnePlus, Sony, or what have you.

There’s a new iPhone every year and a never-ending stream of new Android phones – although the one that counts, the latest Galaxy from Samsung, is also updated on a yearly basis. The tech specs of the latest and greatest phones in terms of CPUs, storage, cameras, screens, and so on are incredibly similar, to the point of being identical, across almost all the so-called ‘flagship’ phones. Sure, there are some small differences, but these are mostly only relevant until the competition’s upgrade cycle kicks in which tends to level everything out again. So right now, as duly noted by the Verge, the Galaxy S8’s screen “has the best display on any smartphone right now”.

A few  observations here. First, what’s meant by “best display?" Second, note the “right now” disclaimer.

The S8 has a great display, no question about it. It’s one of the first phones to shrink the bezels around the its main screen to such an extent that the phone and screen becomes one. This isn’t really a device with a screen on it; it’s more a screen wrapped around a device. The screen's curved edges add to the feeling that what you’re holding is a screen, not a 'device'. The Galaxy’s screen is also very bright, has a ridicolously high resolution for its size, and uses HDR and other display techniques to boost colors and contrast to make the image pop.

Many people find that these effects produce a “better” image. Personally, I find these images artificial, plastic, and fake looking and I much prefer the more natural image reproduction offered by the iPhone and most of Apple's products (as well as some other Android phone manufacturers for that matter). What this does point to however is that “best” is a difficult concept when it comes to things where personal preference matters.

Similarly, the Galaxy’s camera is indeed “top of the line”, as argued in the Verge's article, but if you look at side by side comparisons between images taken with different smartphones you see that, first, they differ very little in anything measurable (they all have very similar color depths, resolution, etc.), and, second, where they do differ is almost entirely in their subjective aesthetics — color temperature, saturation, differences in fake bokeh, low light compensation, etc — most of which is a result of differences in post-production software processing, not hardware specs. Again, “best” here is in the eye of the beholder.

Additionally, the differences between the phone tend to be evened out very quickly. Apple's new phone is due to come out later this year — which by the way seems to look very similar to the S8, Andy Rubin's Essential Phone, as well as the LG G6 and V30. The next Pixel? Chances are it'll be an all screen phone too (or not, surprisingly enough).

What this generation of phones more clearly than ever shows us is that phones-as-devices are increasingly becoming less important, they are gradually becoming just windows into the software — software which in itself is just the machinery needed to access the underlying ecosystem. More than ever, what sets phones apart in 2017 is what’s on the screen, not the screen itself and what’s literally behind it.

The argument is that the choice you make when buying a phone is first and foremost not about the phone you buy, but the ecosystem you invest in.

If we buy this argument, then there are three relevant questions you need to ask yourself:

  1. What user interface do you prefer, Android or iOS? Both have pros and cons, yet they are becoming increasingly similar in some key areas. In my view, iOS is a much more polished user experience and I'm to this day surprised that Android isn't catching up faster in this area.
  2. What ecosystem is right for you? Google’s or Apple’s? Both have pros and cons. In my view, Google's ecosystem is better for your own stuff (such as the integration between Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Photos) whereas Apple's ecosystem is much better when it comes to entertainment. iTunes has a bad rep, sure, but it's also very functional.
  3. How privacy conscious and concerned are you? If you are concerned about privacy, you would naturally gravitate towards Apple's ecosystem. This is not to say your data is safe with Apple, but unlike Google, Apple's key "product" isn't your data. What's a bit counter intuitive in all this is that it's probably less likely that Google gets hacked than Apple, so in some sense your data is probably more secure with Google, but on the other hand Google's using that data in a variety of ways — not all of which you're aware.

Looking at it this way — when you take a photo with your phone, what happens to that image after you taken it? What would you want to happen to it, or not happen to it?

Apologetic Interfaces

The MacOS X menu for Bose's SoundTouch music system comes across as almost a little heartbreaking. It is as if it doesn't really believe in itself. Why else would 'Quit' be the first menu option? 

The first steps toward a new breed of "Apologetic Interfaces?"

Picture the creative meeting where this was decided. A few people around a conference table, half-empty coffee cups, a few post-it notes. "Let's see, what would The User want to do..." Silence. After a while, from the other side of the table, "Well... it would be... ehhh.. some users might... like to... ehm...shut down the, ehm, quit." "Ah, excellent! Let's write that down on the whiteboard!" "Anything else?"

This example aside, maybe it's not such a bad thing that applications step it down a little. While it's natural that an application wants to tell the user as soon as possible that, "Hey! Guess what, there's a new version of me out!", the problem is that with all the apps you have on your computer, it's just too much distractive shouting going on all the time from a lot of different places.

If I open up Word, I do so because I either want to write something down or read a document. Unless there's a minor crisis (let's say an earthquake) I DO NOT want Office Update to take focus away from the document that's forming in my head and inform me of "critical update #1.6.28343".

Similarly, if I open up say VLC, especially while giving a talk, I do so because I want to show my audience a lovely little video clip, not give them the breaking news that version 2.1.5 has improved the reliability of MKV and MAD file playback.

An old-school, Unapologetic Interface, but not without finesse

Mindlessly checking for an update the first thing you do when the user opens up the application is just bad, thoughtless design. You open an application because you want to do something with it, right now. There are so many more ways in which an update could be done in a nicer, more humane way that doesn't get in the way of the user's intent.

A simple solution would be to gather the information and download the update in the background. Then just hold off the notification until the user either decides to quit the application or becomes idle. Or update it automatically in the background. Or, let the OS handle it if that's an option. Apple knew about this problem as well, that's why they implemented the App Store and the Notification Center. That's all pretty great, but then again some of the most notorious apps aren't using that. Looking at you, Microsoft and Adobe. 

One of the finesse-less, usual suspects

If you look closely at the picture above, you'll see that VLC comes with a solution to this which isn't without finesse. Clicking that small (and offset) check-box, you can chose to automatically download and install updates in the future (given that you then click 'Install Update'). That's actually a pretty elegant design idea. 

Yet, there are two problems with this approach. First, I doubt a lot of people actually notice this potential. With this kind of interface, you get drawn to the "install update" button. Or, if you're in fact giving a presentation, you just click whatever button you can as fast as possible to get this annoying window out of sight. A more general concern with automatic updates, second, is that new isn't always better. If an app goes from say version 1.4.23 to 2.0, it may actually be wise to stick with the old version for a while and let them figure out the bugs before you update. Or you simply don't like the new look and feel. Or, which is getting increasingly common, version 2.0 really means the same functionality as version 1 but now with ads all over the place. 

So when it comes to software updates, I'm leaning more and more towards update-as-you-quit as the more humane approach, with minor, bug fix updates automatically installed in the background. 

In light of this, maybe SoundTouch's approach could be seen as the humble beginnings of an entirely new breed of interfaces, "apologetic interfaces", characterized by low self esteem and by being aware of their propensity to annoy.

"I'm so sorry for wasting your precious time and valuable screen real estate, Dear User, but before we part I would like to let you know that there is a new me for you. No pressure, just letting you know." 

Come to think of it, too much of that could become annoying as well.

The Fishtank: An Agitational Artifact

For our client ABB Corporate Research, we created a series of alternative designs to contrast the traditional user interface and interaction design of control systems for industrial application. The Fishtank was one of the incarnations of this series. It is an interactive design exploration in the area of industrial control systems.

Conventional industrial control systems, such as ABB’s system 800xA, present the user with a panel view where machines, faceplates, sensor data, labels, etc. are organized and visualized side by side in a two-dimensional space. This design idea echoes the way in which control panels have always been designed; evolving from a non-digital era when each button, lever, label, and output device was physical and thus needed physical real-estate and a fixed location on the panel. Over the years, “the panel” as a way of framing and thinking about control room systems has formed a very strong conceptual idea for control room systems.

This is true to this day, when—at least in theory—a digitalized, computer-based control system could have any kind of user interface. Obviously, the 2D panel has not stayed on because it is a bad idea—on the contrary, there are many benefits to separating different things in two dimensions and giving them a fixed physical location in space. 

However, in this project, we wanted to explore the design space of "the possible" in this area by creating a series of radically different designs. The purpose was not necessarily that the results would aim to replace the traditional control room panel, but rather that they in different ways could come to complement, be different from, and to some extent challenge the panel as a design idea.

A typical problem in modern control rooms is the ever-expanding number of sensors that call for the operators’ attention. Relying on the quasi-physical panel as a design idea, it means that a 2D view of a factory keeps getting larger and larger. To deal with this, you either add more screens to the control room or you let the operators only see a small part of the entire factory on their personal screens.

As an alternative to this, we asked: would it be possible to design an interface in which the panel for the entire factory could fit on only one screen? 

The result from this experiment is the Fishtank prototype. It is an example of what we call an “agitational artifact”, i.e. an interactive artifact ideated, designed, and prototyped to be used using real data in real time—but where the main purpose of the artifact is to allow people to be exposed to a hands-on alternative to what they are used to; something with enough of a critical edge to shake them up a little bit, to make them think.

The Fishtank presents the user with a three-dimensional space. In this 3D space, the entire factory resides in the form of all its faceplates. A faceplate can for instance be a representation of a water tank in the form of the name and ID of the tank and its corresponding sensor data, such as water level, temperature of the water, etc.

The three dimensions in the Fishtank, i.e. X, Y, and Z space, are conceptual dimensions that can be controlled by the user. Hence, the user can decide what each of the three dimensions should represent.

For instance, the Y dimension can be made to represent the number of alarms a particular faceplate has; the X axis can be made to represent time since the last alarm; and the Z axis how far from the ideal or threshold each faceplate’s main value is.

But these conceptual dimensions can be changed easily and in real time to allow the user to interact with and play around with the factory to just monitor or to make certain parts stand out.

Unlike a traditional 2D design, the Fishtank uses movement, interaction, and conceptual dimensions—not fixed location in physical space—as the main sense making vehicle for the user. As such, it is radically different from the way in which control room software such as ABB’s 800xA has evolved and provides the user with a very different, engaging, and fun user experience. 

While an interactive artifact should be experienced hands-on, the video below gives you an idea what using this system is like.