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?

Edward Tufte and Interaction Design

Went to a full day course today here in NYC given by Edward Tufte; a legend in the field of information visualization. I've always enjoyed reading Tufte's work. His historical odysseys, writing style, thoughtfulness, and carefully crafted books should be required reading for everyone from business schools MBA-ers to CS to the arts to social sciences to journalists to design educations. His books are that good and that important. For me, the central theme in Tufte's work has been the integration of text and visuals, content and form, which has been an important source of inspiration for my own work.

I'm not sure what I had in mind for a one day course and I did enjoy most of it, but I left feeling a little short changed. Perhaps the course is mostly meant as a basic introduction to his work and not a deepening of it? His presentation style is also slow, quite likely knowingly so—deeply rooted in the 'old american male professor' genre—but still slow. I like that he's not using Powerpoint slides but instead builds up a story (slowly) around a couple of key images that he zooms in and out of (although to be honest some of his pictures looked a lot like slides!) I also really liked that he just jumped right into it, on the hour, without even the shortest "hello and welcome." Refreshing!

Tufte's work is hence utterly relevant to so many different areas and has impact and implications for even more fields. Yet, one of the areas I feel his work is relevant to but he hasn't quite grasped is my field—interaction design. He's hovering over a host of relevant topics here, for sure, but doesn't quite get the details right, which unfortunately for him is exactly what he keeps calling out other people on, so... 

First of all, his thinking in this space seems a bit old. For instance, Tufte kept referring to some Dell laptop where the scrollbars apparently covered 11% of the screen real estate. That's a relevant anecdote if the year is 2003, but not really in 2016. In a world of smartphone apps, retina displays, tablets, hamburger menus, world wild west, notifications, creative online typography, etc. etc., it would seem that there are so many other more recent examples of the same idea (i.e. badly designed interface elements that hide rather than promote content) that this rather archaic anecdote more serves to confuse than enlighten. There were a few others like this as well, including web designers confusing the short term memory magic number 7 +/-2 theory. I'm sure this has happened, but probably not in the last decade and certainly not a common occurrence anymore, if it ever was.

There are so many examples of Tufte's work that are still so relevant for today's web and app designers, so why not talk about these instead? He mentioned one in passing: that many sites today are conceived and designed to be responsive, i.e. aiming at providing an 'optimal reading experience' regardless of what device/resolution you use—in effect separating content from layout and function. I think it's fair to say that Tufte's collected works can be seen as a critique of this very relevant and timely design idea. So why not spend time on massacring this? I would.

Tufte also mentioned that he was one of maybe 10 people in the world who thinks theoretically about these issues. Again, he's been at it for a while and this was maybe, even probably, true at some point, but I also think it's a bit negligent towards what has happened in the field in the last 20-30 years. Folks from all kinds of (academic) disciplines are doing it now: such as Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), interaction design, philosophy of technology, and design research, as well as a host of non-academic thinkers utilizing blogs, internet-based magazines, professional conferences and workshops, etc.

Third, Tufte's only substantial idea (at least in the way it was framed at this talk) about interaction design echoed the Heideggerian notion of "not letting the interface get in the front of the content". This idea was popularized in HCI and interaction design by Winograd & Flores back in 1987 and even earlier than that in the philosophical field called philosophy of technology. This idea is one that I've drawn on heavily in my own work, among several other researchers and practitioners in interaction design.

Yet, the problem here seems to be the distinction between form and content. In all his work, Tufte shows that these go best together if they are considered hand in hand. 

Let's look at this in a bit more detail. One of Tufte's recurring rhetorical refrains is that you now have better tools at your disposal in your smartphone than those that you use at work and that we should all rise up and demand at least equally good tools for 'work'. That's fair, but what Tufte misses here is that this also means that there is a substantial overlap between "work" and "leisure"—or whatever we want to call it, i.e. when we're not actually 'working'. I think one of the fundamental shifts in interaction design over the last 15 years or so is that the computer now just isn't something we think about as a machine for work. It's so much more than that. We use our PCs, laptops, and smartphones to mindlessly scroll through Facebook, play games, pass time, buy stock, watch movies, find plumbers, stalk coworkers on LinkedIn, read a text, write novels, keep swiping left and only occasionally right, anonymously rant on online fora just because you can, check out new music, do some work stuff (mostly emails), create graphs for our kid's soccer team, pass time before I can get out of here, plan the holiday in Cape Cod, and so on and on and on. All using the same magical machine.

With this in mind, I think Tufte's explicit notion that the primary role of interaction design is to make the interface disappear in favor of content is still a relevant perspective in many ways. However, it also implicitly suggests a rather old-school, work oriented perspective lurking underneath—which is that the user's only goal of using a computer or a smartphone is to get to the 'content' that their interfaces are hiding. It often is, but not always. Such a view is not enough to understand what interaction design is today. In what I have called the 'third wave of HCI', we see for instance web sites and apps where the interface is knowingly designed to be unclear and fuzzy and it is the user's task (or fun, to be more precise) to figure it out. Here, the interface and the content blend into one—they become the same thing. The interaction itself becomes valuable and meaningful, not just the so-called 'content' that it is supposed to hide or show. Computer games have always had an element of this. What makes Flappy Birds irresistible is the interaction, not the content.

At the end of the day, literally, I left Tufte's talk not bedazzled but yet hopeful. Tufte's thinking is still relevant for interaction design, it might just require someone with more detailed knowledge about the area to be able to interpret, see, and further develop its significance. One potential path is the current interest in digital assistants such as Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and 'Ok Google'. Applying Tufte's information visualization principles to these would probably reveal quite a few design obstacles to overcome in the next couple of years.

That said, I ended up taking a lot of notes and did get to doodle a bit too. This one, for instance, I call "A Bear with Many Faces" (yes, of course I name my doodles!)

Unapologetic Interfaces

A while back, I wrote a short piece about something I called 'apologetic interfaces', suggesting a new class of interfaces that pay attention to what their users are up to, what they're there to achieve, and seek ways of minimizing the hassle of dealing with unnecessary application maintenance, inclusive of updates, new feature tutorials, notifications, invitations to rate the app, etc.—you know all that stuff that drives us mad when all we're trying to do is to get stuff done.

I firmly believe that apologetic interfaces are the future. We need interfaces that realize that most of them are just that, interfaces. They are conceptually, factually, and by definition, in between us and our work. We need interfaces that realize that when I open up Microsoft Word I do that because I have a sudden need to write something down. Unless there's an earthquake, tsunami, major conflict, or a sudden outbreak of ebola in my area—I don't want to be be bothered with whatever-it-is. Just open the &$%&@# document so I can start to type. Please.

The state of the art, unfortunately, is still quite the opposite—the unapologetic interfaces rule, across platforms and devices. Notifications, update requests, badge icons, embedded tutorials, rating invitations, 'did you know?', and so on indefinitely, are still doing all they can do divert their users' attention from whatever they were trying to get done and paying absolutely no attention what so ever to what the user is doing at the time.

Here's a very telling example. Yes, it's the Wild West. Yes, it needs to change.