Archive for September, 2012

The Beauty of Boring

We are in the midst of the latest iPhone frenzy, from last Wednesday’s announcement to next Friday’s release. The initial reactions, based on, at most, a very quick hands-on, range from ho-hum to boring and predictable to Apple is losing its mojo. No doubt the actual reviews as they trickle out over the next week or so will follow this pattern – the iPhone 5 is competent but not earth shattering and iOS is becoming stale.

But the beauty of this boringness means the design language remains the same. That is, the navigation bars and buttons, the scrollable tables with drill down to more details, the swipes and pinches, are all the same. Not only does this breed familiarity amongst users but it means that apps do not have to be redesigned to meet a new style. Or more comprehensively, there doesn’t have to be two versions of an app, each appealing to the old and new approaches.

Sure the new iPhone 5 is slightly taller in what amounts to an extra row of icons on the home screen or two new rows in a table, but most apps, including Taste ZiNG!, will be able to easily incorporate this change. There will have to be another variant for splash and background images, but views that present a table of information will automatically show more rows. The only possible changes will come on views that are not designed to scroll, so developers will need to decide whether the extra space is left at the bottom, or whether it should be evenly spread amongst the existing presentation. There is not enough new space, unlike the difference from an iPhone to iPad, to start incorporating more data.

What gets lost in the call for larger screens is the impact this has on designers and developers. Apple appreciates the subtle interplay between the widgets on a screen and the negative or white space between them. Dramatically changing the screen size has a detrimental effect on app design. Just scaling a layout by a constant multiplier depending on device size is not always the best decision. A wider screen can seduce the designer to place more buttons on a toolbar, but at some point this can become overwhelming and it might be better to reduce all the buttons to a single action button that only reveals it’s options when necessary. Indeed this is the latter option taken by the Taste ZiNG! app on the iPad. Even though there is significantly more screen estate, the set of actions that are available on each view is presented behind an “actions” button, providing a common interaction pattern, reducing noise and clutter, and allowing the use of words instead of icons.

Look for a update to the Taste ZiNG! app explicitly supporting the larger screen of the iPhone5 in a few weeks. We are in the middle of some other changes that will need to be completed first. And of course, we want to test the app on actual device before submitting a new version (and that may take awhile as pre-orders sold out in one hour!).

Welcome to the Self Service Economy

Last week I attended the first Portland Digital Experience conference and during a presentation on “Magically Customizing Your Users Experience”, Tom Byrnes from 4-Tell expanded on the fact:

We are not in a service economy, we are in a self-service economy

He supported the argument by highlighting a report from Accenture that found in a retail environment, 60% of customers know more about a product that the sales representative. Not difficult when, as Byrnes pointed out, the average length of service of employees for a major retailer is 6 weeks.

Given the high staff turnover and the relative inexperience that plagues many big box stores, it is no wonder that customers take it upon themselves to educate themselves. Fortunately they now have the tools available to perform research, even while in the actual retail establishment.

The same self-service skills transfer to a restaurant situation, it is relatively easy to use your mobile device to search for details on unfamiliar bottles on a wine list. However that can be a time consuming and socially unpopular activity table-side if you are considering more than a couple of wines. To enable an effective self-service experience, a restaurant needs to provide the tools for a more directed decision making process.

In a recent column, Matt Kramer observed many wine lists are unusable, nothing more than a price list. Kramer suggests that what wine lists need to be, and what a modern sommelier needs to do, is to better educate their customers. In effect, tell a better and more effective story about a wine so that a person can make a better choice. He offers a couple of proposals such as showcasing a select number of interesting wines or using symbols on the wine list to highlight unique items.

However I don’t think either of these really help. A deeper back story on wines might be nice, but who is going to read (or who’s dining partner is going to let them read) a 100 word biography on each potential selection. Highlighting interesting and unique wines is also nice, and wine programs should be encouraged to contain a diverse selection, but is a diner really going to take a chance on a wine if they are not sure that it will match their food?

A wine list cannot be considered in isolation; a selection needs to be made in concert with the food choices. But this is where the self-service economy falls down without additional details from the restaurant about the dominant elements within a dish. So the challenge for restaurants in the new self-service economy is to find ways to provide enough information to assist a diner in making informed decisions.