Yesterday vs tomorrow for the icon Command Line 2.0 Address Book Blinking Light Saga

6 December 2011
Yesterday vs tomorrow for the icon
All recent skeumorphic vs metaphoric interfaces debates strongly reming me of the almost decade old realistic vs abstract icons discussions. Same arguments of “selling/marketable” vs “serious” and design were made along predictions of who would win in the long run. There's no need to show how desktop Mac OS/Windows icons look today.

Things are looking a bit different on mobile devices. Before 2007 icons used in mobile UI were frequently same realistic 3D style as in desktop. iPhone’s touch UI removed the additional abstraction layer between user input and the interface. Because of that icons were perceived more as as buttons/controls you can directly manipulate than static image hyperlinks. Needless to say iPhone’s icons did look a lot like buttons. Everyone followed: icons became frontal frequently receiving a square/round “container”. It wasn’t mindless copying though, but a self-evident outcome of the new interface paradigm.

Another glimpse to the icons future was the iPhone’s calendar icon showing the actual date. Definitely not the first icon with dynamic content in mobile UI, it stirred a lot of conversations on how “live” icons are the future. Now icons with dynamic content are just hitting mainstream in Windows Phone platform, but we’ll return to that later.

The biggest change for icons is coming not from a new interface paradigm or dynamic content. A lot was said about how floppy disk is an obsolete motif and can’t serve as a quick, intuitive representation of the Save function (to be fair in this example it’s more about the obsolete function than the motif representing it). Plenty of icons are representing real world physical objects connected with a certain functionality. And those physical objects are loosing their original shape or are becoming obsolete. As a result all icons based on real-world objects face extinction or “symbolization”.

For example the phone symbol used on all Phone icon functionality today. You’ll almost never see this iconic handset shape on real world phones, but the shape was “canonized” as a representation of the phone functionality. So the signifier lost its connection to real world object design and became an abstract symbol.

Back to “live” icons. In this presentation of Metro style interface principles there are two slides showing the difference between the “relics of yesterday” and new “digitally authentic” icons.

The comparison is not really convincing. The primary goal of the icon is still to be easily recognized. Displaying the relevant dynamic information is a highly anticipated addition, but not the top priority. With content becoming the new motif instead of real-world objects references how will the icons with similar content provide enough differentiation?

For example the content of a messaging, Twitter or Facebook app is really similar: user thumbnails + corresponding text/pictures. Content can’t totally replace real-world references for icons ensuring same easy function recognition and personality/character. This is valid for interfaces too by the way. Metro UI with its deliberate lack of chrome and (similar looking) content-as-navigation approach does feel kind of insipid as application/hubs/icons look the same at a glance.

It’s quite interesting that the most important functions in Windows Phone (Phone, Messaging and Email) are represented by big symbols and not the dynamic content (persons who called or new messages/mails received). Also content aesthetics/privacy has to be taken into consideration. Imagine a “live” Photo Galley icon that uses the latest captured photo in a frame as the main motif. Imagine that the latest photo is almost completely black. Or better a private one.

What’s next for the icons? The answer lies not in the visual style, but in the nature of the icon itself. In the end I believe the traditional icon concept as electronic hyperlink to application or function will fade away. Along with half-baked concept of widgets as an intermediary between desktop and full screen applications. It will be the application itself that could scale, displaying meaningful and easily recognizable information in different sizes.

Posted at 02:52 AM  |  Comments (0)
20 October 2010
Command line 2.0
Palm rolled out their version of adaptive task based interface I wrote about 5 years ago under “Just type” name. It’s not the smoothest implementation of the concept, but it’s the first platform to bring it to mainstream.

The obvious next step is deeper integration. If you want to post what you just typed in Facebook, there’s obviously no need to launch the Facebook app to confirm your action. It should be done in background. Also posting to social networks would mean the feature should be more like “Just type and attach pictures” and not only “Just type”. In short I’d really like to see how it evolves.

(Images from HP webOS 2.0)
Posted at 01:40 AM  |  Comments (0)
24 August 2010
Address book

Come to think of it, phone was the first social “network” and paper address book was the friends list. What phone manufacturers failed to realize in time that everything was about social aspect - that paper address book - and not the hardware itself. If they had the right vision, we’d see Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola social networks before Facebook.

The only change that happened was the integration of address book into the phone.
But it was same static alphabet-sorted address book. It didn’t care about with whom you communicate the most. Didn’t care who are your friends. Didn’t care what they are doing now... And it still doesn’t. Only recently address books started to integrate with social networks, but it’s far from perfection.

The goal is an address book that places your uncalled friend that has a birthday today on a featured spot. That prioritizes people close to you. That lets you follow their lives. In short, an address book that initiates conversation instead of being a simple alphabetic index.
Posted at 06:23 AM  |  Comments (0)
10 August 2010
Blinking Light Saga
Again, it’s all in the little details. It’s actually amazing how those small carefully crafted experiences turn into emotional attachment to the product, like the blinking light on BlackBerry phones.

Unfortunately those little details should be a consistent part of the whole experience, not things of their own. Ericsson phones had that blinking light long before BlackBerry ones. The green light at the top was constantly blinking showing that the phone has reception, it was blinking faster to notify of a message or missed call and turned red on low battery. Users loved that feature, it was easy to spot the phone in the dark and tell at a glance if you missed a message or need to charge the battery. The question is - where are Ericsson phones now?
Posted at 04:48 AM  |  Comments (0)
2 August 2010
Phone Personification

Personification is giving human traits to non-living objects. Samsung Nori is a good example of phone "personification".

(via Samsung Hub)
Posted at 08:49 AM  |  Comments (0)
12 July 2010
No interface
One of Dieter Rams commandments says that good design is as little design as possible. Now replace the word “design” with “interface”. Sounds strange at first, but when you think of it, it makes a lot of sense.

What’s an ideal interface? An easy to use one, requiring minimal effort to learn to use and ensuring effective operation? Right, but all these and other definitions sidestep the real answer: ideal interface is no interface.

One of the approaches when designing a product is to think how the product would work as if it was magic. In other words how it would work if totally stripped from unnecessary interaction required by technology limitations or old paradigms. And then try to design your product as close to the magic solution as possible.

I’d also suggest another approach: start designing the interaction by thinking how the product would work with “no interface”, so the communication between the user and the system or object doesn’t require conscious reasoning.

Think of the “interface” of a knife - the communication of the object’s “features” by its shape is almost instant. As an example imagine you are designing a phone. Reduce everything to a core feature. Remove the standard interface. Now ask yourself how would a device made to communicate just with one person look like?

Posted at 05:50 AM  |  Comments (0)
9 April 2010
iPhone Spotlight evolution
Tne new screenshot of iPhone OS 4.0 spotlight offering Web and Wikipedia search shows Apple is taking a step in a right direction with the iPhone Spotlight evolution.
Instead of being just a passive search function, it starts offering possible actions. If to apply this idea further to how the Spotlight works it may become a truly powerful interface to all native and 3rd party app functionality.

Posted at 02:53 AM  |  Comments (1)
7 April 2010
True touch
Ironically the button-less phones are called the “touchphones”. The buttons oppression started with flat key surface of Motorola Razr and continued with touchscreen hype. Now the sensorial experience of the button click is neglected. Current phones could learn a lot from calculators which are prefeclty optimized for fast and smooth data input.

Posted at 02:55 AM  |  Comments (2)
25 March 2010
Before customization for branded phones meant just new color scheme, wallpaper and icons. It’s becoming much much deeper. Puma phone is one the best current examples: it’s not just a Sagem device with changed icons and backgrounds. It has an original UI look and feel, a lot of sport-related apps and functionality. Not to forget the solar panel on the back used to recharge the battery.

Good times are coming for UI designers as a lot of non-mobile companies will try to enter the mobile area with a customized around their brands experience.

Fashion brands are doing that for some time time, but it’s not really interesting as it’s usually only about the logo on the device front and nothing more. The interesting trend is a UI and hardware design mix to enhance the whole experience. Like some watchmakers are trying to do in their phones, combining watch-themed interfaces and apps with integrated watch technology like moving rotors inside the device that use kinetic energy to recharge the battery.

Who’s next? Leatherman phone with digital compass and other useful apps, powerful LED flashlight and bottle opener? Duracell phone with energy saving apps that can work from any battery type from AAA to D?
Posted at 03:06 AM  |  Comments (0)
17 February 2010
WinPho 7 random thoughts

Some random thoughts on Windows Phone 7. First, its tiled look resembles a bit the homescreen boxes of Symbian ^3 and magazine-like iRiver interfaces, but the real inspiration seems to come from wayfinding signs with their big clean typography.

The interface seems to be created under a graphic designer lead and not an interaction designer, as the experience revolves around graphics and not vice versa. That causes some inconsistency: some parts feature “content-as-navigation” concept like actual picture as a link to picture viewer and some feature just plain icons like Internet Explorer icon as a link to the browser. There are some visual contrast between tiles and icons, doesn’t look too consistent (same thing can be said about Symbian ^3 homescreen). With the addition of 3rd party apps there will be lots of icons, interesting how tiles vs icons will look then.

I think the goal was to out-style Apple, but it went too far. It’s like they wanted to create a new improved Twitter, but got carried away along the way and ended up with smth like 2advanced flash site.
Posted at 03:07 AM  |  Comments (4)

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