Beautiful Rooms & Why Smartphones Are Too Dumb

Some time in the future, the age of the smartphone will draw to a close and experiences will become more in-tune with the way humans actually live. We need to be thinking about this new wave of interactions at a time when our customer’s attention is a premium. We need to be augmenting their worlds, not trying to replace them…
I’m Craig Pugsley – a Principal UX Designer in Product Research. Our team’s job is to bring JUST EAT’s world-leading food ordering experience to the places our consumers will be spending their future, using technology that won’t be mainstream for twelve to eighteen months.
It’s a great job – I get to scratch my tech-geek itch every day. Exploring this future-facing tech makes me realise how old the systems and platforms we’re using right now actually are. Sometimes it feels like we’ve become their slaves, contorting the way we want to get something done to match the limitations of their platforms and the narrow worldview of the experiences we’ve designed for them. I think it’s time for change. I think smartphones are dumb… I feel like we’ve been led to believe that ever more capable cameras or better-than-the-eye-can-tell displays make our phones more useful. For the most part, this is marketing nonsense. For the last few years, major smartphone hardware has stagnated – the occasional speed bump here, the odd fingerprint sensor there… But nothing that genuinely makes our phones any smarter. It’s probably fair to say that we’ve reached peak phone hardware.
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What we need is a sea-change. Something that gives us real value. Something that recognises we’re probably done with pushing hardware towards ever-more incremental improvements and focuses on something else. Now is the time to get radical with the software.
I was watching some old Steve Jobs presentation videos recently (best not to ask) and came across the seminal launch of the first iPhone. At tech presentation school, this Keynote will be shown in class 101. Apart from general ambient levels of epicness, the one thing that struck me was how Steve referred to the iPhone’s screen as being infinitely malleable to the need – we’re entirely oblivious to it now, but at that time phones came with hardware keyboards. Rows of little buttons with fixed locations and fixed functions. If you shipped the phone but thought of an amazing idea six months down the line, you were screwed.
In his unveiling of the second generation of iPhone, Jobs sells it as being the most malleable phone ever made. “Look!” (he says), “We’ve got all the room on this screen to put whatever buttons you want! Every app can show the buttons that make sense to what you want to do!”. Steve describes a world where we can essentially morph the functionality of a device purely through software.
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But we’ve not been doing that. Our software platforms have stagnated like our hardware has. Arguably, Android has basic usability issues that it’s still struggling with; only recently have the worse Bloatware offenders stopped totally crippling devices out-the-box. iOS’s icon-based interface hasn’t changed since it came out. Sure, more stuff has been added, but we’re tinkering with the edges – just like we’ve been doing with the hardware. We need something radically different.
One of the biggest problems I find with our current mobile operating systems is that they’re ignorant of the ecosystem they live within. With our apps, we’ve created these odd little spaces, completely oblivious to each other. We force you to come out of one and go in the front door of the next. We force you to think first not about what you want to do, but about the tool you want to use to do it. We’ve created beautiful rooms.
Turning on a smartphone forces you to confront the rows and rows of shiny front doors. “Isn’t our little room lovely” (they cry!) “Look, we’ve decorated everything to look like our brand. Our tables and chairs are lovely and soft. Please come this way, take a seat and press these buttons. Behold our content! I think you’ll find you can’t get this anywhere else… Hey! Don’t leave! Come back!”
“Hello madame. It’s great to see you, come right this way. Banking, you say? You’re in safe hands with us. Please take a seat and use this little pen on a string…”
With a recent iOS update, you’re now allowed you to take a piece of content from one room and push it through a little tube into the room next door.
Crippled by the paralysis of not alienating their existing customers, Android and iOS have stagnated. Interestingly, other vendors have made tantalizing movements away from this beautiful-room paradigm into something far more interesting. One of my favorite operating systems of all time, WebOS, was shipped with the first Palm Pre.
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There was so much to love about both the hardware and software for this phone. It’s one of the tragedies of modern mobile computing that Palm weren’t able to make more of this platform. At the core, the operating system did one central thing really, really well – your services were integrated at a system level. Email, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Skype, contacts – all managed by the system in one place. This meant you could use Facebook photos in an email. Make a phone call using Skype to one of your contacts on Yahoo. You still had to think about what beautiful room you needed to go into to find the tools you needed, but now the rooms were more like department stores – clusters of functionality that essentially lived in the same space.
Microsoft took this idea even further with Windows Phone. The start screen on a Windows Phone is a thing of beauty – entirely personal to you, surfacing relevant information, aware of both context and utility. Email not as important to you as Snapchat? No worries, just make the email tile smaller and it’ll report just the number of emails you haven’t seen. Live and die by Twitter? Make the tile huge and it’ll surface messages or retweets directly in the tile itself. Ambient. Aware. Useful.
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Sadly, both these operating systems have tiny market shares.
But the one concept they both share is a unification of content. A deliberate, systematic and well executed breaking down of the beautiful room syndrome. They didn’t, however, go quite far enough. For example, in the case of Windows Phone, if I want to contact someone I still need to think about how I’m going to do it. Going into the ‘People Hub’ shows me people (rather than the tools to contact them), but is integrated only with the phone, SMS and email. What happens when the next trendy new communication app comes along and the People Hub isn’t updated to support the new app? Tantalizingly close, but still no cigar.
What we need is a truly open platform. Agnostic of vendors and representing services by their fundamentally useful components. We need a way to easily swap out service providers at any time. In fact, the user shouldn’t know or care. Expose them to the things they want to do (be reminded of an event, send a picture to mum, look up a country’s flag, order tonight’s dinner) and figure out how that’s done automatically. That’s the way around it should be. That’s the way we should be thinking when designing the experiences of the future.
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Consider Microsoft’s Hololens, which was recently released to developers outside of Microsoft. We can anticipate an explosion of inventiveness in the experiences created – the Hololens being a unique device leapfrogging the problem of beautiful rooms to augment your existing real-world beautiful rooms with the virtual.
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Holographic interface creators will be forced to take into account the ergonomics of your physical world and work harmoniously, contextually, thoughtfully and sparingly within it. Many digital experience designers working today should admit to the fact that they rarely take into account what their users were doing just before or just after their app. This forces users to break their flow and adapt their behavior to match the expectations of the app. As users, we’ve become pretty good at rapid task switching, but doing so takes attention and energy away from what’s really important – the real world and the problems we want to solve.
Microsoft may be one of the first to market with Hololens, but VR and AR hardware is coming fast from the likes of HTC, Steam, Facebook and Sony. Two-dimensional interfaces are on the path to extinction, a singular event that can’t come quick enough.

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