Stories, moments, people and ideas of interest from within the worlds of innovation and design, spotted and written about by Helen Walters, design writer, editor, and ideas editor at TED. Attitude, errors and opinions obviously all the writer's own.
Ask me anything
December 4, 2012
"That most existing iPad magazine apps are slow, badly-designed, can’t search, etc. does not mean iPad magazine apps cannot be fast, well-designed, and searchable."
The post mortems and “I told you so”s are in full swing for the late Murdoch iPad publication, The Daily, with commenters split on the reasons for its fail. John Gruber (above) has a good piece which does not fall for Felix Salmon’s take that it wasn’t The Daily’s fault it was bulky, slow, and difficult to navigate. Gruber writes: “He’s 180 degrees wrong. All of these problems were entirely The Daily’s fault.” And, he concludes, this is really one more example of the fragmentation of big business as we used to know it: after all, a lean publishing team should be able to thrive on a budget of $5 million a year (though how many of those outfits, employing how many people, would be able to make a living from this, is another question altogether.)
Meanwhile, Twitter’s Michael Sippey flagged a post he wrote after one issue of The Daily, which turns out to have been awfully prescient. “The product doesn’t deliver on two fundamental features of today’s web — community and real-time,” he wrote, which if you ask me neatly nails the issues on the head. I follow the news pretty carefully, and can’t remember a time in which anyone flagged a story from The Daily. However painstakingly written, carefully edited, lovingly designed and beautifully produced, The Daily stories lived in a bubble. And that bubble just burst. iPad publishing will continue, of course, and hopefully those at the head of large organizations with an alleged appetite for innovation will be able to avoid the obvious mistakes next time around.
I don’t have kids, so haven’t yet formed an opinion on how much technology is too much for their small souls to endure. But it’s clear from this article (and my own entirely unscientific observations) that little tykes are entirely confident and happy to use technology as a means to satisfy their whims for entertainment. Where Apps Become Child’s Play takes a look at Fisher Price’s Apple store-like research lab in East Aurora, N.Y., described in terms that sound I think unintentionally dystopian. “Instead of adults and teenagers, there are infants staring into computer screens, and parents and toddlers are passing iPads back and forth.” Brr.
But this was also interesting: the “pass-back factor,” meaning that these days iPhones and iPads have the hand-me-down factor that checkered dungarees or ill-fitting skirts had in days of old. Well, I know which I’d rather have had, even with a broken screen on the second-hand device. (For the record, I think this is quite a beautiful effect, though I do accept it might of course be totally inappropriate for small ones. As I say, I’m no parent…)
I’m still of the old school way of thinking that technology is a fantastic, amazing tool that works best when harnessed in the name of a really good idea. So I can do without the trend for turning everything and its cousin into an app. But this one is pretty smart. The Pain Squad app is designed to help sick children collect critical health data about how much pain they’re feeling. Turning pain management into a game, complete with leveling up and encouraging words for the kids via celebrity videos just might help the patients imagine that they’re not on their own in dealing with their illness. And the exploitation of the touchscreen functionality of the iPhone helps get around the real problem with data collection: getting people to do it consistently. Of course, not every patient will have an iPhone, or a smartphone of any kind, and it would be sad to eliminate the poorer sections of our community because of this absence, but this is well put together and hopefully, just a bright beginning.
Matt Rix’s app, Scorekeeper XL is an app for people playing games (and wanting to keep track of the score.) I love it for its beauty and the thought that has clearly gone into every design decision, reflected in a simple, easy-to-use interface that masks all the complexity and highlights fun and interactivity. Lovely.
Writer and “optimistic doomer”, John Thackara is always good value. Here, he chats about the crisis (and opportunities) facing the design industry with Rob Huisman of the Association of Dutch Designers. I particularly liked his breakdown/definition of social innovation, a phrase that has become so ubiquitous as to become meaningless:
Use design skills to address social problems such as obesity, crime, looking after older people.
Develop services with a social need, such as ride-sharing or health applications on iphone. These services are social rather than commercial.
Create a new kind of society in which we get food, shelter, move around, look after our children in different, less costly ways.
Thackara confesses on multiple occasions that he hasn’t quite figured out the economics of this type of work for designers, which is clearly an issue. But he’s also clear on one point: designers can’t wait for people to come to them. See the work you want to do, he advises, and go and offer your services, explaining to would-be clients what you bring to the table and why they should bother to have you around. Right on.
We pay some people to be Big Thinkers for us, but mostly they just say things that please people with money. It pleases the money folk to think that the wild and crazy and unregulated world of the web is no longer threatening them. That users are happy to live in a highly regulated, Disneyfied app space, without all that messy freedom.
I’ll stay with the web.
Tech world evangelist, Dave Winer writes a smart post about Why Apps Are Not The Future. Publishers are gaga about the potential of apps to control their users, and as Winer writes, that’s fine, only:
The great thing about the web is linking. I don’t care how ugly it looks and how pretty your app is, if I can’t link in and out of your world, it’s not even close to a replacement for the web. It would be as silly as saying that you don’t need oceans because you have a bathtub. How nice your bathtub is. Try building a continent around it if you want to get my point.
Winer certainly strikes a chord, and the question for me is: who is really being served here? With apps, the publishers get to control the experience and make some money. Neither of these are inherently evil, but if the app ends up being more focused on serving the publisher’s needs than on providing an enjoyable experience for readers/users/viewers, they will simply tune out. A lose-lose.
Meanwhile, Winer’s cynicism about “big thinkers” in the quote at top is alarming. It’d be great to write this off as overblown but, given how many stories we’ve read recently about the corruption at the heart of our culture, it would be naive to dismiss him out of hand. Sigh. Read, too, his more detailed follow-up post on this topic: Enough With the Apps Already.
"Lodsys didn’t even “invent” the idea. They purchased the patent and are now using it like a cluster bomb on the entire mobile app developer community. They are the iconic patent troll, taxing innovation and innovators for their own selfish gain. They are evil and deserve all the ill will they are getting."
Whoa. NYC-based investor Fred Wilson is spitting mad. His post, Enough is Enough, denounces the very idea of software patents, which he describes as “a tax on innovation.” This in the wake of the current Lodsys brouhaha, which sees the Texas-based company suing developers for both the iPhone and Android platforms. (Note: they’re not suing Apple or Google, which both licensed the necessary patents, but going after the smaller developers. The ones, Wilson describes, who can’t afford the lawyers needed to deal with a patent troll. He concludes:
The whole thing is nuts. I can’t understand why our government allows this shit to go on. It’s wrong and its bad for society to have this cancer growing inside our economy. Every time I get a meeting with a legislator or goverment employee working in and around the innovation sector, I bring up the patent system and in particular software patents. We need to change the laws. We need to eliminate software patents. This ridiculous Lodsys situation is the perfect example of why. We need to say “enough is enough.”
"The availability of great literature, for free, on an iPad doesn’t mean we’re all reading Jane Eyre."
In the article Why I’m Down on Health Apps, serial entrepreneur David Rose writes an excellent piece about why he’s skeptical about the influx of many new healthcare-related apps available for our smart phones and devices. As he writes,
It’s true that more people have cellphones than computers, and many of these phones will support vast appstores in the coming years. But that doesn’t mean people will have the discipline or interest to use these apps, especially for logging what they eat, or if they have taken their medications… especially if they haven’t.
For Rose, the missing piece of the innovation pie here is the inability to look beyond shiny new technology to examine underlying behavior. After all, just because we can doesn’t mean we will. With healthcare, in particular, he says, apps should adhere to one main principle: Be Ambient. In other words, they need to be designed to be both unavoidable and not irritating. At the moment, they’re often all too easy to ignore—or they’re maddeningly intrusive. Rose asks:
Would you adopt a coaching program that texted you a few times a day with meal and exercise suggestions and medication reminders? I think you’d hate it after about three days.
There’s a balance to be attained here. Smart innovators would do well to focus on finding it.
The NYC Big Apps competition is a joint initiative from New York’s City Economic Development Corporation and the NY Department of IT & Telecommunications, encouraging local web developers to use city data to come up with interactive or technology-based solutions for the city.
Competition organizers claim two goals:
to stimulate the development of applications that improve access to information and government transparency, making it easier and more fun to visit, live and work in the City.
to encourage innovation and the creation of new intellectual property with commercial potential by individuals, startups and small businesses and organizations.
It’s well worth looking at the winners, which mesh technical skill with delightful imagination. Roadify, the grand winner, combines MTA or DOT information and alerts about routes in the city with real-time updates from those in those locations to try and smooth people’s commute. Don’t Eat At sends text messages if people check in on Foursquare to a restaurant at risk of being closed for health code violations. [Only one slight quibble, that Foursquare seems like the wrong platform for this app. If I’ve already checked into a restaurant, am I really going to turn around and walk out again? I’d much rather be able to get this update before I even leave the house.]