Are you nomophobic?

June 24, 2012

According to a recent Mobile Mindset study by Lookout, it’s likely you are.

Nomophobia (noun): Fear of being out of mobile phone contact.

Let it go, young jedi. Let it go…

Yes, we’ve become a nation of mobile addicts. A truth indicative of the times after an unfathomable recent surge in mobile adoption and usage – something I myself didn’t fully appreciate until my mother recently (and proudly) proclaimed she was ready for a smart phone. That, my friends, is a milestone.

But this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to many of us, as one of the most obvious indicators of the changing tides has been our increasing reliance and attachment to our portable devices. Our trusty side-kicks, our partners in the Smartphone Revolution, as they say. This same study found 3 out of 5 Americans don’t go more than an hour without checking their phones. A single hour… shame on us.

And with this attachment, comes fear. A new type of fear and anxiety, wholly man-made, wholly new to our species. One that didn’t exist before and one that we increasingly feel the weight of. Some go so far to claim that nomophobia is now the most common fear on the planet (thank you, England).

Through mobile, we have reached an unprecedented level of connectivity with the world around us. It’s people, it’s places, it’s things, and all of the information in it. Sometimes, for the better (navigating, emergencies, changing plans, getting time-sensitive answers, in-context discovery, general accessibility). Sometimes, for the worse (distractions, general over-dependence, information overload, constant contact). So should we celebrate our technological triumph of creating so much more than the portable ears (a term coin by Jaron Lanier) cell-phones were once designed to become? Or mourn our hyper-connected state, remaining terrified of what the future will bring and what we’ll sacrifice to get there. It’s a complicated question, one on the periphery of philosophy and ethics as much as technology, and the answer isn’t so clear.

But at least we can acknowledge where we are today. We can accept that mobile isn’t going away. We can embrace this new era and continue to design the brightest future we can fathom, making the most of this new high-powered medium and steering it forward on a path that’s pure and true.

And in the meantime, fight the nomophobia. Face the fear, and combat it head on. Start by giving yourself a phone-free weekend once or twice a year – a refreshing blast into the past. A reminder that you can live free from connection, that you are strong enough to resist mobiles powerful pull, that you can unplug – if only temporarily. Tell your friends and family to do the same. One by one we can fight this, but only together can we defeat it. Or so we can hope.

For much more on the mobile movement and the design-related implications of our increasingly-connected world, check out LukeW‘s latest short-but-insightful book, Mobile First. A fine read, chalk-full of tactical advice for UX practitioners and philosophical advice for product owners and managers, all while grounded in some staggering statistics speaking to the mobile boom.

Inside the Amazon

December 21, 2011
What do smoked-salmon gift baskets, toy dump trunks, toilet paper, and cigars all have in common?  They all make great holiday gifts that you can buy online. That’s right.
the real amazon

Not this Amazon, the other one.

If you’re like most other adult humans, you’re shopping via the web this holiday season, part of a steady trend over the last decade. And chances are, you’ve spent some money with the big boys of eCommerce. The marketplace. The empire. The leaders of the online shopping channel. The Amazon.

From both a business and technology perspective, Amazon’s story is a compelling one. Once known for peddling books over an emerging medium, retail is now only part of what they do (though a big part). A recent interview with Jeff Bezos in is a must-read, revealing the extent of the company’s reach, their role as one of technologies biggest players, and their vision of the future. Check it out – then go wrap up your holiday shopping in a new browser window.

We’ll wait.

For kicks, below is a short essay I wrote a while back on the company a when asked to describe a ‘company I admire’. Sort of an elementary-school exercise that was oddly refreshing. How I miss school sometimes…

Amazon is an admirable company. Not just because they are the class of online retail or because I occasionally find great deals on boots there. But because of where they came from, what they’ve done, and where they’re going. It started as a great American business story: an entrepreneur headed West in his car into the unknown, armed with a vision of selling books over an emerging channel known as the internet. It has since evolved into a true empire, growing steadily and remaining on the cusp of high-tech innovation. And all while having a direct and meaningful impact on so many customers’ lives, as well as the successes and fortunes of new businesses along the way.

Amazon’s business model has pushed the limits of capitalism and how we thought about an open marketplace could work. But as a company, it has become far more than a commerce hub of ‘anything you need.’ It has continually introduced new patterns of technology into our lives. It created a custom recommendation engine based on user data, delivering recommendations – sometimes quirky, often helpful, but never overwhelming – to returning customers that many others have since tried to emulate. It evolved into a discussion platform for products of all types, bringing a democratic element to shopping. In this sense it single-handedly brought “social” shopping into the digital age, pairing conversations and reviews from the masses with products themselves. This bottom-up approach to evaluating a marketplace, its participants, and its content, changed how merchants thought about key factors such as pricing and quality. And as a website, has evolved, adapted, and remained usable — an impressive feat for an interface with such a complex ecosystem supporting it. As they grew, they iterated quickly, making interface changes often, and ignoring many web and usability experts who criticized the site for being too busy, too big, too confusing, or simply not sustainable.

Most notably, Amazon had the foresight to expand on its successful business model and dive into hardware by designing and releasing the Kindle. Beyond being an innovative product — a novel design and medium that consumers gobbled up (e-ink, anyone?) — it was a move that challenged the way we consume literature and the written word, threatening to make books obsolete. And that Amazon itself had its roots in books speaks to the vision and fearlessness of their company and leadership. To challenge their own heritage with the Kindle and adapt to the changing times was both a bold and poetic move. They saw a consumer need and went after it, regardless of how their company was positioned at the time. That they continue to expand their businesses is a testament to their successes and a great example of the power of what bold innovation can do for business in today’s world. And it’s admirable. Very admirable. (Profitable too.)

Life’s Easy in the Sunshine State

March 23, 2011

A recent trip to sunny south Florida unveiled a surprising number of simple-yet-effective designs scattered throughout the region. Maybe it’s part of an effort to cater to the high proportion of Florida residents who are elderly (a huge theme of 21st century design). Maybe it’s because many of Florida’s neighborhoods are so new and shiny, not bogged down by the old conventions and standards that other dense urban areas suffer from. Maybe the state is quietly harboring a large number of crafty designers — drawn south to the tropical climate. Whatever the reason, good work Florida. You’ve reminded us that its not always the knock-out designs that improve our world, that sometimes getting the basics right is most important of all.

Let’s start with my absolute favorite: a standing shower where the knob is actually in a logical place. Where you can turn the water on and control flow and temperature without getting wet. No more turning on the water on one side of the curtain and getting in the other side. No more awkwardly craning your naked body to dodge the water that may be too cold or too hot (It’s okay, we’ve all done that). It’s a shower that’s designed for showering. Beautiful.

Staying with the bathroom theme, this Florida bathroom had two doors, one that opens to the house and one to the outside. I scratched my head on this one for a while. Then I realized it’s Florida. It’s always nice out. There are patios and pools for entertaining. Bathrooms that may need to be accessed by guests. People in beach towels. Guests who you might not want to trek through the rest of your house. Sensible.

These parking space numbers on a coastal stretch in Palm Beach were labeled next to the car as opposed to painted under the car on the space itself.  So you could read them once parked. Smart.

“Beaches… THAT way.” I’m told, when crusing down I-95 on a sunny Saturday. Some highway signs understand their audience (as seen on other coastal freeways). Always refreshing.

Then there’s the Sun-Pass: a digital highway pass that beeps back at you when it’s been read by the toll sensors, as opposed to doing nothing at all. That’s called feedback, that’s a good thing. It’s still an ugly gray box stuck on the inside windshield, but at least it communicates. No more speeding through the toll-booth wondering whether you’ll be receiving a ticket in the mail in five to eight weeks. Hear the beep, know you’ve paid your toll, rest easy.

And of course, rocking chairs strategically placed in a waiting areas are always a win. As I’ve called out before. Works just as well as on the front porch. The ones pictured here were found in a South Beach hotel lobby.

Rock on, South Florida.

Rock. On.

Got game?

December 30, 2010

Will this poster still be funny in 2020?

If you work in the tech or business worlds, chances are you’ll be asked this question in the foreseeable future (if you haven’t been asked it already). And what better way to round out a year than with a bold prediction for what’s to come?

If the last decade was largely about technology shaping social connections, the next few years could mark the start of the ubiquitous gaming era. Now I’m no prophet. But many a bright mind in these circles seem to agree: the games are coming. That’s right, games and layers of games, everywhere… where you work, where you eat, where you go to the doctor, where you sleep. This could mean a world that’s more fun, more measured, more engaging, more transparent, with more gold coins. Or it could mean something else. Like the social web pioneers of the early 2000’s, the power is in our hands… as the rules for how games will shape our future are yet to be written.

Tell me more, you say.

If you’re in a reading mood, here’s a lengthy deep dive from Fast Company into the psychology behind games, and what many corporate and government players are doing in this space. (Did you know humans have collectively spent as much time playing WoW as we’ve spent evolving as a species?)

From the New York Times, this articles touches on the history and current state of the gaming world, and where we’re headed.

And here, the token video from a young pioneer of the gaming future, breaking down game stickiness into four key dynamics: appointments, influence & status, progression, and communal discovery. Right.

For those in need of some bedside reading, check out Total Engagement, a unique, though admittedly academic, take on the potential for games to revolutionize the modern workplace, drawing on dynamics from wildly successful massively multiplayer online games (MMORPGs) out there.

For the auditory learners, a short radio segment from NPR on top games of 2010.

And lastly, a Wired Magazine article on a game that inadvertently changed a previously-established billion-dollar industry, by changing the behaviors of the players involved. Sound familiar?

So don’t say you weren’t warned, citizens of the world. Happy 2011. And game on.

“This bag is not a toy” – a poem

December 8, 2010

– This Bag is Not a Toy –

This garbage bag has a note
A warning sign of sorts
It tells of danger and reminds us well
That it’s just a bag of course

Its printed twice, down the side
Trying to play on fear
In us the manufacturers confide
that there are dangers looming here

And let me ask, what little girl or boy
that came across this plastic thing
would mistake it for a toy?
(There’s not even a built-in draw-string)

Those special few to which it might look fun
I’d guess are too young to read
So the note is likely for adults
a point I will concede

Still it seems a bit overboard
A waste of ink at best
How ‘bout simply: “Keep away from kids”
And getting rid of the rest?

Just to be clear to those reading on
I’m not against safety
Just think we should pick & choose our words
I’d think most would agree

So I say, it’s silly sign
But just to make a splash
I thought I’d write it all out in rhyme.
Okay, time to take out the trash (seriously)

[Author's note: please excuse the highly unconventional ABCB, ABAB (x3), ABCB (x2), ABAB format]

Mobile Phones and the Self

November 9, 2010

These machines, what a part of us they’ve become!  And whether we like it or not, what gadgets we carry around reflect something about us to the outside world. Similar to how our clothing and grooming do. How the type of music we listen to does. How the type of house-pets we keep do (I keep none, it’s against my building code). Not to say that the viewpoints expressed in this comic are entirely accurate… but hey, decide for yourself.

IPhone vs Android vs Blackberry

"How smartphone users see 2G phone users..."

The New Burden of the Passerby Picture-Taker

May 18, 2009
"She better be taking a nice picture of us!"

"She better be taking a nice picture of us!"

Remember when taking a picture meant a bright flash and several weeks of waiting to see how everyone looked that night?

One of the many allures of digital cameras these days is that their built-in LCD screens allow us to see photos immediately after they are taken. While that feature helps people ensure they get the pictures they want, the instant feedback also has helped turn cameras into portable high-tech mirrors… “Hey everyone, come and see how good I look!

Vanity aside, the most troubling side effect of this “mirror” function is felt by the innocent passersby.  Answering “Sure!” to the age-old question “Can you take a picture of us?” now entails subjecting oneself to a level of artistic criticism from strangers most of us never had to face before the digital camera explosion. No longer is it enough to point and click and smile and walk away. The etiquette has morphed and added the steps of standing and waiting while your composition is critiqued and offering to take another. It’s a whole new level of responsibility for those daring enough to snap a photo for strangers – you cannot just take a picture, you must take a good picture.

It’s an unfortunate case where the burden falls on bystanders rather than those adopters of the technology themselves. So I say stand up for yourself next time your photography skills are enlisted out of the blue! Take the time to either defend your artistic vision or just take a picture and walk away like the good ol’ days.  Or even better yet, experiment with more creative approaches.

Usability Lessons from 007 and the Big Screen

February 10, 2009

James Bond knows the importance of usable products in his line work. In fact all of Hollywood seems to be agreeing to what many of us have known for a while, for both the law-abiding civilians and secret agents everywhere: usability is the new functionality.

Where would our favorite secret agent be without well-designed gadgets?

We’ve all been dazzled over the years by the gadgets and tech that show up in espionage, military, or sci-fi films. Even watching Top Gun for the 50th time last night, I was reminded of how complex the design of fighter plane cock-pits or military control stations really are. But whether or not these technologies that appear in movies are realistic, their appearance in pop-culture regularly set (or challenge) the bar of what seems possible. In the heads of the movie-watching masses, even the most far-fetched ideas can have a powerful effect of shaping expectations for the future.

Consider the historically gadget-filled spy-movie genre. In the past these films have been all about predicting future technologies, where as today they serve more as platforms for showcasing and exaggerating current (or not-so-far-off) products – like in the latest Bond film, Quantum of Solace. In it we see Microsoft’s Surface (a concept more vividly explored in Minority Report), and a super spy phone which has similar capabilities to the actual version it’s based on, the Sony Ericsson C902.

Is this trend occurring because film-makers are losing their imagination? No. Is it related to the financial incentives of showing off products that may soon be on the market? Sure, to an extent. But I think there’s something else going on.

These days with the push of a single button on a mobile device our movie heroes are able to snap photos, call headquarters, shoot laser beams, find directions on how to disarm bombs, beam holograms, and get valet service from auto-piloted cars parked on the other side of town.

The suspension of disbelief we evoke as movies watchers is no longer necessarily focused on what these gadgets can do, but how easy they are to use, how smoothly they integrate into daily life, often in the most life-threatening, time-sensitive, and high stress situations. Seeing this dynamic appearing now in films is reinforcing that this is where the consumer demand has been shifting, and this is where the new challenges lie, where the bar is being set. It is no longer good enough to have digital products and services that have a million features; they must be equally as easy to use – just like in the movies.

It’s still natural to get annoyed with the lack of realism in movie technology. But from a design standpoint, why not view each new set of expectations created with each “unrealistic” movie as a challenge rather than an obstacle?  

Usability isn’t replacing functionality, it’s just now valued in the mainstream. These days we’re more keenly aware of what we are capable of achieving in technology. So the burden is no longer solely on the scientists and engineers to do what was never thought possible, but also on the designers and user researchers to come up with better and more efficient designs.

Besides, could even James Bond do half of what he does if his gadgets weren’t designed to be exceptionally user-friendly?  Well, it’s still the movies. So maybe … but it would definitely be a lot messier.

Remote Simplicity

December 9, 2008

Simple, functional, and light as a feather!

Simple, functional, and light as a feather!

Take a look at this device I found in my hotel room in Scranton, PA, the other week. Chances are it doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen in a while.

What appears to be an ancient artifact from another era is in fact a fully-functional television remote control, complete with five (count ‘em, 5!) buttons: Power, Channel, Volume, Mute, and a Menu/Select/OK grab-bag button.  

So why is it appearing here, immortalized in the blogosphere?

Well, in a world dominated by 3-in-1, 45-button remotes, two things stood out about this one. It did what I needed it to do, and it was refreshingly easy to use. A picture of good design.

(Grandma’s doing well, by the way!)

Factors in the Election

October 30, 2008

Since I recently suspended my own campaign for President of the United States (didn’t have the fund-raising power of some of my opponents), I figured I’d take the time to share some links in the spirit of the political season.  The 2008 US Presidential election is now just days away.  So what better time to remind everyone of the colossal real-world impact that tech design behind something like “voting” can have.  You did know there was an election coming up, didn’t you?



For those who like to read, this is a fantastic and thorough research piece on the history and state of voting issues.

Here’s an article on who to blame for electronic voting machine irregularities, as well as a recent tale of warning from elections in Finland.  Also, if you got a headache from watching any of those debates on TV and didn’t know why, here’s one theory.

And for those “Joe the Plumber” fans still hungry to hear more about him, here’s a community discussion thread on the idea of using his persona in usability and design.

Lastly, if you still don’t know who to vote for, take the Glassbooth Quiz to help you figure it out (claimed to be run by a non-partison, non-profit organization). First you choose the issues that are important to you, then you answer questions about those issues.  Also a great source for just digging up quotes, videos and sound bytes on candidates’ stances on issues that are important to you.  Pretty cool.

Happy voting, and have a great November 4th!


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