james kinney
Professor, Centre for Art, Design and Informatics

Navigating the Expanding frontier of a Shrinking World: Too many apps and too little time.

What work, if any, are you aware of that is being done to build intelligence into guiding users to and through the use of appropriate software products and production pathways?

Here is a pre-amble to provide some context for reflection and response:

There is a strange tension that characterizes the emerging applications ecosystem that bears curious hints of Lewis Carrol's Alice: As things get smaller the world gets bigger! With the advent of mobile, pad devices and the app store phenomenon there has been a trend that has effectively atomized product offerings that range from the sublime to the ridiculous (the latter seem to be doing a brisk business). This move away from “fat boy” apps that do everything under the sun to a widget with a streamlined and focused set of functions results in an ever-expanding and daunting universe of choice that is akin to walking through the doors of Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory with a Golden Ticket in your hand!

The creation, hosting, distribution, consumption and presentation of content has also been profoundly affected—subjected to a form of digital origami that can crunch more, richer content into those cute little app icons that one downloads with the tap of a finger. Authoring systems like Adobe's Digital Publishing Suite or Apple's iBooks Author are capable of stuffing such a surfeit of engaging and dynamic content into one seemingly simple little app icon that it puts Doctor Who's Tardis to shame! To say that this is represents a media revolution is understatement. Content media has undergone a functional and spatial transformation akin to making a quantum leap from cave art to the codex.

The corollary; however, is that with over a million apps (and growing) up for grabs it begs the question: “Where does one begin?” The choices are daunting to the point of making one balk at the spectre of choosing the right apps. Aggressive and accessible pricing, however, makes the spectre of getting it wrong relatively consequence free and, so, app purchases are, for the most part, like shopping for toys at the dollar store: you never know what you are going to find, there may be something useful and, yet, its ok if it ends up as digital landfill. The app, then, has emerged as the functional equivalent of a curio. This is changing, however, as more serious applications hit the market that port or reinvent functionalities from their fatter predecessors. As the product ecosystem continues to expand it will be increasingly important that marketing and design departments work closely with their development teams to build User Experience (UX) architecture into their distribution hubs that can intelligently guide consumers to appropriate clusters of tools or content and to ensure that the consumer has the right tools for the job and that they don't end up becoming the digital equivalent of newbie outdoorsman on an equipment buying spree at the local outdoor outfitters. Building job-specific or content-specific intelligence gathering mechanisms in their app stores and in-app vehicles will go a long way in building consumer confidence in the overarching brand.

Adobe’s use of the Periodic Table metaphor is a good start on creating a cohesive visual synthesis of related products and Adobe's knowledge-base and user groups are second-to-none in providing user supports; however, there seem to be murky areas where there is significant overlap in functionality. Their new cloud service alleviates the concern for overkill. For a reasonable monthly fee you are kitted out with a creative arsenal that would make Arnie Schwartzeneger green with envy! However, there is still much to be done in terms of automating a good portion of decision making with respect to which tools and workflows one should use for a particular type of work and the Adobe's of the world would bring significant value to the customer experience by building highly visual portals that can query consumer intents and make suitable suggestions.  This may seem too limited and paternalistic for the cowboy coder, yet, even a seasoned user, can be overwhelmed by the ever-expanding array of tools and technologies.

I must admit that in my own attempt to lead a transformation of our design department that will deeply integrate digital mobile workflows I have been stymied by the task of trying to make sense of which workflows and toolsets make the most sense for particular contexts and making recommendations on particular technologies seems an intractable puzzle at times. I may seem rather untutored to some of my technologically erudite colleagues and I have been informed by many that there is no “right” way of doing things. It seemed to me  that the nuances of each project required the aplomb of a Pebble Beach caddy in order to select the “right club” for the task at hand.

The deep and latent process knowledge and protocols that many experts take for granted is inaccessible to the neophyte and there is no reason why there should not be some sort of pre-application interface that could ascertain the “WHAT” of your project and then present you with a number of scenarios for the “HOW” that would include workflows and tools.”

Imagine then, from a User Experience perspective, if all of our various expertise were to be explicitly rendered in a database that linked to a rich graphical front end, say, the very colourful Adobe Table of Elements. Imagine after answering a few prompts that branched down didactic rabbit holes of possibilities, the table of contents “LIT UP” like the letter board on Jeopardy, revealing a stellar constellation to those desperately seeking their bearings! Imagine the pathways to production glowing in front of you, lighting your way from beginning to end and all that remained was to click on it and the appropriate app would download. While Adobe's cloud application manager handles the downloading in this fashion it needs to invest some design capital in "lighting the way" as it were.

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Nancy Parker

Posted on 7/27/12 5:36:34 PM Permalink

Very well stated. Each individual needs to have a way to get the type of guidance or assistance that appeals to the individual. There are times that I go to a user forum to seek assistance and search for information to help me. I always get help but sometimes I read through very complex dialogue of the experts and end up saying, "what does that mean." It is like reading another language. If there were a way to ask a question and check a box that states the level of expertise the user needs, it may help. In addition, the step-by-step guidance could also be geared to the level of the user such as basic, general, advanced, power-user or developer. I remember when I would purchase books to learn and would read the same content over and over and scan to find that one little tip that I need. I am better able to search for answers on the net but there are times when the content that I need is equally difficult to find.

In addition, I must admit that I often go to the forums and browse the discussions of the developers and actually learn. It really feels great when I am able to develop skills from the experts. Some actually explain things so that the non-developer understand.

james kinney

Posted on 8/21/12 4:03:41 PM Permalink

Thanks for your comments Nancy. I agree that these sorts of communities can be both a bane and a boon. I suppose that there is no substitute for thorough research; however, in this age of instantaneity we are culturally conditioned for accuracy, immediacy and reliability in the services that we seek—HELP being no exception! When I have a need it is often a pressing need that needs guidance and answers straight away and the social hubs and user groups play a significant role, to be sure. It would still be comforting to know that prior to choosing the tools and the workflows (before the problem arises) that you have been adequately prepared by having credible solutions suggested to you. I can't tell you how many Apps I have downloaded that purport to do one or another thing only to find out that they weren't really suited for the task that I had envisioned. This leads to a poor customer relationship. Granted, the loss of $4.00 doesn't represent a catastrophe but I walk away from the experience feeling duped. A trusted brand such as Adobe's has built its reputation on providing value for money whereas many of the Apps in the App universe are all about getting first to market with something, anything and then cashing in quickly. Adobe can leverage its brand trust to provide hinting algorithms that would suggest "best fits" for users with links to key learning resources, layed out in a visual pathway with clickable links to video, etc. in order to mitigate the arduous process of searching, reading, discussing in order to get to where you need to go.