Friday, 28 August 2015

The Challenge of IoT: Multi-UI Design

 This blog was written by one of our digital designers, Morgan Stokes.

Picture that you are a furniture designer and you want to make a chair and a bench. You’ve already designed the chair, can you just stretch the chair to design the bench?

The answer is no! Think of the strain that piece of wood in the middle will have to endure. You have to start again, take elements from the chair and adapt them into the bench to create a design that pleases not only the individuals on the bench, but also the gestalt; you have to consider the interactions to be had between these individuals as a result of this multi-user bench, how you want them to engage and socialise.

Following on from my blog last week on The Challenge of IoT UX: The Future of Digital Design, where I lament over the absence of quality of multi-user design discussion on the interwebs, this week I will be covering what makes good Multi-User Interface (Multi-UI) design.

As a digital designer for digital tables, my job is pivoted on the challenge of designing for multiple people. It might seem intuitive to take the UI design on your mobile and bang it onto a tabletop’s surface, but like the chair/bench analogy on steroids, that is just not possible. The thought of it makes me a little sick. The whole experience would be so individual-centric and isolate all but one person standing around the table, obliterating any hope of collaboration and discussion.

As most of us have developed anxiety around leaving the house without our phone, it is safe to say it is the phone’s interface we are most acquainted with today, and I will use it as a comparator with the multi-user table. I have divided the key differences between Good Multi-UI Design VS Good Solo-UI Design into four categories: (1) User Count, (2) Location Factors, (3) Accessibility and (4) Screen Size & Ergonomics.

(1) User count

The most obvious difference between the two devices: the physical number of people using an app. Phone’s single user screens require single user apps (duh). As we are social animals, we like to share things. Phone apps are very social media heavy and rely on messaging to communicate with friends. We are familiar with this in all our apps; the share functionality down the bottom of our News Apps, favourite websites, in fact all websites. On the flip side, table app design should encourage in-person socialising to deliver a rich social experience, leveraging the multi-user aspect of the table. This could be through having an open drawing canvas with infinitely spawnable menus to accommodate however many users are surrounding a table.

(2) Location Factors

The hardware itself is a hugely significant driver for design. One device is meant to go everywhere, the other is rooted in one specific space. Geo-location allows apps like RunKeeper or Snapchat to offer very specific detailed data customised features for its users. The Age of Context by Scoble & Israel outlines how our personal devices are increasingly able to anticipate our every move as they learn about us. Likewise, a table that is situated in a shopping centre can offer very specific navigation tools, or offer deals for nearby stores, especially as devices become more aware of one another.

(3) Accessibility

The privacy of a mobile versus the privacy offered by a public table is very different. This is especially important to understand because apps which are on your phone might not translate as an app onto the table. You would certainly not want to be banking on a digital table. Similarly, entertainment apps function differently on a shared device. Watching a YouTube video on your phone takes advantage of the single-user nature of the mobile, while a multi-user game will bring people together to create a social form of entertainment on the table.

Phone apps are specifically designed to deal with private micro-tasks, whereas table apps strengths lie in bringing people together to begin discussions. Because of the open accessibility of the table with a chance for a high number of amateur users, apps must be easy to learn (“intuitive”) and immediately understood.

(4) Screen Size & Ergonomics

The most exciting of the difference between these two devices, in my opinion, is the opportunity presented to the UX/UI designer by the sheer size of the screens. Design is the creative exploitation of constraint, and that constraint is especially constrained in the tiny little mobile screen. For the mobile, apps must designed to be used single handed (factoring in portrait or landscape mode) with thumb accessible buttons and simple and manageable navigation tools. A table, on the other hand, has an expansive screen for many hands and endless possibilities. The constraints are somewhat considerably relieved. The complexity of gestures able to be recognised is enormous - imagine whole hand swipes, five finger pinches, TWENTY FINGER APP MITOSIS.

Because of the expansive, horizontal nature of the table, however, apps must also have 360 multi-user usability, with the ability to be rotated, scaled and moved as the user desires. Believe it or not, apps being too far away are often a problem in tabletop UI design. Ways to get around this could include a tap-and-hold feature to bring apps closer to you, or a fist pound in the corner to slant the UI and make the app ‘roll’ toward you.

Redesigning the chair into the bench is the challenge that I try to tackle everyday, but Multi-UI Design is just one challenge presented by the IoT.  The above is just a guide as to what our research at nsquared has revealed, and my goal here is to inspire more discussion around how to make Multi-UI great. If you want, please check out our website or visit one of our social media channels to keep in touch.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

The Challenge of IoT UX: The Future of Digital Design

This blog was written by one of our digital designers, Morgan Stokes.

You start having a conversation with someone and you find yourself talking about how blogging was so 2004, but then you realise that was 7 years ago, and then it turns out that actually blogging is so hot right now. The digital landscape is changing rapidly. We all know this and live it every day. We find ourselves well acquainted with initialled neologisms like “FB” and “TBT”, and depending on your technological inclinations, words like “IFTT”, “IoT” and “UX” somehow slip into your day-to-day repertoire. 

UX (or User Experience) design is not a new concept, and is certainly not limited to digital media. User Experience is about how a person ('user” suggests they are abusive of the system, i.e. drug user) feels when using a designed artefact. You feel something when you use a mug. You pick it up, the porcelain feels soft on your hand and it’s comforting. It feels hot when you have tea in it, too hot! MAKE IT STOP! These are not necessarily conscious critiques of the designed object, but they are thoughts that have (or should have been) considered in the design process.

The recent boom in the discourse about UX has arisen as a result of the digital revolution. The User Interface (or UI) of the digital medium, the visual elements that a person will interact with on the screen, is limitless. Compared to a mug which can only be made out of a fixed number of materials, the digital UI can appear to contain anything you want in the world. You want your app to be a solitary unicorn braying in the breeze? You got it. This is where the discussion about UX becomes critical. Maybe Users don’t realise you have to pat the unicorn three times to get something to happen. The confusion might make people frustrated. The unicorn might make people happy. The feelings that arise as a result of the UI/UX are infinite and, through design, can be infinitely manipulated.

Do you know what this symbol means? In 2008, you probably didn’t. UI/UX Designers have developed a visual language we slowly grow accustomed to as we get more tech savvy (sorry I used the term “tech savvy”). We only take 10 seconds to assess a site, or an app, to make our judgement: do we hate it or do we not hate it? These 10 seconds are critical. If something does not work the way we want it to, we give up and complain to our friends or, worse, we forget about it and never visit the site again.

Our understanding of screens is getting increasingly sophisticated. The process of how to interact with a digital screen is a visual language we are all slowly learning, and most of us are not even aware of it. We immediately recognise the burger menu, the kebab menu, the back arrow, the settings cog with no text caption needed. Our navigation, interaction and entire digital experience has been sharpened to the point that our attention span has dropped from 12 seconds a decade ago to 8 seconds in 2015. That’s shorter than a goldfish’s (at 9 seconds). The danger for brands in this highly sophisticated world is that average UX is bad UX, and design standards are only growing.


This presents quite the pickle for the UX designer of devices beyond the phones, desktops and tablets, to which we have spent years growing accustomed. We are guaranteed a world in the not-too-distant future (by 2020 at the latest), where screens will be an old concept. Surfaces will be how we interact with the digital world. Integrated within other pieces of objects and furniture, this future is referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT). Indeed, the role of the UX designer will be critical in shifting our relationship with technology to make the most out of IoT, to make these advancements manageable, friendly and useful. 

The challenge that the UX designer of 2015 faces is that the visual language of a phone does not necessarily translate to the visual language of a fridge. Both devices have certain capabilities, one will perform a task better than the other and vice versa. It is one thing to learn to double tap your phones home screen button to show open apps, it is another to learn to give your fridge a five-finger pinch to give you ice. 

The Digital Table

My job is as a digital designer for digital tables. 

Think about the tables in your life. The table is a unique, horizontal meeting spot, designed for any amount of people and for various personal and collaborative tasks. You can come at it’s surface from any angle, so unlike a phone or a computer, tables have no orientation. Tables are for leaning, work sprawls, food sprawls, chortling, chatting, sitting. Sitting at a table with a friend, while they are on their phone, automatically takes them out of the conversation. Personal devices break the social contract. The surface of the table is already a collaborative tool. As our tech savviness only increases, the digitisation of the table as a multi-user device makes sense.

A search for multi-user, multi-touch software design yields negligible quality results. This blog is aimed at helping people understand the challenges of UX design for the future, and also to help others to design for engaging multi-user, 360 degree usability based on our research at nsquared.

As technology advances, our digital user experience is constantly improving. To tackle this challenge, UX designers require innovation, creativity and a keen understanding of human behaviour.

My blog next week will be on what makes a successful tabletop app; a device that is horizontal, static and multi-user.