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Screen-based Thinking: Let’s Make an App!

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In this excerpt from The Best Interface Is No Interface: The simple path to brilliant technology, Golden Krishna takes a second look at today’s screen-obsessed world—how we got here, why we’re still here, why this awful trend is so awful, and how people are moving beyond screens and breaking off their love affair with mundane apps.
This chapter is from the book

Somewhere, at some point in time, we fell in love.

I really don’t know when. Like all relationships, it seemed to happen in the blink of an eye—from the blur of whatever we were doing before, to a passionate, unquestioning love for the modern, handsome, beautiful interface of the moment: apps.

Maybe it was these gently whispered sweet nothings from all the way back in 2009:

“What’s great about the iPhone is that if you want to check snow conditions on the mountain, there’s an app for that.”1

Forget that the National Ski & Snowboard Retailers Association reported that only 2.6 percent of Americans actually downhill ski—or that they did so only about eight days a year2 when these nothings were first whispered.3 When we heard that siren song, nothing else mattered. Love and reason? Well, they’re like oil and vinegar.

The commercial continued. Our pulses quickened. “And if you want to check where exactly you parked the car . . .”

Don’t tease me. We all know how to end that phrase. Six beautiful trademarked words that may have unintentionally fenced in this generation’s limitations on technological creativity.

There’s an app for that.™

Forget that 780 million4 people in the world, give or take, don’t have access to clean drinking water, or that more than half a million people5 are homeless in the wealthy United States. We moved way past “mundane” social issues and collectively propelled the technology field—where disruption and innovation has a proven track record of changing everyday lives—to giving the world what it really needs: more mobile apps.

But not ideal, meaningful, invisible apps running quietly and efficiently on your smartphone, smartwatch, or tablet (which we will cover later in this book). Instead, shallow, skin-deep apps that seductively offer the life-affirming, itch-scratching swipes and two-finger pinches that the world needs, wants, and craves.

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is 99 cents to download.

Name a news source. Odds are they have a recent article, column, or perhaps an entire section devoted to swooning over the latest apps. It may be because reporters want to showcase that they’re hip—yeah, we know apps—but it’s probably because they’re also love drunk with touchscreen oxytocin.6

An app, just by being an app, doesn’t guarantee that it produces anything of merit to anyone anywhere, but please—shh!—we must defend our loved one’s honor. An app’s creation is told as a gospel of wonder and miracle: we’re blessed that someone wrote working code that somehow illuminated the dark, mythical path to Apple or Google’s app catalog.

The New York Times featured an “App of the Week,” and had a recurring “App Smart Extra”7 column with heart-throbbing titles like “A Weather App That Works.”8 It works!? What glorious times with our love.

And during the financial crisis, the New York Times featured a Bloomberg app as “App of the Week”9 because it revealed “basic stock market data.” What? Extraordinary!

Perhaps you, too, poured a glass of Chablis and cued up Norah Jones to set the mood as you reread the touching USA Today piece, “5 New Apps That Will Change Your Life.”10 My heart melts at that opening line: “Apps, apps, and more apps . . . truly life changing.”

Or maybe you’re thinking, “Oh, I’ll just turn on talking head CNN and forget about my app muse.” Think again, my friend. Here are real CNN headlines.11

  • Stuck in snow?
  • There’s an app for that.12
  • Moody?
  • There’s an app for that.13
  • Staying safe in danger zones?
  • There’s an app for that.14
  • Remote sex?
  • There’s an app for that.15
  • No TP?
  • There’s an app for that.16
  • Need to pray?
  • There’s an app for that.17
  • Sending top secret information?
  • There’s an app for that.18
  • Need a concierge?
  • There’s an app for that.19
  • On a health kick?
  • There’s an app for that.20
  • Ordination on the go?
  • There’s an app for that.21
  • Want to know how attractive you are?
  • There’s an app for that.22
  • Save the whales?
  • There’s an app for that.23
  • Dead?
  • There’s an app for that.24
  • Being arrested?
  • There’s an app for that.25
  • Are you sick?
  • There’s an app for that.26
  • New Year’s Eve?
  • There’s an app for that.27
  • Sting’s career?
  • There’s an app for that.28
  • Stalking?
  • There’s an app for that.29
  • Want to be a priest?
  • There’s an app for that.30
  • Can’t sleep?
  • There’s an app for that.31
  • Wedding plans?
  • There’s an app for that.32
  • Passover?
  • There’s an app for that.33
  • Heart attack?
  • There’s an app for that.34
  • Need a college?
  • There’s an app for that.35
  • Giving birth?
  • There’s an app for that.36
  • Home security?
  • There’s an app for that.37
  • Want to save cash?
  • There’s an app for that.38
  • World Cup?
  • There’s an app for that.39
  • Cooking dinner?
  • There’s an app for that.40
  • Britney Spears?
  • There’s an app for that.41

Whether you’re out of toilet paper, trying to stalk someone, or are actually dead, well, “There’s an app for that.”™

Justin Bieber. One Direction. God. According to Google Trends,42 none has been as popular a search term as “app.”

Not surprisingly, almost every major automotive company has been working on apps for smartphones. Who wouldn’t want in on the love affair? And an industry that has been working on the same four-wheeled concept for over 120 years43 could always use some refreshing. Some of the apps touted in press releases and blogs have the ability to unlock your car doors.

“My BMW remote app unlocks car doors, starts the AC, and more!”

This begs the question: How do you make a better car key?

Most of these automotive door-opening apps work similarly, so for the sake of demonstration, let’s see how amazing it was to actually use the BMW app on an iPhone when a recent version of Apple’s mobile operating system was launched. In Apple’s words, this is “the world’s most advanced mobile OS. In its most advanced form.”

009fig01.jpg

1. Walk up to my car.

I walk toward my car, and want to open my car door.

009fig02.jpg

2. Pull out my smartphone.

I want to open my car door. So, I reach into my pocket and carefully pull out my smartphone because I definitely don’t want to drop something made of glass and thin metal onto a cement parking lot.

010fig01.jpg

Click to view larger image

3. Wake up my phone.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone and, almost unconsciously, I regrip my smartphone to “wake up” my phone by pressing and clicking in the main button.

010fig02.jpg

4. Unlock my phone.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone and hit the circular Home button at the bottom of my phone for the fingerprint reader to unlock my phone.

011fig01.jpg

5. Exit my last opened app.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone, I see my last opened application, and I hit the Home button to exit the application. (Hopefully I don’t get distracted by my Twitter stream. Speaking of, did you see the new pictures of the royal baby? He’s growing up so fast! I’m sorry, what are we doing here?)

011fig02.jpg

6. Exit my last opened group.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone, I see the group of applications that my last opened application was categorized under, and I press the Home button to exit the group view.

012fig01.jpg

Click to view larger image

7. Swipe through a sea of icons, searching for the app.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone and see the Home screen. I swipe right-to-left across the screen through a sea of icons, scanning their logos and the tiny type underneath, trying to find the app.

013fig01.jpg

8. Tap the app icon.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone and tap the app icon to open the car app.

014fig01.jpg
015fig01.jpg
016fig01.jpg

9. Wait for the app to load and try to find the unlock action.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone and see a beautiful map of North America.

016fig02.jpg

Click to view larger image

10. Make a guess with the menu and tap Control.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone. I’ve got a lot of choices. I cross my fingers and tap the Control tab option at the bottom.

017fig01.jpg

11. Tap the Unlock button.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone, and I see more choices. A button right at the top of the list says Locking/Unlocking. I tap that.

017fig02.jpg

12. Slide the slider to unlock.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone, and a two-way slider pops up with a lock icon to the left and an unlock icon to the right. I slide the slider to the right because (for those not paying attention) I want to open my car door.

018fig01.jpg

13. Physically open the car door.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone, and it says, “Data transfer successful.” Not totally sure what that means, but I think that did it . . . Heaven, I’m in heaven! My heart beats so that I can hardly speak . . .44 Yes, my doors are now unlocked, and I can open my car doors!

Wait, thirteen steps? What happened here?

There was me, walking up to my car.

And there was my goal: to open my car door.

(This isn’t complicated.)

1. Walk up to my car.______________________________________ Me
2. Pull out my smartphone.
3. Wake up my phone.
4. Unlock my phone.
5. Exit my last opened app.
6. Exit my last opened group.
7. Swipe through a sea of icons, searching for the app.
8. Tap the app icon.
9. Wait for the app to load and try to find the unlock action.
10. Make a guess with the menu and tap Control.
11. Tap the Unlock button.
12. Slide the slider to unlock.
13. Physically open the car door._______________________________ My goal

Then, there were all the steps I had to do with the app’s digital interface:

I had a goal, and to accomplish it, I had to use a screen. And thanks to the app, it only took me over a dozen steps to unlock my car doors.

Has our love deceived us? Is this app an improvement on the car key? Sit down and steel yourself. The answer, my friend, is no.

I know. It ain’t easy, giving up your heart.

Say, instead, we applied the first principle of the best interface is no interface, entirely avoided using a screen, and embraced our typical processes. After all, as Edward Tufte once said, “Overload, clutter, and confusion are not attributes of information, they are failures of design.”45

If we eliminate the graphical user interface, we’re left with only two steps:

  1. A driver approaches her car.
  2. She opens her car door.

Anything beyond these two steps should be frowned upon.

Seem crazy? Well, more than a decade before that thirteen-step app was released, and before we were seduced by screen-based infatuation, the situation was solved by Siemens,46 and first used by Mercedes-Benz.

Here’s how their solution works: When you grab the car door handle (a logical part of opening a car door), the car sends out a low frequency radio signal to see if your keys are in close proximity—say, in your pocket or in your purse—and if they are, the doors unlock instantaneously, without any additional work.

An improvement on the car key? Yes.

Some people have said to me, “Come on man, this is our love. What about when we’ve locked our keys in the car? That’s when we need the app.”

Don’t let your emotions blind you: The car can sense where the keys are, so the doors won’t lock if your keys are inside. And the trunk? It won’t even close if the keys are in the trunk. In other words, you could never lock your keys in the car.

By reframing the design context from a digital screen to our natural course of actions, Siemens created an incredibly intuitive and wonderfully elegant car entry solution for Mercedes. (If this sounds familiar and you don’t own a Mercedes, that’s because their solution was adopted by other automotive companies.)

Is the Siemens system an improvement on the key?

Duh. Embracing a typical process means you can do what you normally do. Avoiding a digital interface means you don’t waste time learning, troubleshooting, and using a screen you don’t need to be using anyway. That’s good design thinking, especially when designing around common tasks.

And that’s what this book is about:

The best interface is no interface.

This book is about taking a second look at today’s screen-obsessed world—how we got here, why we’re still here, why this awful trend is so awful, and how people are moving beyond screens and breaking off their love affair with mundane apps.

This book isn’t a rant. It’s filled with ideas for entrepreneurs, startups, designers, engineers, gadget-lovers, and people who are just interested in technology. It shows a new way to think about the future of tech, and how to fall in love with something more alluring than a weather app.

The topics covered here are relevant to you and society. Yes, my message may turn heady, but this isn’t a textbook. It’s like a bar conversation between friends about a simple path to brilliant technology.

Bottoms up.

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