Handheld Conf. 2012

Last week I attended the Handheld Conference 2012 that was organised by Craig Lockwood.

It being my very first technical conference, I was rather looking forward to meeting some of the people that work in this industry and learning about issues that are pertinent to the industry at the moment.

The event was organised very well by Craig and his team and the room was fully packed.

So, onto the event.

The overriding theme that I got from the conference is that design is important.

More than ever before people are appreciating the design of things and this goes much deeper than having an aesthetically pleasing product. Regardless if the product in question is one that addresses a simple or complex set of problems, the design of it should create the least amount of friction possible for the customer.

A wonderful example of this was presented by Aral Balkan. He showed us some of the wonderfully whacky designs that he’s come across for train ticketing systems on his travels. One of the most bizarre being in San Francisco, where you have to find the station you wish to travel to, look up the cost of the ticket and then after you’ve inserted your couple of dollars for the ticket, subtract from the sum in decrements of 5c until you reach the correct amount. That is simply insane. He went on to show us a modern design which he came across in Norway, which he used to get from the city to the airport. This ticketing system involved nothing more than swiping your credit card through a terminal and walking onto a train. Then at the airport once you get off the train, you swipe your card again and your transaction is complete.

The least amount of friction possible.

And here is a key to the above insane design. The San Francisco design is old. It may have been a great way to deal with the problem when it was initially designed, but times have changed. Designs and ideas change with time. They change as society better understands the problems it’s trying to solve or the tools available to them evolve. The Norwegian design is modern. It takes onboard the fact that nearly every person that will be using the service, will have a credit card. It took on the friction of dealing with the banks - because of the compromise in security, due to the lack of having to enter a PIN code - onto itself and left their users just with a solution. As Aral said, great design is about saying “No. No, no, no, no, no.” and saying that may be painful, but it should be you that takes on that pain and not your end customer.

There was also a wonderful nugget of wisdom that came from Robert Lo Bue that was centred around localisation of content, but one which I think has further reaching implications: don’t use colloquialisms. Rob’s advice was aimed more at the content that your product may be displaying, but I think it also has merit when taking into account more general design decisions, such as the UI. If you’re designing an app that you wish to sell to the various western markets, it is bad design to use language colloquialisms in your content copy - such as “bite the bullet” to mean “just do it” - as those meanings may not transfer to different cultures, but it is even worse not adhering to de facto standards of shapes and colours when you’re designing the UI. The “Start” button, it should not have a red background with a white stripe going through it. That’s a de facto standard in the western society for “Stop”. It confuses people and people that are confused are a lot more likely to not use your product again and look for an alternative instead.

Design is far reaching and its meaning plenty. It can be about having your infrastructure being responsive to meet your needs as breaking news happen, much like what Lee Armstrong had mentioned in his talk. Their hardware is setup to scale. When the Eyjafjallaj√∂kull erupted in 2010, their app received lots of activity. People were simply checking that planes weren’t flying. If their infrastructure wasn’t designed to scale with the increased demand, people would’ve been left with timeout messages. That’s not a great user experience. That’s not good design.

Design is about thinking ahead, planning, problem solving. That’s the main thing that I took away from this conference. And although it is early days, I think it’s safe to say that I will be going back to Cardiff for Handheld 2013.