Tuesday, 9 September 2014

iPhone 6 and Apple Watch - a quick review

To much fanfare we were tonight introduced to the iPhone 6 and the iWatch, or should I say Apple Watch. We got the features, specs, price and release date for both. So what do we think?

iPhone 6/iPhone 6 Plus

Let's start with the expected. There was such a flurry of pre-release photos, commentary and videos that this wasn't really much of a surprise. Long gone are the days when Apple's iPhone announcements were shrouded in complete secrecy.

We got what we were waiting for. The now standard annual cycle of phone updates. Larger, thinner, lighter and more powerful. No surprises there. The most visible and arguably most important of these updates is the size. Firstly there's two of them. The iPhone 6 is a larger 4.7" device and the iPhone 6 Plus 5.5". The latter of the two firmly plants itself in the "phablet" category, a popular and growing size category in between phones and the proclaimed dying tablet category. This puts Apple in even greater competition with Samsung and it's Galaxy S series. Given Samsung's meteoric success in the last three years this decision should please potential Apple customers and it's shareholders.

There were a couple of unexpected announcements. Firstly Apple have done away with the 32GB version of the phone, made the 64GB the middle option and introduced a new 128GB version at the top end. This will be a crowd pleaser. Secondly Apple made a point of stating that they want to get both iPhone's out as quickly as possible so that they can distribute to as many countries as possible. The result? Pre-orders starting three days after announcement with deliveries to be expected within two weeks (from the 19th September). Another crowd pleaser. 

Thirdly and maybe most importantly is the price of the iPhone 6. The cheapest 16 GB models start at just $199. This is undoubtedly a strategic decision to counter Samsung and other cheaper Android alternatives. With it's superior product Apple could well have hit the nail on the head with this one.

Initial score - 9.5/10

Apple Watch

If the iPhone 6 was a given, the "iWatch" was the one that was both hoped for and expected in equal measure. Samsung and others have made inroads into this virgin territory over the last 12 months. All of which have failed to deliver.

What did we get? Well we got, on the face of it, a beautiful (if not a tad bulky) looking product. Classic Jonny Ive. He's blown the competition out of the water with this one. The Apple Watch comes in different colours and with different colour and texture straps. It comes in two sizes and three versions. Apple Watch; Apple Watch Sport and Apple Watch Edition. 

Yet when you dig in to the details it starts to unravel. I've been sceptical with the smart watch category since it was first mooted. Nothing to do with Samsung or Apple, Sony or Rolex. I just don't think it works. The Apple Watch hasn't redefined my view.

I was interested to see how Apple would deal with the UI. A small screen needs a different approach. Their solution was to use "force touch" and a "digital crown" (the wheel on the side of analogue watches). Not bad. The crown allows users to zoom in to and scroll selections where necessary. The force touch (exactly what it says) allows users to make an additional level of selections where appropriate. This gives scope to new features, which is clever.  

The Apple Watch has some nice features. It has a Taptic engine which causes a small vibration (we have to presume) on the wrist. This is used in a number of instances, the most championed being the prompt to change direction when using the Map app. You can use the watch to control songs, volume, messages, calendar invites and more. Basically all those that are possible with a small screen. It integrates with Siri and on the evidence of third party apps demoed there could be some nice examples of use with airport check-in, health and fitness and the ability to unlock hotel door rooms. Lastly the magnetic charging facility looks good.

But then there's the gimmicks, the pointless. Drawing on the watch face to communicate (will this work with fat fingers?). Receiving someone else's heartbeat as a vibration on your wrist. The ability to change watch face. All these are fine. We'll use them once, then never again, just as I did with my old Samsung S3 features. They add no value to my busy day. But Apple seemed to place quite a lot of importance on them. Which is a concern. 

A further concern, despite it also being a positive, is the integration with Siri! Despite iterative improvements Siri's still not perfect and inconsistent in it's feedback to the user. iOS8 may cure this. 

The Apple iWatch requires the iPhone. But one thing that seems to have been overlooked...is that it requires the iPhone and this is where I question the purpose of a smart watch. Because despite the beauty, the occasional everyday feature (besides it telling you the time) and the 'cool' factor that'll almost certainly be bestowed upon it, it does little to appease the market it's aimed at. 

I believe I represent that target market. A busy, independent, health-conscious individual who possesses an iPhone. I use my iPhone for everything. The screen is large enough for me to call, text, email, browse, snap, tweet, share, listen, watch and play on. The size of the phone is uninhibiting and will remain so whilst my clothes retain pockets. I may not be Gok Wan but I don't believe pockets are dying any time soon. And even if they did will the watch allow me to do everything I listed? No. Not without another device on my person. If I have that other device on my person I'll use that.

Oh and one more thing, it'll cost at least $349. Ouch. And it won't be out until 2015. 

Initial score - 5/10

Technology is evolving. We won't all be using smartphones in 10 years time, maybe not even five. But it won't be watches. Apple are just jumping on a bandwagon they normally build. For cash. 

The most exciting (and some say scary) development out there for me is Google Glass. Thanks Apple but i'll hold out for iGlass/Apple Glass/iLens/whatever.

Monday, 16 June 2014

5 simple steps to User Centred Design (UCD)

More and more, businesses are becoming increasingly clear that effort and resource needs to be directed towards the needs of the user/customer. This might seem obvious, but consider the big brands that went out of business or have had to dramatically transform themselves just to stay afloat. Think Blockbuster, Jessops, Comet, HMV.

A basic wireframe. A powerful UCD tool

I'm not saying if they'd followed this list thousands of jobs would have been saved, or that half of Britain's high streets would still have a sense of dignity and pride rather than resembling the Texan outback. 

But when done in a timely and orderly manner most of this is common sense and, well...who doesn't enjoy a nice list? So here goes...

1. Analyse

Well yeah, duh. But seriously this is so often given lip service and 'completed' haphazardly. Ignoring internal stakeholders to focus purely on users isn't the right way to go about it. Often you'll get interesting nuggets of gold from colleagues who've analysed before, or get valuable anecdotes from the sales teams who are on the frontline. But this is UCD so:
  • Get cross-business expertise together to formulate analytical objectives
  • Conduct usability studies and field research
  • Look at what your competitors are doing (remembering it might not always be right)
  • Set a ground rule - personal opinions do not count! 'Content experts' are not users

2. Document objectives & requirements

This is where you develop a deep understanding of your users needs and wants. Use this information to formulate your objectives. Be sure to consider and include technical constraints and obstacles as well as the things you want. Make sure these blockers are dealt with. Ensure that everyone involved in the project reads and understands the document. You want to avoid one person being the guardian of the requirements who everyone goes to as it breeds laziness and disturbs continuity.

3. Design

Now you can start being creative! It's wise not to rush in here, for reasons that will become apparent in step four. Key activities here include:
  • Brainstorming. Don't dismiss ideas immediately, but ensure they are benchmarked against your insight and objectives
  • Create sketches, wireframes and paper prototypes. The advantage of these are that they are quick and give people an immediate feel for how it might work. There are a number of useful tools out there such as Axure and Balsamiq to help.
  • Overlay design concepts. Useful if you have time, but no need to be detailed
  • Walk your ideas through with stakeholders

4. Assess

No design process centred on the user is complete without an assessment by them. This is why it's important not to over-commit time and resource in step three. If they hate your proposal you'll be miffed you or your team spent two weeks developing it when they could have spent two days.
  • Conduct usability sessions 
  • Record how the user reacts and what they say throughout the session. Morae is a good tool to help with this
  • Adapt your proposal accordingly, creating a final interactive prototype if possible
  • Complete design concepts

5. Build and test

Only now is it safe to build, bringing all the preceding steps together. If you have a final prototype this will go a long way to reducing development time as it negates the need for clarification along the way (although regular progress briefings are good!)

An Agile approach to development is recommended. This works on the basis of short development 'sprints' - normally two weeks each - at the end of which progress is monitored against expectations with opportunities to adapt the work planned for the next sprint if necessary (often external factors come into play and disrupt development which Agile can navigate around).

Finally it goes without saying that ongoing review and testing is a must. Nothing ever stands still. Rather than leaving it for two or three years to repeat this process it's best to plan smaller, more manageable analytical sessions to sense check. This will help you spot potential problems sooner than you would otherwise, the result being less work needed to address the findings.

What you get is evolutionary and that's a user centred approach to design. 

Saturday, 14 June 2014

We're hiring! - User experience jobs in Milton Keynes

Good news, we're hiring! Due to the unprecedented volume of work the Digital team at ICAEW are undertaking we're looking for two people to join our expanding team.

Both roles are based in central Milton Keynes, five minutes walk from the train station. Both roles are 12 month temporary roles with a view to being made permanent. The roles will be advertised throughout June 2014.

Assistant User Experience Manager - c£32k

We're looking for a confident, knowledgeable individual to take responsibility for the delivery of multiple projects, seeing them through from conception to completion. But being a project manager is not enough, the role demands a lot more. We're after someone who's got experience of overseeing web/mobile development projects and is advocate of User Centred Design, someone who can present their ideas with passion and influence others to get behind them.

UX Designer - c£37k

Never before has UX and User Centred Design been such a focus at the ICAEW. As a result of this shift we need an individual to set the standards and guidelines that inspire others around them and can deliver stunning visual results. The successful candidate will be a natural and accomplished mid-weight designer with a portfolio of professional and contemporary work, ideally on responsive sites. This role also supports the Front End Developer and requires someone who is competent with HTML, CSS and Javascript with an exciting opportunity to learn and develop these skills further.

If you're interested, or know anyone who might be, i'd love to hear from you. You can comment here, find me on Linkedin, Tweet me @Thomoad or drop me an email.

Monday, 13 January 2014

The user experience capital of the world is...Bangalore

You would have expected that Silicon Valley, with it's beating technological heart that drives innovation and development across the world, would be the centrepiece of the modern day user experience movement. But not so.

No in fact a quick glance at Google Trends reveals that this honour actually falls to Bangalore, capital of Karantaka state and India's fifth most populous urban region.

Hailed as India's own Silicon Valley Bangalore is itself at the centre of the technology world to the East and, like it's counterpart in California, is home to countless tech start-ups and several IT and communications giants that the Western world outsources to.

A closer look at the figures from Google is even more revealing. It shows that three of the top seven hotspots for user experience searches are in India, the same number as the American west coast, where San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle unsurprisngly feature. On the flip side it also reveals that despite many practices and terms finding their way across the Atlantic to Europe, only London registers any hotspot reading.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

iPhone (iOS) vs Android

Choosing between an iPhone or an Android device remains a big question for conscientious consumers. Recent figures from September 2013 show that Android holds a 55% market share in the UK with the iPhone (iOS) holding 31%.

The mobile is increasingly an extension of the owner, more so than it was last year. Or the year before that, or the year before that, and it will be greater still next year. And as mobile contracts, in the UK at least, tie you down to a minimum of two years your decision needs to be right. 

So what are the pros and cons of each? There's a big online debate out there and being responsible for a user experience team it's a conversation me and my team regularly have. Although on balance my team and others I speak sit firmly in the iPhone camp, over the last two years I have flirted between the iPhone, Android and recently back to the iPhone 5s. Here's why...

The iPhone and the software looks nicer

Like others I witnessed the rise of Android through the Samsung S2 and took the opportunity to try it out with the Samsung S3. At this point I'd had the iPhone, the 3G and the 4. I loved the simplicity of the iPhone (or more specifically the iOS software it runs on) and marvelled at the launch of the app store. It changed the mobile landscape forever. But I got bored of the limitations and Apple's insistence of tying everything you do to their environment. I wanted an escape and I was tempted by the stories of unlimited freedom afforded by Apple's new enemy.

Android, through the S3, delivered. On the first start up it was apparent how much more I could do. 

The first thing is the widgets. Rather than having to load an app each time you want content Andoid offers widgets that pull content from popular apps such as Facebook and Twitter and displays it on your 'home screen'. Likewise you can get weather reports, stock information and set your alarm clock all without needing to go into an app. 

However as these widgets come in varying sizes what you end up doing is creating too many pages on your home screen. So by saving time not loading apps you then take more time flicking between pages finding the content without going into the app. It also spoils the uniformity of design that iOS delivers, although I appreciate this may not be to everyone's tastes. But a uniform design is good practice because it breeds familiarity and this quickly allows you to scan for apps without thinking. The iPhone is much better at this.

In addition the default background to screens when moving around the Android software is black and the colour palette minimal. Altogether this combination does make for a less than pleasant experience when used on as regular a basis as it does on a phone.

My final point is that I found the S3 laggy, it was clunky and far less fluid than iOS, even when the version I was running was upgraded to Jellybean. The iPhone through iOS7 suffers from no such problem and is a pleasure to use. So much so that I find myself using the iPhone more for everyday purposes than I ever did with the S3.

Android offers a lot of flexibility...and a lot of settings to go with it

As I said the flexibility on Android is attractive. You can do more and change more. But herein lies it's problem. I don't for a moment think I got anywhere near as much out of my S3 as I could because I simply couldn't work out how to do it! You get screen after screen of options from the home screen; to the applications manager; to the apps themselves. Ultimately this ends in never quite knowing where to make the right changes. So I gave up trying. I used my S3 a lot, more than average I suspect due to my inquisitive nature, and it was just not easy or fun working it out. 

iOS apps look nicer and are easier to use

The above says all there is to know really. I expected apps from the same company to look the same and work as well from Google Play Store as it did through the App Store. The answer is they didn't. Some were close, some from the Play Store were clearly an after thought and some were downright dreadful. 

A good example is the Trainline. Although now improved from earlier versions it still suffers from an inferior interface and is slower at completing the same simple tasks on. 

Furthermore it's time consuming sorting through the junk that gets uploaded to the uncensored Play Store to find an app of real quality. I found I was downloading, briefly opening and immediately deleting apps at a rate Sebastian Vettel would have been proud of. Should you forget to delete these apps you'll be cursing it within a day or so as your phone grinds to a halt under the pressure from automatically downloaded updates that try and download regardless of whether you are on wi-fi, 3G or a bad signal in the middle of the countryside.

Apps from Apple's App Store abide by stricter standards for both ease of use and design. Yes it means that there is slightly less individuality between apps but it's the familiarity of the same design that makes them so much easier to use.

The Android market is fragmented

Why are the apps on the Play Store a lower quality you may ask? There are likely two reasons. Firstly the Play Store is uncensored, meaning anyone can create an app and get it on to the store with no real hurdles to overcome. Secondly so many different devices with varying technical specifications using Android for their software that it makes it very difficult for professionals like those in my team to deliver the same level of quality on every device. Varying processor speeds, screen sizes and even versions of Android itself make the capabilities of a Samsung S4 different to that of a basic entry level device, but all need to be catered for in one app.

This fragmentation model has made it very easy for Google to become the largest player in the mobile market and should be applauded, if not from a purely business point of view. However the experience the user gets on older or lower spec devices is questionable. 

Siri vs Google Now

The iPhone has always had a unique advantage in Siri. Often a well intentioned but poorly executed afterthought, Apple hit the nail on the head with the accuracy and usefulness of their voice recognition tool, in their case used as a personal assistant. Siri allows you to search the web, compose a text and arrange meetings without the need to touch the screen.

But Google are quickly making up ground and their latest release of the Google search application and Google Now on iOS and Android suggests they might just be on to a winner. Should Google succeed at integrating this properly on Android devices, particularly with the forthcoming release of Google Glass, it will be Apple's turn to step up to the plate and improve.


In conclusion i'm glad I came back to the iPhone. Don't get me wrong Android does have it's advantages, they're just not for me. Like for like the iPhone is just easier to use, better to look at and keeps you hooked for longer. It may not offer the same levels of customisation, but what you can customise is much easier to do. Finally the apps are of a better quality. The whole iPhone experience feels premium - a BMW or Jaguar compared to Android's Ford or Toyota. I've had both and i'm now certain that in future i'll be willing to pay more for the iPhone.