It’s long been rumoured that iOS 7 would bring about a shift in Apple’s design philosophy and with the keynote of this year’s World Wide Developers conference not only did we get to see the new user interface but within hours developers were able to download the first beta version and naturally I grabbed a copy immediately on release. The install was painless, a simple IPSW restore via iTunes though this version does feel very much like a beta having experienced more than a dozen crashes already within the first couple of hours (mainly with multitasking).
Having spent a little time with iOS7 I would say that visually it’s different enough to keep interest in the platform going, it may not be revolutionary but it certainly feels a lot more modern than iOS6 which somehow seemed old fairly soon after launch with the successive releases of Jellybean and Windows Phone 8. Putting aside the shiny-shiny UI changes the largest and most important steps are those that improve usability, making it easier to get to controls and settings and adding to Siri’s repertoire. There are some minor bugbears that jump out at me immediately too such as Calendar’s monthly view which no longer highlights busy days and Mail still throwing an error per-mailbox at you when it can’t connect when the reality is that your internet connection is down, I’m sure there will be more over the next few weeks as I use iOS7 on a daily basis as well. Now, on to the main features…
Death of a Thousand Flashlight Apps
Despite the inevitable focus on the UI changes iOS7 does bring about a number of new features, some might argue several are overdue however there’s a good level of innovation in there and even where Apple have ‘taken inspiration’ from others they’ve generally done it quite well. The highlights are…
Control Centre – swipe up from the bottom on any screen (including the lock screen) to see a new ‘quick settings’ screen providing access to music controls, screen brightness, wifi, bluetooth, torch, clock, calculators and the camera. You’ll notice that like much of iOS7 the translucent background creates quite a different feel depending on then wallpaper you’re using, in one example I’ve used a photo of myself whilst the other is the stock (animated) background.
Notification Centre – an updated UI matching the rest of iOS7 but with instant access from the lock screen to today’s calendar, missed calls/messages and the remainder of your notifications.
Multitasking - a new full-screen preview (looking suspiciously like WebOS) enables you flip between apps easily and ‘flick away’ apps to terminate them (Android anyone?).
Camera & Photos – a simplified interface allows users to swipe between Video, Photo, Square and Pano (yes, really – ‘square’ is now a picture type). Additionally, photos are now automatically organised into collections and grouped by year with small thumbnails…
Safari - possibly the largest (and most overdue) collection of improvements with the clutter and chrome gone entirely leaving substantially more space for content, the URL bar and search box are finally combined and coverflow is now being employed for changing tabs.
Siri - now includes Wikipedia & Twitter content and provides access to settings (e.g. brightness, Bluetooth)
General Look and Feel – I’ve spoken of the simplicity above, here’s a few screenshots to illustrate the new design ethos…
There are other features I’m yet to play with like iTunes Radio (not available in the UK yet), Airdrop file transfers, audio-only Facetime calls, turn-by-turn walking directions, etc. Apple also promises to be friendlier for business (which essentially means sysadmins), including data protection, license management, Mobile Device Management, wireless app configuration, enterprise single sign-on support – it will be interesting to see how useful the features are in practice.
Despite the fact that the last event seems like only a few months ago it’s nearly time again for Mobile World Congress, as usual there are a raft of competitions around offering tickets to lucky entrants so I thought I’d collate the ones I’ve come across here.
For anyone unfamiliar with MWC, it’s an annual coming together of the entire mobile industry from network operators (MNOs), manufacturers such as Samsung, LG, Nokia, HTC, software and services companies like Google, and a whole host of companies making apps, accessories, etc. Having been once (see my MWC Impressions post), it’s quite an experience and well worth going if you can make it.
Anyway, on to the list – if you spot any I’ve missed please leave a comment and I’ll bump it up into the post.
- Appscend (you have to build an app with them to enter)
- TechWeekEurope (sign up to newsletter)
- Mobile Monday London (send in a reason why you should win!)
- Developer Garden (just a tweet)
- Click Software
It’s not always obvious when the open/closed dates are so I apologise if any of the above are no longer valid, please leave a comment if you find that to be the case and I’ll remove the link.
I started the day at the App Planet exhibition in Hall 7 and whilst one or two of the stands were still busy setting up I started at RIM where they were demonstrating NFC and streaming media from Blackberry to PS3. I found the Blackberry guys to be typically bullish (always a little more so than you might expect) and their offering was quite slick but overall they lacked a ‘message’, especially when compared to their closes rival in the smartphone space: Nokia.
Having kept everything under wraps until after the press conference had finished Nokia really had something to show and the message loud and clear was: “we’re doing lots of crazy cool stuff”. Innovation was a strong theme including high-definition call quality, nano-technology and indoor positioning as well as the superb tie-up with Dolby for digital audio and the frankly incredible 808 PureView boasting so many features you have to double-take when you find out that it’s a Symbian phone. It was definitely good to see them back on form and if the enthusiasm of the staff is anything to go by thing are looking up and seriously, it’s gotta be hard to stay chirpy in a blue Where’s Wally outfit.
One interesting technology I saw was Clic2C, a print watermarking method that gives QR-code like functionality but without the ugly QR code despised by magazine layout artists the world over. Most impressive was the fact that it can work in newspapers which typically have a low dpi. The best individual app I saw was probably Runtastic, a fitness tracking app due to launch imminently which is available with a heard rate strap and receiver for around €60. Another app launching soon is Voice Over IP service Voxtrot, free of charge from handset to handset with PSTN calling coming later their USP compared to Skype is set to be call quality and address-book integration – interesting if it lives up to the spin.
I had an interesting chat with a guy from haptics company Immersion, if you’ve never heard of them you may still have used one of their products – they’re responsible for that little buzz when you press the on-screen keys on your phone. Their idea is to provide a sense of physical action when interacting with touch screen devices and some of the uses demonstrated were quite compelling though hard to explain in writing. The advances are being made in terms of response times, sensitivity (very soft to quite aggressive) and resolution (i.e. how close to your finger does the effect feel), this is great news for gaming though I am convinced that all kinds of apps can benefit from improved and varied user feedback mechanisms.
Down in Hall 1 things were much more carrier oriented With LTE testing gear and a phenomenal focus on small cell and femtocell technologies. One unexpected highlight of the day was SpareOne, an emergency phone that can be powered by a single AA battery with a reported standby time of 15 years (basically, the life of the battery) and a talk time of three hours on a single cell. Sure, it has niche uses and isn’t going to be supplanting the major handset manufacturers but it has the potential to make a massive impact on the niche it serves and will no doubt save hundreds of lives. Also down in Hall 1 were Opera, touting their Opera Mini browser – a great alternative to the stock Android browser and with the benefit that their proxy technology saves on bandwidth and makes content load considerably faster than other browsers.
Back to handsets, HTC were hanging with the carrier-grade boys but had a good showing with their new HTC One lineup and whilst I’d be hard pushed to explain the differences between the V, the S and the X some of the features in the range were impressive. As a photographer the burst mode shooting caught my eye, allowing you to take 5 photos per second which will be great for taking photos of moving subjects – parents taking photos of kids will definitely appreciate that as kids and animals rarely stay still. The Beats Audio addition is interesting and it adds a bit more “welly” but under the hood I’m not sure it’s anything more clever than the “BASS” button you used to get on old portable tape decks.
Well, that’s the bulk of my floor-walking for the day – time for a bite to eat and some shut-eye to prepare for tomorrow’s sights.
Everyone knows the key mantra for designing mobile web sites – “keep it simple” but there are some tips and tricks that will help to create a great user experience for mobile visitors…
- Capture mobile users from the full site – if your full site isn’t rendering well on mobile devices how are people going to find the link to your mobile site? Put in place a redirect to a mobile optimised layout though it’s worth remembering that redirects could also be annoying to users that wanted to see your main site so…
- Provide a link back to your full site – this could be in the footer or as a landing page but in some cases the user may be trying to achieve something not possible on a slimmed-down mobile site or they may be on a tablet that is incorrectly being recognised as a mobile device.
- Consider multiple mobile layouts - you could have a theme that optimises content specifically for iPhone and Android, leaving the other mobile users with a plainer but still small-screen optimised site. Figure out what your audience is likely to be using and target that but don’t forget to tweak and customise the site after you’ve gone live based on the type of devices your users are actually using which will change over time.
- Use appropriate input types – if you are asking the user to provide email address or usernames via a form it can be difficult for them to enter correctly if autocomplete is turned on, similarly it would be better to provide the numeric keypad if you are asking for a telephone number and you usually would not want . You can provide this functionality with a mix of the <input> tag and the autocapitalize property, there are a whole host of other possibilities including length checking and regular expressions but bear in mind not every device will respect these features.
- Avoid scrolling – pagination vs. scrolling has long been a debate in web design circles but if you want to provide your users with a more ‘app-like’ experience the key elements to your site should fit adequately on the page without the need for scrolling. This may not apply to content but if the user is being asked to follow through a process or provide a series of inputs it will be much clearer to the user what they have to do if it fits on one page, equally…
- Avoid clutter – if you have pages with little content it may be worth ensuring that any non-essential (but for whatever reason required) footer information sits below the bottom of the screen to avoid clutter, at the very least you should consider a little trailing white space followed by a dividing line to clearly separate the content from the footer.
- Consider the user’s goal – you might be falling over yourself to provide content or services to your mobile users but is that what they really want? Consider whether or not the user might have other goals in visiting your site and show how they can be achieved, even if that is not via your mobile site. For example, it may be helpful to include a ‘contact us’ or a telephone/email link on at least the first page if not every page.
- Don’t be annoying – it’s the little things that tend to irritate users and on a mobile device this is magnified since they are already compromising on screen size and input capability. For example, pre-fillling forms with help text may mean that the user is going to have to delete that text to enter their own – irritating enough on a desktop and even more so on a mobile device.
- Device testing is essential – there are dozens of emulators and simulators for mobile devices but nothing will ever match testing on devices, it is very tempting as a developer to test primarily on a desktop but it really isn’t the same as holding a small device at arm’s length and using a tiny keyboard to provide input. During your testing phase have someone with a very critical eye run through your site to check for any minor irritations, make sure to tell them to be ruthless in their criticism.
I hope that provides some useful information to those of you starting out with the mobile web and of course, much of this is up for debate so do get in touch if you disagree or have content to add. The list is not intended to be exhaustive and over the next few months I’ll add posts on testing and more technical aspects of the process.
I recently attended the Over The Air mobile conference at Bletchley Park (please donate), the event was free to attend and very well organised with plenty of free food and drink as a bonus. My focus for the conference was the mobile web and I’ve compiled links to topics mentioned in presentations I attended in that area, they’re well worth a look so I thought I’d share them here…
Responsive Web Design
- Responsive Web Design Article
- Pragmatic Responsive Design
- Responsive Images code on github
- Presentation on Media Queries
- Good presentation by Opera guy
- Using the viewport meta tag to control layout on mobile browsers
- YSlow Firefox Extension – shows why pages load slowly
- Full Opera Mobile Web Optimization Guide
- Making an iPad HTML5 App and Making it Really Fast
Some W3C links…
- Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0
- Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
- Relationship between MWBP and WCAG
Recently I’ve been working more in the smartphone world than in BI and SQL although for the time being at least I’ll be doing a bit of both so you’ll probably see more mobile app related posts in the feed. In order to provide some degree of separation I’ve created a Mobile User Interface Blog at usabl.net which contains links and screenshots of interesting designs, though any longer more technical articles will still appear here.
If you’re wondering what the crossover is between mobile apps and Business Intelligence it’s all about the user experience, in BI you generally aim to give people the information they need as quickly and efficiently as possible not necessarily in terms of software performance but in report design. I’m not the only one that’s thinking along these lines, Jen Stirrup gave an interesting talk on Data Visualisation at the inaugural SQLHerts meeting and if you’re interested in either topic you’ll most likely be able to catch both of us at the next meeting on July 28th at the University of Hertfordshire (register here).