The future user experience

Harvey Hubbell, inventor of the electric plug

When you fly into San Francisco at night, you see a brilliant mosaic of sparkling electric lights stretching for hundreds of miles from the Pacific Ocean to Yosemite.

Whenever I see a sight like this, I think of a man named Harvey Hubbell.

Harvey Hubbell was a Connecticut inventor who made it possible for us to easily use electricity. He was walking in New York City about 150 years ago when he came upon a penny arcade which was just closing for the day. The arcade included an electrically operated game where two boxers, who traveled along slots in the floor of a miniature boxing ring, threw right or left uppercuts at each other with the touch of a button.  Harvey watched through the window as the janitor struggled to detach each of the power supply wires from separate post terminals extending outward from the wall, so he could move the big game to the side and sweep under it. Then the janitor sweated even harder to identify each wire and its proper terminal post, make the reconnections, and check each terminal so there wouldn’t be any short circuits. At that moment, Harvey had a flash of insight.

He saw a product with individual wires that would be permanently attached in the right sequence and correct  polarity, which could be easily and safely connected or disconnected. In other words, plugged in or out. Yes, Harvey invented the electric plug. He also invented the pull chain light switch and the flip light switch and a bunch of other things that make it easy for us to use electricity in our daily lives. With his brilliant, user-centered, incremental advances, I think of Harvey as the prototypical user experience designer.

And other inventors have moved us even beyond that. For example, in some rooms you just walk in and the light turns on by itself. And you don’t think about it.

What are some other technologies besides the electric plug, or the light switch, that are so much a part of your life that you don’t really think about them as you use them?  I’m talking about commonplace stuff that we use every day.  Myself, I like 3M’s Post-It notes.

In 1876, a Western Union memo proclaimed, “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”

When I was a child, living north of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, on the south wall of our living room  was mounted a rectangular wooden box, about eighteen inches by ten inches, and about five inches deep. A black round thing stuck out from the front of it. It had a little wooden shelf for a small notebook and a pencil. On the side of the box was a black tubular thing which was attached to the box with a cord.  There was a bell on the box, which would ring randomly and unpredictably, scaring the wits out of me. Then my mom or dad would run over to the box, hold the tubular thing up to one ear, and speak into the round thing.  Astonishing.

Today we pretty much take our mobile phones for granted, but this technology is pretty new.

Martin Cooper

Here’s a picture of Martin Cooper, who thought up the first cell phone in 1973,  and led the 10-year process at Motorola of bringing it to market.

My phone today -- an Evo

Today my phone is still a rectangular box, but it fits in my pocket and I can use it to talk to other people — and take photos, listen to the radio, reserve an airline ticket, play Scrabble, read the New York Times, and much, much more. My piece of mobile communications technology, called the Android EVO, runs on Sprint’s HTC 4G network, with a touch interface with haptic feedback. It’s got voice control that allows me to speak what I would like the phone to text to my husband, in case my hands are busy at the moment typing or baking a pie. A voice inside the phone gives me turn by turn directions on the highway. When I use my phone to surf the web, with Google’s new Instant search predictive technology, search results pop up on screen with my first keystroke, updating as more letters are added to the word or phrase being searched. When I type in “hotel room”, the darn thing knows where I am, for instantly a lot of hotels are displayed in my immediate vicinity! This is all so amazing!

Makes me wonder…what personal communication device is my granddaughter going to use when she’s a teenager? When she’s our age?

In 1943, the chairman of IBM, Thomas Watson, made a prediction, saying, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

My first computer

How many computers do you have, including mobile devices? I mean, that you actually use? In our home, we have three laptops (two Apples and one company-issued PC), three Sprint EVOs, an iTouch, a iPod, a Wii, and an archive of old Macs and PCs in our storage area, going back to my first love, a sixteen and a half pound “portable” 512K Mac which I bought in 1984 for $3,300.

Analysts at Morgan Stanley expect mobile Internet usage to surpass stationary browsing by 2015.

According to Mary Meeker, the lead analyst at Morgan Stanley who developed this prediction, the mobile Web has grown at a significantly faster pace than desktop usage (such as dial up or broadband).

As she puts it on one of the slides in the report: “Rapid Ramp of Mobile Internet Usage Will be a Boon to Consumers and Some Companies Will Likely Win Big (Potentially Very Big) While Many Will Wonder What Just Happened.”

The companies that win will offer location-based services, time-based offers, mobile coupons, push notifications, personalization and relevant search results, and more.

IDC says that over 200 million smartphones (or devices with the ability to run third-party applications) will be shipped in 2010.

Gartner says by 2011, over 85 percent of handsets will offer web browsers.

Location is the holy grail of the mobile experience. One of the major developments this year has been the availability of free navigation systems on mobile handsets.

Business travelers used to use expensive navigation systems, or paper maps, 411-info, or simply stopped to ask for help as the chief way to find restaurants, hotels, and businesses, or navigate where they wanted to go.  Because these methods historically were more error-prone and time consuming, customers did more upfront planning to “de-risk” their travel experience.  Now with the advent of trustworthy, nearly always accessible location-based services, travelers can do a lot more of their travel planning and decision-making on the fly, often when they are in market as opposed to prior to the trip.

Being present at the moment that a need exists makes the mobile experience more relevant.

The big change is that travel-planning and booking will happen anytime, anywhere – even up to the last minute.   With location-aware services out there, everyone (including businesses) will make their communications more relevant, based on where the traveller is physically located, at any given point in time.

Jupiter predictions for wireless devices THIS YEAR include the delivery of mobile applications through the “cloud” on an on-demand basis. All the processing will be in the cloud and not on the desktop. Cloud computing is a general term for anything that involves delivering hosted services over the Internet – whether infrastructure, platforms, or software.  The name cloud computing was inspired by the cloud symbol that’s often used to represent the Internet in flowcharts and diagrams.  A cloud service is sold on demand, typically by the minute or the hour; it is elastic — a user can have as much or as little of a service as they want at any given time; and the service is fully managed by the provider (the consumer needs nothing but a personal computer or a mobile phone, and Internet access).

Touchscreens will be included in over 60 percent of mobile devices shipped in Western Europe and North America in 2011. Other touchscreen trends are said to include the use of multi-touch interfaces and haptics (the machine vibrates or moves in response to your touch).

At home I have a white box called a Wii, and a wand. When I wave the wand at the white box, I have an experience of bowling, or playing golf, or tennis.  They call that gestural interface technology and that may be coming to your mobile phone too. You won’t even have to touch it to make it do something.

Paper thin flexible devices

Our future phone might not look anything like a phone. It could be thin like paper, and able to bend, fold and be flexible enough to store in a pocket. Taiwan-based Industrial Technology Research Institute, (ITRI) recently won a top prize in the 2010 Innovation Awards contest for a manufacturing technique that allows mass production of high-quality displays on flexible materials. The idea for their technology came from watching chefs prepare paper-thin Taiwanese pancakes, which can be easily peeled from a pan at high temperatures.

The UK company Dial-a-Phone recently put out a list of what it deems the “top 10 ridiculous ideas about future of mobile phones”:

  • Datoos (DNA-based tattoos)
  • Subcutaneous mobile phone implants.
  • A mobile phone and headphones in one
  • Mobile phones with nanotechnology
  • Multi-sensory phones
  • Jewelry that makes calls
  • Smartphones with multi-core processing
  • Wind-powered mobile phones
  • Mobile phones powered by fuel cells
  • The wind-up mobile phone

These ideas might seem ridiculous to some, but on the other hand, you might be making a flight reservation from your earrings in a few years. Or, from a small sheet of paper in your billfold.

Or even directly from your brain!  A brain–computer interface (BCI), sometimes called a direct neural interface or a brain–machine interface, is a direct communication pathway between a brain and an external device. For example, Mindball is a product developed and commercialized by a Swedish company, in which players compete to control a ball’s movement across a table by becoming more relaxed and focused. And recently a machine has been developed to translate thoughts into speech in real time.  A 26-year-old man who had a brain stem stroke at age 16 was paralyzed except for slow vertical movement of the eyes in a rare condition called locked-in syndrome.  Scientists implanted an electrode in his brain, neurites began growing into the electrode and, in three or four months, the neurites produced signaling patterns that were wirelessly transmitted and via a speech synthesizer, the man was able to communicate.

George Burns  said, “I look to the future because that’s where I am going to spend the rest of my life.” In my role as a user experience designer for an online travel company, I spend my hours looking to the future, open to flashes of insight that might make the travel experience more like play, less like work.

A few years into the future, I’m going to be searching for and booking and managing my travel on some kind of mobile device but it will not be anything like the one I use now.

I will make a special gesture with my fingers and the device will expand or contract to any size I need for available conditions of space and light. When I say, “find me a flight”, the device will make an educated call on where I am going, because it’s been watching my emails and listening to my calls, and knows my probable destinations, and maybe even the dates of my upcoming trips.  The web sites that I visit will have been learning my behavior patterns and will prepared to offer me very relevant, custom experiences.

I say, “I want a hotel in Seattle on Thursday,” and the paper becomes 3D, with a map of Half Moon Bay, with tactile cues for the different hotels that have rooms on Thursday and that are in policy for my company.  Touching the Ritz Carlton, my flexible paper-like mobile phone/computer/personal concierge projects a panoramic moving image of the hotel rooms on a nearby wall. By making other finger gestures, I can zoom in and look at the room in detail, even looking out the window to make sure the view is ocean-side and not parking-lot side.  I’ll catch a whiff of salt spray. An ocean-side suite has been displayed to me because the booking system knows my past hotel booking behavior and has made a pretty good guess as to what I would like.

Technology is changing, changing fast.

But are people changing?  I don’t think so. There are some things people have always done and will always do, and that doesn’t change no matter how sophisticated our technology gets. Above all, people continue to want to love and be loved by others.  We want to visit each other. We want to have some fun, learn, grow, challenge ourselves a little – or a lot. We want to work, play, support our families.

My vision is of a computing world where we are enabled to do all these things – and ever more so – in a way that we’re not thinking to ourselves, “now I’m using a computer,” or, “now I’m running software applications now,” or, “now I’m using a wireless network device.”  My vision is that everything’s going to be effortlessly integrated and FAST – so that we’re just doing the things humans like to do – work, play, learn — eat, pray, love – and the tools we are using to get things done just fade into the background of our awareness. Just the way when we walk into a room, a light automatically turns on and we don’t even think about it.

Is that a vision you’d like to see? Does that excite you?

Beam me up Scotty!

This is the text of a talk that I gave Oct. 12, 2010, at the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay, California, to a group of travel management executives.

3 thoughts on “The future user experience

  1. While some of the above still seems somewhat unreachable or at least undesirable (Subcutaneous mobile phone implants) – I can certainly envision and am excited about some of these possibilities! How terrific to be able to have a paper phone I can fold up to be as small (and fit in my pocket/wallet) or as large (so I can watch a movie in the park with my son) whenever I want! Thanks Joanna – great stuff!

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