Dawn of a new design

Summary: Website design was a big area of growth fifteen years ago. I suspect evolution in mobile screen design will be dramatically more explosive. And, as RIAs were the poster-child for communication between smart servers and smart clients, I suspect experiences like ARAs, BSIs, and VEAs will be areas of startling growth.

We’ve seen a lot of video this week, of recent builds of Adobe Flash Player 10.1 on various recent devices…. see James Ward, Thibault Imbert, Michael Chaize, Aaron Filner among others. Performance looks shockingly good, as does power.

We’ve also heard of commitments to AIR on pocket devices, the shortest path to making native apps.

Seeing such innovation is more convincing than hearing announcements about it. Using such tools will be more convincing still. And once we’re creating upon such a platform, well….

Fifteen years ago the world went through a revolution in interface design, after a website made it easy to quickly reach anyone with up-to-date information. The page-browsing model has stayed popular as more people could afford computers and connectivity.

But these new pocket devices will reach many times more people, many times more economically, and for many more interactions during daily life. They will become more important, faster, than Internet-enabled computers ever did.

And instead of sitting and reading pages, we’ll more likely use pocket devices to accomplish tasks while out and about, doing other things. Doing, not just looking. The interface priorities must evolve.

That’s why I think the next five years will bring very rapid changes to interface design — quick adoption of a new class of displays, combined with usage requirements quite different from previous interaction models.

I believe the fast growth of websites fifteen years ago will soon be dramatically surpassed, by an era of even-faster growth in interaction design for mobile screens. We’re at the start of a new age for design.

How might usage expectations evolve?

Think back eight years ago, when Rich Internet Applications combined ColdFusion’s easy server programmability with Flash’s rich interactive displays. There has been an incredible amount of evolution since then, but even in 2002 RIAs signified a sharp break from classic web apps serving static pages.

I suspect we’ll soon see ARAs, or Augmented Reality Applications. These would bear the same relation to augmented-reality displays as a JPEG photo bears to an interactive application, or a video stream bears to a an interactive video application. The device will draw on remote data and locally enrich the world around you. You’ll want to know if your friends are around. You might want to know how old that building is.

An ARA wouldn’t be just an AR display. It would be a software tool that can query the local environment, and perhaps even control the local environment. It may use AR display techniques, just as you might use a JPEG. But it’s a tool, a handheld control panel, for the world around us.

BSIs are Big Screen Interactivity — shared screens with individual controls. We’re already comfortable with console gameplay, whether in the same room or remote. What happens when you apply that to a movie theatre, to a concert, to a shopping mall kiosk, to a sporting event, to the ads in a subway?

These new mobile screens are not just a small screen in isolation… they are small screens in communication with nearby screens, whether another personal screen or a room-sized screen.

VEAs are Video-Enhanced Applications. From the broadcast/movietheatre era we’re used to “video” as one big linear stream. This influenced the last five years’ rapid growth of video websites. But video isn’t one special format as much as it is a basic way we see — we humans are accomplished at rapidly resolving the meaning of big sequential image displays. Video is a more direct story-telling medium than text. New devices will make it easier to capture and transmit live video data too. I think we’ll continue to see movie-style video, but will also be increasingly using video captures as just another media element in the page, a “first-class citizen” of the full screen experience.

The social sphere will become a bigger component of any on-screen experience. We’ve seen how humans adapt to talking or texting while walking down the street or driving. We haven’t yet seen common use of live outbound feeds, so that a friend can accompany you vicariously.

Today we’ve got social websites we visit, each with their own interface, each a different way of following your friends. But when you’re out on the town and trying to catch up with people, it would be better if the device just let you communicate directly, in your current context, without fiddling across interfaces. A good mobile interface will integrate pertinent aspects of your social sphere, instead of leaving those interactions for another webpage to provide.

Interface customization seems like it will increase too. Webpages served up a similar interface to all visitors, with personalized data flowing into interface templates. That makes sense when you’re serving the interface to each visitor, as well as their data. But native applications offer lower transmission costs by using their own presentation and interaction layers, stored locally, only calling the server for data requests. It’s your interface, not theirs.

This opens the door for interfaces which skin and refactor remote services in various ways. Interfaces will vary with different device form-factors, and seem like they’ll vary by individual sense of style and individual task-requirements as well. When it’s as easy to use a native app as a webpage app, we’ll likely see increased sensitivity to different audience needs by offering greater customization of interfaces.

Will the webpage go away? No, it’s a proven medium, one that new devices must support. But just as Usenet or Email isn’t the only way to use the Internet, neither is the World Wide Web. With new types of devices and usage requirements, we’ll need to add new experiences to the mix.

Sometimes we’ll be using these personal portable screens for presentations. Sometimes for interactions. Sometimes for communications.

The screen shouldn’t be a page, shouldn’t be an application… the screen should be an experience, something well-integrated with user’s current world and habits.

The handset will become the interface to, not just the infosphere, not just the socialsphere, but also the nearby physical environment. We need to develop patterns which abstract the nearby world, so that our devices can question and influence the world.

The new devices will be, literally, a control panel to the world. It’s a time for new design.