Why mobile is magical

by Dirk Knemeyer

Most of our customers are relatively sophisticated with technology. They either own tech start-ups or are in a role where they are involved in the software, website, IT, digital marketing or some other type of technology within their company. Not surprisingly many of them carry powerful mobile computing devices and are far ahead of the general population in their adoption and use of these tools. In fact, if you are reading this, you probably count among these progressive few.

What we often miss is how most people - the ones we want to buy our products and services or otherwise patronize our companies - are very different. They don’t carry iPhone’s and Blackberry’s. They have a relatively new Facebook account and are amazed that it enables them to connect to so many people. They see Twitter as an odd website that lets them stare, mouth agape, at publicly preening celebrities. Some of them are wading into Netflix while others stoically observe these newfangled services and think it is not for them. Most people “in” the industry assume that the rest of our friends and neighbours are similarly inculcated into the cult of digital technology but the reality is that most are not. For those people, the things we take for granted, especially in a mobile context, seem like an incredible sort of magic. I observe this all of the time and particularly saw it again and again just over the last week:

- I was playing a historical boardgame this weekend about World War I commerce raiders (yes, I’m a geek) and myself and some of the other players were talking interestedly about some of the old ships. Rather than idly speculate I whipped out my iPhone and in literal seconds had pictures and the historical information on the ships in question. (Side note: did you know that the Germans scuttled their ships in Guam as soon as the U.S. joined the war? I didn’t, until we read about some of the boats on the iPhone). For the other players, none of whom seem to have experience with mobile computing, it was a moment of magic. There was genuine shock and surprise that the pictures and images were there so quickly and clearly. The fact that we went from idle speculation and fun conversation to real historical pictures and information was a delightful surprise. They looked at my iPhone like it was an alien device. Certainly they are all familiar with iPhones conceptually, but the degree to which it allowed a static analog moment to transform into a dynamic digital moment had real power and impact.

- When discussing good movies with a couple of people, one of them discussed a movie that sounded really interesting, 1612. Rather than let my poor, aging memory lose the plot I pulled out the iPhone, opened my Netflix application and in a matter of seconds found the movie and put it in my queue. As with the previous example, there was genuine interest and surprise expressed by the people around me. It created a moment where they wanted to see that I really could search for and put any movie immediately into my queue. A few titles were suggested to test the system. Everyone was impressed. Ultimately it was less about the iPhone and more about how it changed the way we lived: rather than being left to struggle to remember the good movies being discussed the movie could both be immediately remembered, and even put into a queue where it would later be delivered in the mail for leisurely watching.

- I also had a recent example where I, the CEO of a software company, had my own magical moment of wonder. I took my son Brandon to a Moby concert, where we stood right in the front row center on the floor, no more than 10 feet from the legendary performer. We were having a great time, and I wished I could capture how close we really were. Well, I didn’t need to wish; I realized I had my iPhone in my pocket. I’m not much of a photographer and rarely take pictures, so I have not yet really incorporated the camera on the iPhone into my lifestyle. But after the Moby concert, I will never forget again. I got a lot of really close photos. To be honest, many of the photos were garbage because of the camera quality on the iPhone. But a few are passable, and many of them convey the closeness of the moment. I’ve been to a lot of concerts over the years, from various Moby shows, to Pink Floyd, to Underworld, and even bad 80’s hair metal. I never used to have pictures to preserve those moments. What I wouldn’t give for photos of seeing Pink Floyd in the Silverdome…20 years ago?!? Now, I will never again attend a concert and NOT have photos to remember it. Absolutely remarkable.

Mobile computing is magical. Many of us “in the industry” take that for granted because of our deep immersion into it. As a consequence, we miss the trick when planning and designing for real-world users. For most people the technology we create truly remains magical. That remarkable reality needs to influence our planning, architecture, design and development. To not adjust our thinking to account for this, we are making the classic designer’s mistake of creating for ourselves as opposed to others. That’s not design, it’s art. I don’t think that’s what our clients and employers are paying us to do. It’s why I spend more time watching and sharing technology with others to learn about cultural trends than I do simply enjoying the technology myself. Designing great products means understanding your users, and particularly in mobile design we need to remember that the users we all hope to get in the next billion adopters are comprised of people who see these wonderful toys as magic, as opposed to simply the latest and greatest gadget.

Topics: Design, culture, Blog, mobile