Some thoughts on Google Keep

Google announced the new note-taking service Google Keep today. 

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I gave the web version a try. The UI looks very minimalism, using it is easy too. There aren’t many features to begin with though. It looks like just a lite, new service Google want to put on their cloud. Google didn’t mention whether they have bigger vision on the service, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Some thoughts from a product design point of view:

1. Don’t have an ecosystem.  Take Evernote as an example, they have Chrome extension ‘Web Clipper’, Outlook plug-in, apps on all major mobile OS, PC/MAC software and a web-app. Making note taking available everywhere. Google Keep only have Android and web-app, kind of lacking still.

2. Multimedia support. Currently  it only supports text and photo.

3. Notes organization. I noticed that Keep lets you give a color to the note, and display the notes in ‘List’ view or ‘Grid’ view. Other than that, pretty much nothing. Maybe Google never really think about scaling? Or they want to position Google Keep as a lite note-taker instead of an information management tool?

3. Note sharing. Without sharing, Google Keep is likely to lose the biggest demographic of note taking: students. There are plenty of opportunities that Google could embedded Keep into their social media ecosystem. Share on G+ for one, follow friends/celebrities notes for another.

Obviously the service is still in its infancy. It will be interesting to see how it evolves. Hopefully it won’t be like Google Reader at least.

HTML 5 Development Cost Greater Than Native?

In the article from The Next Web: Accounting software startup Xero ditches HTML5 in favor of native iOS and Android apps

Our view is that HTML5 technologies can deliver as-good-as-native experiences…but the lesson from Fastbook is that it’s hard work – you don’t get those experiences out-of-the-box. And the lesson we’ve learnt over the last 12 months has been that the cost in time, effort and testing to bring an HTML5 application to a native level of performance seems to be far greater than if the application was built with native technologies from the get-go.

This surprises me a bit. One big reason for app developers to choose web app approach is because HTML5 is ‘cross-platform’, thus developers don’t have to deal with OS fragmentation and develop one version for each platform.

I guess this is due to immature of the ecosystem. By immature, it’s not just the technology itself, but also the developer talent pool as well as the tools and resources. We all know the ‘end-game’ for HTML5 is great, but to get there, there seems to be more hurdles than expected…

UICraft: Zite’s New Rating UI

Zite is a pretty awesome self-learning, self-evolving intelligent specie(app) in the app universe. He feeds you with content gathered from Internet and devour your rating (Like/Dislike) so he can evolve into a clone of your news taste.  The more rating you give him, the faster and stronger he’ll evolve, and you’ll be fed with better quality universe essence (selected content).

Well, enough of my ‘crappy’ Syfy analogy. Zite has always been my favorite news aggregator. The minimalism design and the personalized rating system make it perfect for my daily news consumption. The app got an upgrade lately and I found the rating UI also evolved a bit, and I love the changes.

Before:

Zite displays a ‘rating bar’ on the bottom of the screen, where user can ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ the content. The ‘liked’ content will be fed to the user more often, while the ‘disliked’ less. It’s a simple and effective user interface:

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User can touch the ‘thumbs up’ button to ‘like’ and ‘thumbs down’ button to ‘dislike’.

After:

The new UI looks the same, but adds another rating layer when you touch the ‘thumbs up’ button:

ZITE rating bar evolved

If you like the content on the page by touching the ‘thumbs up’ button, the rating bar will expand upwards and display multiple tags related to the page. You can further specify which tag represent the reason for your ‘like’, so Zite could know more precisely what part of the content you like and feed you more in the future.

 

Summary

Content rating system has become more and more important for all the content providers. Great content is no longer great enough for today’s indulged users.  As a content provider, you need to offer great personalized content. And to do that, you need to have a powerful and easy to use content rating system to learn your user’s taste. The system needs to powerful enough so it can efficiently pinpoint user’s like and dislikes, but not making the experience too complicated so user will get overwhelmed. That’s why ZITE’s new UI did such a great job. Simple and intuitive 2-steps UI that nailed the sweet point of the content for the user.

Maybe Netflix, YouTube and other content providers could all take one page or two from ZITE’s UI playbook.

UICraft: What Apple Map UI Done Right

A lot of people hate Apple Map. Bad directions, corrupted map data, police warnings, you name it. Yet most of the criticizes are pointing toward the back-end map data, not to the map user interface and user experience. Actually, no one seems to have talked about it. After a closer look, I found that Apple Map UI did one thing or two right:

1. Less clutter

The overall Apple Map layout is designed to avoid ‘cognitive overload’ as much as possible. Road names only get displayed when it helps the navigation, instead of throw all the names across the map.

Apple Map:

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‘I-75’ is displayed because that’s the road on which the car was currently driving. ‘Akers Rd’ is displayed because it offers a reference point of where the car is at the moment.

There is no clutter here. The user can know where they are at a glance (Driving on I-75 near ‘Akers Rd’’.) . Minimum ‘eye-off-the-road’ time. Good for safety.

Waze and Google Maps:

Google_maps_nav1.png

Google Map

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Waze Navigation App

Road names are everywhere and random.  The user needs good eyesight and extra time to figure out which road he is driving on and where exactly he is on that road. More ‘eye-off-the-road’ time. Bad for safety.

2. Clear information hierarchy with relevant information

The single most important part of a map navigation UI is the ‘Navigation Panel’ where all the navigation information is displayed. The most critical navigation questions we ask ourselves are:

  • ‘What should I do on the next Turn?’ (Left, right, exit highway, etc.)
  • ‘How far till I have to turn?’ (A number in miles or feet.)
  • ‘Which sign should I look at?’ (The road or exit sign.)

Apple Map:

navigating-panel-1

As we can see from above screenshot, the information is very clearly spelled out. User is able to get direction within 2-3 seconds.

Google Map:

nav panel google

All the information is on there, but they are all with same visual weight. User will have to read through the entire sentence to get what they need. They can’t skim, thus more time-consuming (5+ seconds).

3. Subtle color coding is intuitive

Apple Map:

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Light Blue:  Current route, Car Indicator (round badge), Next Turning Point

Green: Other reference road names.

Very easy to filter useful information. Blue = useful. Green: reference only.

Google and Waze Map:

waze map navigationGoogle_maps_nav1

No color coding on road or road names at all.

4. Lock-Screen peace of mind

Another thoughtful thing about Apple Map design is how navigation works with handset’s lock screen. When using the smartphone as GPS, battery life is always a concern. (You can’t expect people to always has a car charger around). When driving straight on a highway with the next turn is 100 miles away, there is no reason to keep the smartphone screen on all the time. But locking the screen risks missing the important exit (yes there’s always voice prompt, but we are driving at 70mph after all).

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How Apple Map solves this problem is quite smart. When navigation is on, if you lock your iPhone, the navigation screen will get on the lock screen. So if you want to check how far you’re to the next exit, just push Home or Power key to turn the screen on, don’t even need to unlock the screen. Better yet, when you’re approaching the next turn, the lock screen will automatically lit up until you successfully make the next turn.

Summary:

Adding all these together, I found Apple Map still holds its high standard when it comes to user interface and user experience design. The map data may be screwed up, but the design is still killer.

Eye-Tracking Smartphone UI: Yes and No

Came across this article ‘The Implications Of The Interface That Watches You” today. Eye-tracking as a new way of user interaction is intriguing, but after some thoughts, I think it’s very limiting:

eye-tracking

Image from: TechCrunch.com

1.  Eye movement is a’ subconscious’ behavior, hard to control.

When we move our hands, our brain needs to command it to do it and we’re aware of it. Eye movement is different. We do it unconsciously. We automatically blink when we read for a long time. We move our eye balls up and down when browsing the web without thinking about it. Now if an app or smartphone tracks our eye movements and makes the app responding to it, all these random moves will start to mess things up. User will grow nervous about their eye movements, adding HUGE pressure to the experience. A good app design should try as much as possible to NOT make user think. This is making user think MORE about something they never have to think about (eye movement) before. Totally wrong.

2. Dynamically changing UI screws location memory

The idea of changing the user interface based on people’s eye movement is even more absurd. Location memory is in the center part of user experience design. Human brains remember where things are and  it makes it easy for them to find it next time they want to use it. Dynamically changing where all the buttons and other UI elements are? User will become utterly confused as where things are.

3. Eye-tracking as data gathering tool is creepy but useful

So what is the better way of using eye-tracking technology? Simply put, using the data only. Quietly gathering eye movements data without messing around the UI, and then use the gathered data for better profile building, ads targeting etc. is actually a solid idea. Before, all the profile building technology stops at search and clicks. Google knows what website you clicks or searches, that’s how they build their targeting ads system that rakes in billions of ads dollars. But what if they can know which part of the screen get the most eye-balls? It’s definitely a step forward, both on precision and creepiness ironically.

Since camera has become so ubiquitous now, technologies like facial recognizing, eye tracking, gesture tracking will trickle down to our laptop and smartphones. Give or take, welcome to an era of new interactions.

Facebook News Feed Design Upgrade: Making Ads Count

Facebook recently released their new design of the ‘News Feed’. From the announcement, even though they didn’t mention a word about ads, I still smelt it. All of the design changes in a large part are to make Ads count. Here’s why:

1. Bigger photo = Bigger canvas for Ads

The new design comes with bigger photos and albums to offer a more engaging and immersive experience. While user contents become more immersive and prominent, so do embedded ads. (Facebook already embedded ads into user Timeline)

Bigger canvas means a LOT for advertisers in that it blurs the lines of a banner and a real ad page. Facebook should be able to charge a higher CPM rate if it proves to be more efficient.

2. Less clutter leads to more focus, on both user content and ads.

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Facebook’s current news feed feels cluttered. It easily triggers the ‘cognitive overload‘ issue and a lot of the users just back away from it, or totally ignore the blob of ads on the right side of the page. With the design changes, there are less contents in one page, but they will get more attention and focus. Coupled with more compelling photos, even boring ads that no one wanted to station their eyeballs before will get some love with the new design now. Less really is more.

3. Better content curating can also mean better ads targeting.

Another big part of the design is better curating. Facebook promised to offer the best ‘personalized newspaper’. Every ‘Like’ or ‘Share’ you make on Facebook will all being monitored and analysed to further ‘fine tune’ content to your taste. Your timeline will then become more relevant and personalized. This all sounds fantastic on the surface, but wait! Ads will become more relevant and personalized too! This is not necessarily a bad thing though. With better targeted ads (and hopefully higher CPM rate), Facebook could actually afford to not bombarding ads to their user, and offer less intrusive experience. 

Summary

Overall, I think designers in Facebook deserve some applause. They make the layout more streamlined, promoting ads without downgrading experience, and finally being consistent with their mobile experience. Like I pointed out in my another blog, done right, it could be a win-win to everybody. 

New Path 3.0, New Path to Monetization

Path today announced Path 3.0, featuring a much-anticipated private message functionality and a pretty little in-app ‘Shop’.

path shop

Also, Path’s CEO Dave Morin in an interview with The Next Web, revealed that a premium subscription service is coming. Path is really speeding up on further monetizing their 6 million subscriber base.

To keep it short, here’s a list of current and possible monetization venues for Path:

1. Stickers (Current)

path stickers

Crafted by celebrity designers, Path Shop now offers a variety of emoticon-like images called ‘Stickers’ that users can post on their private message with friends to express emotions. This isn’t a brand new idea, but it’s executed quite well. From the introduction of designers to add credibility, to the fine skeuomorphism style Shop UI design, the shopping experience is well polished and streamlined.

2. Filters for Photo and Videos(Current)

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Photo and Video filters have been Path’s major ‘in-app purchase’ for some time now. Integrating it into the Path 3.0’s new ‘Shop’ experience is natural and seamless. One thing worth noticing is the UI design for the filter. It’s clean and effortlessly shows the ‘before and after’ comparison using a realistic lens filter shape (with filtered part of the image inside) on top of a non-filtered photo, instantly demonstrating the difference it makes.

3. Theme (Potential)

Path’s UI has always been praised and well accepted as the yardstick of mobile app design. There are many users (me included) love to play with new apps just because we love the designs and polished themes. Being able to customize the app I love to the color and style I prefer has great value. What if Path unleashes their design power and develop 10 different themes that user can choose freely (after purchase of course)? This could involve some app infrastructure upgrade to support themes personalization but hey, when the money starts to roll in, it will be worth it, right?

Essentially, by doing this, Path can turn UI from infrastructure to digital goods, at the same time offering better user experience by enabling customization.

This is not a new idea either. Some Asian apps are already doing this, and Path seems to get some of their inspirations from Asian anyway.

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4. Premium Membership (Potential)

Path is already planning it, and supposed to launch it first half of this year. We don’t know about details of what’s in the premium package. But if I’m allowed to guess, it would be dedicated member filters, stickers and maybe even some cloud space for photos and videos. This would be interesting to watch.

5. Avatars (Potential)

Currently, Path lets you choose your photo and slap it in a simple circle as your avatar. The thing is, not all the people feels comfortable or wants to use their photos as avatars, some prefer their hobbies (golf ball anyone?), some may like a super hero character from his favorite comic. Being able to offer more avatar choices will definitely add value (and revenue also). Also this goes with Path’s private social network positioning well, imagine a cubic engineer chooses an Amazon warrior as his avatar, well I’d say it’s very private…

Amazon-GameArt

Summary

Path has always been my favorite social network app. Its polished design, smooth interaction and minimalism design all set them apart from the pack. It’s great to see them making steady progress on bring in more revenues also. What other ways can they monetize? Leave a comment and let me know!

Kinect On Laptop?

The Verge today has a video showcasing Microsoft’s new progress in bringing Kinect to laptop/desktop as a new interaction model. 

This is … interesting, makes me feels like I’m playing my Xbox Kinect games. I can totally imagine using gestures to turn up volume or switch channel on my TV, but wait, aren’t we also going to use this on work and stuff? Which is not as fun as playing games on Kinect. Moving my arms around like this for hours just blows my mind, especially if I’ll have to stop my arm mid-air to do the needed accuracy adjustments… felt tired already. I think this will have the same ‘gorilla arm’ challenge as laptop with a touch screen

But wait, maybe there is a way out. Introducing … the ‘Hand Signs’ system!

hand signs

 

What do you think?