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.

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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:

Photo Mar 12, 9 19 17 AM

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).

Photo Mar 12, 9 18 50 AM

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.

UICraft: Rethinking Touch Screen on Laptop

Recently Microsoft and Google all release their own laptop with a touch screen. People start to speculate that this is the next big thing in tech industry. As a big fan of product design, user interface and touch technology, this is a very intriguing topic for me, so I went ahead and did some research. Here is what I found. Again, quick takeaways if you don’t have time for a deep dive now.

Rethinking-Touch-Screen-on-Laptop

Tablets and smartphones have become very popular lately. It’s so popular that touch as a new interaction paradigm has forever changed how people interact with their devices. Technology has never been so intimate and intuitive to normal users. There is something for you no matter you’re 8 years old or 80 years old. People start to think, if touch is so great, why not bring it back to our PC/laptop? We want to touch everything on the screen! Yet, before we get too excited about the idea, there are some challenges we need to be aware of and address carefully.

1. Laptop UI needs to be touch-optimized for the entire ecosystem

Touch works so well on tablet and smartphone because the OS is designed from the ground up to be touch-based or touch-optimized. The buttons are  bigger so even the fattest finger won’t have any problem touching it. The information architecture is flatter so everything is more discoverable. New interactions like pull to refresh, pinch to zoom are invented to enhance the experience.

iPad_multitouch

Image Source: Apple.com

But what we take for granted on a touch-based OS is not there yet on our laptop. The laptop OS is not designed with touch in mind. They were designed in the early days when mouse and keyboard is still the ‘new paradigm’. All UI elements are quite small since mouse cursor has very high accuracy. As people’s major machine for work, the softwares’ UI are designed to have 10 toolbars with 100 buttons on it, just to increase efficiency. Like this:

microsoft-word-toolbars-crazy

Image Source: http://blog.vlad1.com

To make a traditional laptop OS ‘touch-optimized’ is a more complicated job (making UI elements touchable, supporting sophisticated touch gestures, just to name a few) than just draw an equation between ‘touch’ and ‘click’.  It also involves the entire ecosystem, not only the OS itself. Software developers all need to implement the design upgrade. And if this challenge cannot be tackled, the touch experience on a laptop will remain ‘underwhelmed’ to users come from tablet space and ‘confused’ to the those only familiar with desktop computers.

2. Frequent inputs demand minimum interaction cost

Let’s face it. Your laptop is more and more becoming a content creating only machine. It’s really not optimized for content consuming these days. And we all know that content creating involves a lot of user input, be it entering a paragraph of text, making edits in spreadsheets or draw a vector in Photoshop. The users need to interact with their laptop to get the job down. And all interactions, my friends, come with a cost.

For touch, the biggest cost is that you’ll have to move your arms around. Since the tablet or smartphone are used mainly as a content consuming device which don’t demand a lot of user interactions, it’s still OK. But laptop is a content creating device. Frequently moving your arms around, and you have the ‘gorilla arm’ problem. Working for 8 hours and you’ll definitely felt arm sour or even ache. It’s not like moving inches using your mouse after all.

Vertical-Multitouch-300x164

Image Source: Wired.com

3. Arm travels need to be minimized

Touch involves arm travel. The bigger the screen, the further arm will have to travel to get the job done. We can grade the extent of involvement by how many joints one has to use to perform certain level of touch interaction.

Single Joint (Smartphone): Finger joints. Very comfortable, one hand operation.

Double Joints (Tablet): Finger and wrist joints. Still comfortable, but user has to hold tablet now

Triple Joints (Laptop): Finger, wrist and elbow joints. Not comfortable, gorilla arms.

Entire Arm (Desktop): Finger, wrist, elbow and shoulder joints. Very uncomfortable, only viable for special case.

The more joints it involves, the harder it is to perform a touch interaction, and the worse the user experience. Laptop screen size ranges from 11 inches to 19 inches. User will have to use up to their elbow joint to move around the screen, and if they are doing interaction intensive work for 8 hours? Well let’s just say they are no ‘Iron Man’.

iron man

4. Greasy screen issue

Greasy screen issue is not a laptop only issue. Tablet and smartphone also suffers from it. But user’s expectation is different here. For smartphone and tablet, people are putting fingers on it from day one, so it’s not a new issue for them. Also since the screen is smaller, the grease or finger prints aren’t too obvious, while for the bigger screen on laptop, they are easier to spot. Yes, users can use some laptop detergent kit to clean the screen, but it came nowhere near the convenience of rubbing the screen clean on user’s jeans, right?

5.  Need scale to lower touch screen cost

Cost difference is another important factor.  Even if touch is a compelling feature on laptop, if the cost increase is too much, people may not want to pay for it. Currently a touch screen based laptop cost 120$ to 150$ more than its non-touch counterpart. This will become less of an issue when the economy of scale kicks in, but it’s extra investment that OEM needs to put in to make things happen.

 

What are the ‘big boys’ doing?

apple-logo

                            Apple – The Seamless ‘Migrator’.

Apple’s approach on this is a bit on the ‘conservative’ side. Simply put, their strategy can be described as ‘Incremental Migrate ’. They are the first to introduce multi-touch interface and iOS is still the best mobile OS in terms of user experience. If we look at the recent evolution of their laptop Mac OS X, a lot of the UI changes (Mission Control, Full Page Swipe, Pinch/Double Tap to Zoom, etc.) are the mobile UI paradigms trickling down to laptop OS. Apple is addressing the OS ecosystem UI challenge incrementally, by introducing touch features into laptop one at a time.

On the arm travel distance challenge front, they have introduced a lot of multi-touch features leveraging their upgraded Magic Trackpad. User still only need to move their finger joints, yet enjoy most of the benefits multi-touch has to offer. They are slowly educate their laptop users, preparing them for the ultimate jump (full touch) that’s to come.

 

new-microsoft-logo-600Microsoft – The Heavy ‘Committer’

Contrary to everyone’s expectation, this time Microsoft is leading the industry and taking a big leap forward bringing touch to laptop. Their new flagship OS Windows 8, leverage its unique and sophisticated Modern UI, is a fully touch-enabled OS. User that don’t want to use touch can still switch back to Windows traditional UI. It sounds quite rosy, but people actually used the Surface Tablet running Windows 8 reported that it’s confusing and hard to use.

It seems that most Windows users are not ready for full-fledged touch OS yet. They are still learning to walk, and Microsoft already starts to run.

 

Google logo transparentGoogle – The Light Water-Tester

Google is not known as a hardware manufacturer. Yet lately, they are more and more involved in  hardware products. Case in point? Their Nexus line and Chromebook initiative. Recently, Google released their new Chromebook Pixel product, featuring a very nice touch-enabled Retina display. From the product reviews, Google hasn’t do any touch-optimization on the Chrome OS yet. It seems to me they are using touch as only an ‘enhancement’ to the browsing experience. They are just testing the water here. 

 

Summary

How the innovation landscape will shape up around laptop touch screen is yet to be revealed, and you’ll never know what will happen next. But the idea itself, barring all the challenges it faces, is still interesting and has great potential. Which direction do you think it will go? Among Apple, Microsoft and Google, who do you think has the best chance of success? Leave a comment and let me know!

Google’s Chromebook Pixel: The Missing Piece

Pixel

I’ve been thinking about Pixel still. There’s something off about the entire product concept, but I just can’t figure out what exactly it is. Then it came to me, the hardware is an overkill to the software. 

Pixel’s hardware is great. I would  even say top of the line in the same price category. If you only look at the hardware spec, $1300 isn’t expensive to get the best Retina display, Intel Core i5 CPU, state-of-the-art aluminum body and back-lit keyboard. What makes people furious about this price is not the hardware itself, but what people can really do with this device. What experience can people actually get from the powerful hardware people will be paying dearly for.

The answer is ‘lackluster’ to say the least. There is just no application or service that can make the full use of the display and CPU power. Google claim that the hardware is so powerful you can watching multiple 1080P HD videos at the same time, but in actuality nobody will do that.

If I buy this thing, I’ll never fully exploit its potential, which means the extra premium I paid for will be wasted. This, my friends, is a BIG problem. During the many year’s of PC evolution, hardware is always lagging behind software demand. There are always the new 3D games that will use up the last ounce of processing power. Open multiple documents when working will very easily eat up all your memory. Hardware process power most of time is playing catch up.  People kept paying high-end hardware because they know it will make their 3D gameplay couple of frames faster, or it will cost them less time saving a big Word document.

It’s like 3G network before iPhone first release on 1997. Everyone in the industry was wondering what we can do with this ‘Faster 3G network’? Browsing and sending email doesn’t seem to use a lot of bandwidth. But after iPhone’s release, it very quickly used up all AT&T’s 3G network bandwidth, and they’ve been playing the catch up game till even now. Today, we even start to feel that 4G isn’t fast enough, let along 3G.

In our industry, it’s always the service/software drive the hardware, not the other way around. And the missing piece for Pixel is, they still didn’t find the drive from app or service yet, thus people won’t pay high dollar for their outstanding hardware. A premium hardware for its own sake is not good for anyone.

 

Google’s New Chromebook Pixel: Talk About Advantages

There are many advantages for the new Pixel, but here are the obvious…

1. Retina Display
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It has a 2560 x 1700 LCD panel, and is likely the most hi-res device around. We are a generation spoiled by all the retina screens(smartphone, tablet, Macbook Pro etc.) around us. We all know that it’s a lot harder to switch back to low-res than the other way around. We just have to have it now.
2. Touch Screen.
touch-screen-tap
Supporting touch definitely is an advantage, though it depends on how well the OS user interface is designed, whether it has been enhanced, optimized or designed from ground up to support touch. From Verge’s review video, I saw he missed twice trying to switch tab on Chrome browser. But hey, you can touch to scroll the webpage now at least.
3. Cloud Storage
google-drive-logo
This lady came with 1 T storage space on Google Drive. Everybody loves more storage space. It’s a high-end ‘netbook’ (there isn’t such a thing until now, yay), so it’s suppose to be always connected (though with LTE version you’ll pay $1450). And having a 1T cloud drive you really don’t have to worry about storage space for a very long time. And we’ve all live in the tyranny of storage shortage for centuries. Live in scary, you will not.
4. Price
pixel pricing
This one seems a long shot, but bear with me. Imagine you have the extra dough to throw at this baby, when next time you walking into a Starbucks with it, everybody will be looking at you thinking: ‘This guy must be so cool that he is spending $1300 just to try new technology.’ It will become a status symbol. Pixel is the new Macbook Air!
Don’t listen to the nay-sayers, they are just jealous!

Google Glasses UI Evolution : Makes Life Feel Like Playing a Game

Google’s first Project Glasses video stirred a lot of controversies because of its UI design gets in the way of people’s normal life. You really can’t use this gadgets in real life if the user interface is so prominent, in the middle of your view, and pop up all the time, like this:

Project-Glasses-1

It could even be dangerous when driving or biking. Yeah a map is good, but only if I can actually SEE the road!

Project-Glasses-2Today, Google releases another teaser of the highly anticipated gadget, called ‘How it Feels (through Glasses)’. This time, Google’s UI actually get a total re-haul. All the UI are only limited to the top right corner of your view, getting out-of-the-way.

google-glass Also there is a subtle transparency in it, which reminds me of ‘Iron Man’.

ironmanAnd since I play games a lot, I just can’t help but relate this to some of the game’s HUD (Heads-Up-Display) UI:

Starwar UIWatching the video, I totally felt like living other people’s life, first person viewpoint. This could be totally amazing. We already have Twitch.tv where gamers broadcast their gameplay for others to watch. How far are we before we can broadcast our real life using Google Glasses?

Project-Glasses-3

Android Developer ‘Perk’?

Play-Store

In his blog, Dan said:

Let me make this crystal clear,

every App purchase you make on Google Play gives the developer your name, suburb and email address with no indication that this information is actually being transferred

I can’t say this is totally unexpected. There are so many privacy leaks everywhere. And the only way to not get spammed or exploited is to not give out your email information at all.

However, the impact of this privacy issue could be huge. People could get stalkered for leaving negative rating of an app they don’t like on Google Play, or being the victim of email spam. Developers don’t really need these private information and Google obviously gains nothing from it. I hope Google could show some respect to user’s privacy and stop this ASAP. They don’t want an unnecessary push on the fine ‘Creepy Line‘ they are carefully walking, don’t they?

My Creepy Experience with GMail

My Creepy Experience with GMail

My piece of experience with Gmail that I hope someone could decipher for me:

In Gmail, I was forwarding an email to a friend talking about an attachment I sent him before. Hit ‘Send’ button. A notification dialog pup up:

‘We noticed that you mentioned to send an attachment, but this email doesn’t have an attachment. Did you forget to attach the file?’

Seriously? Reading my email to sell ads is bad enough but I can still stand it somehow. Reading my content and try to make sense of it, and make suggestions (even in the name of helping me the user) is very very CREEPY to me. I felt like you’re writing a private letter to your lovers at home, then someone pop out of nowhere telling you: ‘oh you really shouldn’t add that last line. She wouldn’t like suggestive language.’

Does anyone know what’s going on with this Gmail behavior?

Microsoft: Will It Survive the Next 5 Years?

steve-ballmerImage: via www.businessinsider.com

The newly released Microsoft Surface Pro and Surface RT has stirred up some discussions lately. A lot of reviews came out. This is suppose to be a big move on mobile for Microsoft, but the battlefield is already very crowded. So can Microsoft survive the bumpy road ahead?

It depends on the definition of survival. If survive means as a company Microsoft will still exist, then yes, it will survive the next 5 years. If the definition , being a bit more broader, is Microsoft keeping their current momentum and stay relevant in the technology industry, then it’s somewhat questionable. Three reasons I can see:

1. PC industry is withering
This can be seen from the ever shrinking PC manufacturers quarterly numbers. Desktop PCs had their days. But today, more and more people use their mobile device to consumer content, getting information, keep connected with friends. Serious content creating and enterprise will still use desktop PC, but the mass market has already shifted to mobile.

2. Microsoft is late to the ‘Mobile’ party
Every company NEED to has a mobile strategy and execute it swiftly. Some successful companies like Google even has the motto of ‘Mobile First’. Unfortunately, Microsoft is lagging behind on this front. The Windows Phone has yet to catch up to Android and iOS in shipments and ecosystem strength. (Number of apps in app store, developer support, etc.) In the ‘mobile’ game, first mover has huge advantage, and Microsoft has already been late to the party.

3. Organizational management challenges dragging their feet. 
People with some insights on how Microsoft runs will know that departments in charge of Windows and Office have huge power. A lot of the executives are from those departments. And all these departments don’t really talk to each other much. (as can be seen from their recent product strategy) Microsoft’s past success on these two products makes it harder to apply changes needed to future success. This is also part of why things are moving so slow in Redmond.

It’s actually not about survival, it’s about relevance. If Microsoft survives but lose all its relevance and influence in tech industry, will we still care about them?