There is an emerging class of devices that excel where the computer doesn’t belong and the phone doesn’t perform. But they are flooding the market all at once. Many will fail to embrace their uniqueness. A few will have the authority to take a position in people’s lives. How will they be different?
Approaching a tablet for the first time is a game of expectations. Consumers (and manufacturers) are still defining the role it will play in the device ecosystem. Is it a big smartphone? A netbook without a keyboard? Can I leave my laptop at home? Is it just for fun, or can I use it to do work, too?
When we initially began designing for mid-screen devices, we asked ourselves the same questions. We noticed too many companies didn’t have clear answers so they ended up relying on familiar models. Tablets offer new opportunities — they are shared, left around, and, when made with a perspective in mind, they create moments where people can become believers. Over time, we’ve helped our clients differentiate by targeting a specific user need and giving their products a unique point of view. Along the way, we’ve come upon the following considerations to guide how in-between devices can realize their place in the market.
Tailor the experience.
Differentiation starts with design. Taking the authority to design a unique experience is a sure way to deliver a unique product. Stretching a smartphone OS across a larger screen doesn’t do much to convince people an emerging device is more than a phone. Nor does shrinking a desktop OS showcase its ability to fulfill an unmet need.
In a rush to get devices to market, companies are leveraging platforms such as Android without considering how the OS aligns with their device. While this allows them to reach parity with competitors’ releases, it limits their ability to differentiate their product in a relatively open space. For mid-screen devices to find long-term success in the market they should consider native UI designs that that marry hardware to user experience and expectations.
Consider multiple users.
The form factor of tablets makes them ideal for side-by-side sharing and collaboration. Multi-touch input opens up the possibility for multi-person gaming, music creation and content exploration. Higher resolution, better speakers and faster start-up time make experiences more social and immediate.
But these devices are also being shared in a new, collective way. Light, casual and location-agnostic, tablets are embedded in various living spaces: left on the coffee table as reading, clicked on the couch as a remote control, or brought to the bedroom for a seamless media experience. This versatility opens up the possibility for them to be fixtures in their environment, passed between multiple users naturally and frequently. But it also begs the question: How does collective ownership affect the way we design for tablets? It’s worth considering profiles and similar approaches to identity management that allow switching between communal and personal use in ways that are quick, controlled and less disruptive to a tablet experience.
Capitalize on connections.
As in-between devices, tablets hold a pivotal place in the mobile ecosystem. They become companions to other experiences — syncing with personal libraries, sharing media between devices, augmenting the information displayed on surrounding screens. They have the power to act as extensions of other devices. Their size creates the richest portable experience yet and enables them to take content to new places. Once static interactions are now continuous and involve multiple screens. When executed thoughtfully, user experiences that tap into these emerging devices can blur the borders of the screens around them.
Leverage passive modes.
Tablets should begin to reflect the spaces in which they live. As a constant presence in collective spaces, they can provide ambient information when they are idle. Their size and shared ownership make them ideal for this passive functionality: a few moments away and they might become digital photo frames, alarm clocks or weather screens. While phones and PCs are confined to desktops and pockets, mid-screen devices enjoy ambient exposure in living spaces, giving them the unique opportunity to add passive value and continually invite users to engage.
Support hands and fingers.
In the world of small touchscreens, tablets break the confines of the handset and create “space to play.” Sketching, flipping, shuffling — the opportunities for interaction are totally different on these emerging devices. New possibilities of direct manipulation beyond dragging and pinching can open up deeper connections with the physical and digital world. Mundane computing tasks become faster, more delightful — felt. The size of a tablet begs to be picked up, manipulated, touched. In our observational studies, we’ve found that when exposed to touchscreens large enough to accommodate them, people will use their entire hands for input. By mirroring people’s expectations of the natural world, these devices become unique sandboxes in which people can play with digital content.
Screens are growing larger. Buttons are being pushed to the sides of devices. The interface is now front and center. It’s the primary way tablets and other emerging devices communicate their value. An interface can make the difference between a tablet that carves out its place in the mobile ecosystem and one that gets exchanged for a portable video player. As a user interface company that believes in innovation through design, Punchcut has been at the forefront of defining the possibilities of this nascent form factor. The space is still wide open. We encourage our clients to take the lead in establishing the benefit mid-screen devices can bring to people’s lives.
Contributors: Jared Benson, Shilpa Shah & Sandy Fershee
A Punchcut Perspective. © 2010, Punchcut LLC. All rights reserved. / Image: Johan Larsson.