UX Nuggets Thoughts and advice on usability and user experience
June 18, 2012 |
Apple’s CEO Tim Cook gave developers a sneak peak of the newest Apple product at this year’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) held in San Francisco, CA . While the long-rumored Apple Television did not make an appearance at WWDC, it’s still interesting to examine how the other, more iterative products will impact the user experience within the Apple ecosystem going forward.
Arguably the biggest announcement at this year’s WWDC was the “next-generation MacBook Pro.” Aside from the usual incremental specs boost, the next-generation MacBook Pro is the first in a new line of hybrid laptops that straddle the established MacBook Pro and MacBook Air lines. In particular, a Retina display and the lack of a disk drive distinguish this device from its brethren. Neither the Retina display nor (lack of) disk drive is particularly surprising, as all other mobile Apple devices have premiered with Retina displays and the MacBook Air already lacked a disk drive, but what impact will these changes have on the full-featured MacBook Pro line?
The real impact of the Retina display on usability is debatable. Depending on display size and viewing distance, 1080 resolutions already push the limit of human vision. Upon close inspection, text will appear sharper and high resolution images more detailed, but there is limited evidence to support a significant improvement in readability or reduction of eyestrain during normal use. Furthermore, it will take awhile for third-party applications – not to mention web content – to be updated to support the higher resolution. Until that time, Retina users will have a mixed experience which includes much sharper, but still pixilated, images.
A couple of years ago, Netbooks, and more recently Ultrabooks, caused a stir by challenging consumers to consider how much they need a disc drive in a portable computer, especially when it comes at the cost of weight and bulk. With the growth of digital distribution and cloud storage, it’s becoming increasingly clear that physical media is a thing of the past. While Apple is usually faulted for their approach to planned obsolescence, removing the disc drive from their flagship laptop serves as a great example of how Apple can use its clout to force issues within the industry. And with the ingenious DVD-sharing feature of Mac OS X which allows users to wirelessly access a disc drive from another Mac or PC, physical media is being let down slowly, allowing users to adjust their behavior and expectations.
The announcement of iOS 6 for iPhone, the next version of Apple’s mobile device operating system, found Apple in a familiar place. Rather than the shotgun approach to feature release employed by its competitor, Apple is notorious for holding onto features and releasing them at their own pace. In the not-too-distant past, iPhone users didn’t have access to Android 1.0 features like copy-paste and app multitasking. A few of the features new to iOS 6, while not revolutionary in terms of their competition, can have a major impact on how users live and interact with their phones, such as “Do Not Disturb” settings and VIP inbox limit notifications – both solve the notification bombardment problem introduced along with iOS 5. Reducing the number of interruptions via intelligent filtering will allow users to better retain focus at work and during daily activities.
Given Apple and Google’s rocky history, it was entirely expected for Apple to switch the iOS maps app from Google Maps to the new Apple Maps. In recent years Apple has tried to eliminate reliance on third party services, which they argue improves the cohesiveness and compatibility of the user experience. However, this move may prove to be purely political “hair-pulling” with little consideration for the user in the short-term. Despite the addition of turn-by-turn directions and 3D maps, key functions of the current map app, such as transit directions and points of interest, are missing completely from the new version. When updating, users expect added, not reduced, functionality. And while Apple maps look appealing, it is questionable whether they can remain so minimalist without losing utility. Google spent years refining and optimizing Google Maps, Apple’s mapping has a long way to go to catch up.
With iOS 6, Siri will now be available for the new iPad and has expanded functionality. While users will likely appreciate the ability to check sports scores, make dinner reservations and launch apps, there is a question about whether the base voice recognition functionality works well enough to garner adoption. It is speculated that a large number of iPhone 4S don’t use Siri because it simply does not work well enough. Only time will tell whether the voice recognition algorithms have improved enough or the new functionality provides enough utility to re-invigorate users.
Tim Cook and Co. demoed a lot of new features included with Mac OS X Mountain Lion at WWDC which – much like Microsoft’s Windows 8 – enables users to link desktop and mobile operating systems with a consistent interface and feature set. (Although an argument can be made for consistency between devices, since most attempts at porting interfaces result in interactions that are mismatched for device type.) Famously, Apple added a mandatory video to the previous Lion OS setup process which explained that scrolling was inverted (“down is up”) in the new version – a move largely taken to improve consistency with iOS. The previous Mac OS X Lion was grilled for this philosophy and Mountain Lion only continues the trend. While new features such as voice detection and auto-correct are interesting takes on desktop text input systems that haven’t changed for 20 years, a notification system that mimics the mobile version and a Game Center app that supports a completely different set of games feel copy pasted and the implications on interaction remain unclear.
The new product and upgrade announcements made during WWDC 2012 left me (very) cautiously optimistic for the Apple ecosystem user experience. While nothing unveiled was so innovative that it will make or break the company that laid the golden egg, they do face some significant challenges ahead when it comes to continuing to win over users and encourage adoption. Thinner, lighter devices will always be attractive. But it’s the killer features that change how we interact with these products – and that’s what will make or break the experience.
Paxton Schwarz is a User Experience Specialist at GfK User Centric with a strong background in user research, interface design and computer science. Since joining the team, Paxton has been involved in a wide range of projects involving medical devices, touch screen interfaces and interactive web applications.