Signal and Noise and Apple Subscription Plan

There’ve been a plethora of reaction and analysis of the Apple subscription plan, from pros and cons to anywhere along that spectrum.

I don’t know enough—or as much as the tech pundits do—to dissect, slice, dice, julienne, and fry all the possible implications. I am for sure worried about the common concerns, like not being able to read all the Kindle books I’ve bought, or not being able to stream Netflix on my iPad or iPhone.

Until that happens, I’ve taken the sideline to see how things unfold as the tech world scrambles over itself.

I do have one curiosity, though, about how this affects “the average user”. As much as I’ve tried to put myself in the shoes of an average user, I have a hunch I’m not one, or at least in Apple’s eye. One night, I captured a picture of my parents sitting on the couch, my mom playing on her iPhone, and my dad browsing for news on an iPad, and it dawned on me that they might be considered more “average” than me.

My mom and dad on their iPhone and iPad

After all, they’re not going to jailbreak and root anything. They’re not going to try to run Android as a dual boot. They just need to be able to turn their devices on and off, and send a picture, a message, or read the news. While I am trying to squeeze all the features out of my devices, demanding and constantly asking “What more can you do for me?”, I don’t think it’s the same for my parents. They don’t think of their devices as something to hack and do surgery on.

What do these devices mean for an average user? Specifically, how do they read news and magazines? Curious about this, I went to the App Store and looked up what I consider the quintessential average user—busy moms and busy women who still want to stay current with all the trends, tips and tricks for that much promised Best Life—Oprah fans.

Here are some comments about the Oprah Magazine app for February 2011:

“I have subscribed to O Magazine since the beginning 10 years ago. I love this new app! I have the January and February issue on my IPad. I have one suggestion. Make the app a subscription price instead of $3.99 per issue. I now trying to decide to cancel my magazine subscription or download monthly to my iPad.”

“Give us an annual subscription price and I’d gladly sign up and go green. A reluctant 4 stars for a 5 star app.”

“It could be 5 stars if new issues was [sic] and “in-app” purchase rather than purchase one app every month. “

“Please please please make make this a subscription and load it into one app.”

What I see here is a clear desire to have  content from a trusted source in the easiest way possible: one app, one subscription. As I mentioned, I have no idea how this will pan out, and for the sakes of all my Kindle books, I hope Gruber’s right: “You’ll seldom go wrong betting on Apple doing something that’s good for Apple and good for its users — no matter what the ramifications for everyone else.”

The Trouble with User Experience Design

I am–for most professional intents and purposes–a User Experience Designer. That’s the job title on my business card and LinkedIn profile. That’s how I’m introduced. I go to UX conferences, I read UX books, go to UX Happy Hours, and generally have a good time with UX people. Some days it feels as if I eat, sleep, dream, and soak in UX bath salts.

Yet, I’ve always had trouble with the term “User Experience”, and especially the implication that one can design a specific experience for someone else. It inevitably conjures up images of Winston Smith’s primal urges and the dystopian question whether androids dream of electric sheep.

Take a deep breath, sit back. Grab your favorite drink, and let me take you through a roundabout way of explaining why I feel this way. The TL;DR version will be at the end.

In my night job, I teach yoga. Last night, in my Intro to Yoga class I introduced a concept called svadhyaya, translated from Sanskrit as self-study, self-inquiry, or self-reflection. (For fellow etymology nerds out there, sva = self, dhyaya is from the verb dhyai, “to contemplate, to call to mind”.)

“So, self-study, like, spiritually?”, a student asked.

“Possibly”, I replied, “What about noticing where your feet and knees and shoulders are? And how you’re breathing right now?” Being aware of where you are in space and what you’re doing is also a fine way to self-reflect. This habit, with practice, and over time, can show up elsewhere outside the yoga mat. You’ll start to notice when you’re slumping at our desk, or that your breath shortens when someone cuts us off in traffic.

If being aware of where your toes are turns out to be useful in other parts of your life, great. ”But, I don’t pretend to know how you should reflect spiritually. That is your personal experience.” I told her.

I see a lot of yoga teachers talking about feelings and emotions with their students, and I’m not that brave. It’s not my business to tell someone how to “feel”. If I suggest that you ought to feel divine bliss in a yoga pose, and you’re actually in pain and feeling shitty, both of us are imposing someone else’s reality on ourselves, and how fun is that?

In other words, my user experience is not your user experience.

The only thing I can do when I teach yoga is to make sure the surface is even, the floor is clean, and you feel safe, so that you can confidently work on getting strong and flexible or whatever it is that you need from yoga.

Similarly, in design, it’s my business to do everything I can to create, provide and fine-tune all the factors necessary for a functional and beautiful product. It’s my job to make sure that my design is useful and understandable and all these things.

But, as Kim Goodwin, author of Designing for the Digital Age said:

Since each person brings her own attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions to any situation, no designer can determine exactly what experience someone has.” – pg 5, Designing for the Digital Age.

We don’t have to look to far to see evidence of this. For some people, the iPhone and iOS devices provide a superior user experience. For others, it’s Android. For yet some others, it’s Windows Phone. I love my Mac to a disturbing degree, but I’m sure there are those who will enrage at the sight of the glowing fruit that I love to fondle.

For a non techy example (and for you foodies): while I love a juicy Portabella sandwich, a boyfriend I once had won’t touch a fork that’s been in the same zipcode as a mushroom.

I think of myself as an Interaction Designer, but I don’t mind (so much, anymore) when I get called a User Experience Designer. I get that we need a word to rally around and to communicate, and there’s no reason to be pedantic about the semantics. I’ve come to fully accept it. But, I’m also aware that the user experience is likely never going to be 100% my own doing.

TL;DR: We can’t really design an “experience”, since everyone’s experience is based on their attitudes, behaviors, perceptions, and choice of fruit. The best we can do is to set up the environment in which a person’s experience can be optimized.

“It is interesting reading your reactions. Your five predecessors were, by design, based on a similar predication: a contingent affirmation that was meant to create a profound attachment to the rest of your species, facilitating the function of the One.

While the others experienced this in a general way, your experience is far more specific. Vis-à-vis: love.”

Tool Time vs. Goal Time, or, the Fallacy of the Microsoft Windows Phone 7 Ad

No doubt you’ve seen the video ad for Microsoft Windows Phone 7 (if not, you can watch it on YouTube).

Now, this is not a post about the quality of the Windows Phone 7, or any other phone for that matter. It’s a post about the confusion between the concept of tool time and goal time.

Tool time is the time that, if dragged out longer, does not improve the quality of the experience. It’s an inverse relationship. Goal time, on the other hand, describes a positive relationship between time spent doing something and the quality or outcome of that activity.

Here’s a concrete example. You’re thinking of buying a new phone. You go to, oh, let’s say your nearest most favoritest phone store. You play with the phones. You take pictures, you compare the camera quality. You read every review you can get your hands on. You talk to all your friends about what they like or don’t like about their phone. That’s goal time. The more time you spend doing this, the more informed your decision will be.

You’ve settled on a phone. You go back to the store. It’s the Holidays shopping season. The line is out the door. They have a new temp person working. The computer has weird quirks. The lady at the top of the line is trying to find her check book. You’ve waited for this moment. You’ve done your due diligence. You can’t wait to tear open the package to play with your new phone. If the line went any slower, it would go in reverse. You’re ready to scream. Now, that’s tool time.

This is a real life example, but we can easily translate this to online. Whatever you’re buying, the time it takes for you to browse around, to decide on the right item, etc. all that is goal time. That’s why sites have reviews and items that you might also be interested in, and what other people have also bought, etc. All of that is geared towards helping you make a decision, and well… buy something, spend money, and then spend even more money. Tool time is the check out process. You may not mind spend ing 45 minutes browsing around, reading reviews and checking out alternative products, but I would bet that a 45-minute check-out process is something that belongs in eCommerce hell.

Why am I talking about this?

The Windows Phone 7 ad seems to imply (to me at least) that the people burying their nose in other kinds of phones, risking their lives and neglecting their sex lives, are doing so because of tool time, whereas the Windows Phone 7 is “designed to get you in and out and back to life.”

Let’s first give credit where credit is due, the ad got something right. It hits home for… possibly all of us. Who here hasn’t crossed the street with their face in their phone, trusting with full faith that every driver on the road is sane, sober and obeys traffic lights? Who here hasn’t slept with their phone and looked at it first thing in the morning?

I won’t talk about our addiction to our mobile devices here, that’s another post, but I’m going to say this: not every instance where someone is “forgetting about life” is due to how hard, or easy, it is to use their phone. It could be that they’re playing Angry Birds and thisclose to getting three stars on every level. Just… one… more… try….

In fact, I’m going to go as far as saying that when someone’s immersed in something, a mobile device, a book, a movie, they’re enjoying it, they’re lost in it. (Not bad, not good, just is). Maybe, just maybe, they’re not thinking about “getting back to life.” (Again, I’m not suggesting what they ought to do here.)

From a User Experience Design angle, if someone is so hooked by what you’ve created, to the point where a hot woman standing by in a silk lace teddy wants some action, and they don’t want any, well… you done did good! I mean, how many other things could possibly be  capturing the guy’s attention here? Very few. I’m going to bet that one of them is not… oh, finding out how many email messages he has.

Again, like that iPhone 4 customer in that awesome video said, I don’t care what phone is better or worse, for what purpose and for whom (and that’s an entirely different discussion). A phone is a personal choice, and it’s become borderline deranged how some of us have gotten worked up over it. Root your Android, enjoy your tactile keyboard, and let me have my geebees. (I may tell you your phone is inferior, but that’s only because I like bantering.) Besides, we’re fighting the wrong fight anyway.

All I’m saying is, don’t confuse the time you spend doing something and the quality of the tool. For a more in depth discussion of tool time and goal time, check out  Jared Spool’s article: Dividing User Time between Tool and Goal. Really.

Now this, is what I call Quality Time