Shifting the Perspective of Productivity: A UX Designer Using an iPad Pro

Anarchtablist (noun) — “One who uses the tablet platform with such innovation that it breaks existing paradigms; see @ARJWright” (Twitter, 11/23/11)

My history in digital spaces is filled with the effects of experiments and shifts seen but not always well understood until much later by those whom I’ve worked with, even friends and family. Upon jumping into a role as a UX Designer in early 2016, these experiments continued. This time, the muse was an iPad Pro (12in, 128GB, WiFi-only) and the canvas was a dedicated UX team — the first for this fairly large company.

This document serves as a bit of a journal to how I worked as a UX designer with the iPad Pro, and some lessons I hope to carry forward. This is not the first role-journal I’ve written (From Workstations to Working Beyond Stations), but it is longer and a bit more reflective considering how I’ve evolved methods of storytelling. It is quite long, but if you skip to the Lessons Learned section at the end, you will understand why this is both wide and deep.

As part of any team, a large part of getting work done has to do with your expertise with the tools at your disposal. For me, UX fell into a bucket of skills where I could use almost anything that was around me to get the job done. After several weeks of waiting for a corporate-issued laptop and using a Chromebook to get up to speed on the project, I made the decision to use an iPad Mini to create and share deliverables.

This worked out well for the most part. My application suite included Adobe’s Creative Cloud, InVision, Evernote’s Penultimate, and Paper by 53. Our project was managed using Atlassian’s JIRA and Confluence - which meant I needed to be on the company’s network for collaborative assets and workflow (chose not to go through IS/IT in order to get my device approved for VPN/VDI access). I started from a knowledge level that was fairly low (for the industry, not UX) and had to come up to speed quickly. Most days, I was largely successful with perspectives and approaches easily nailing deliverables and goals. And then I got a headache which forced a half-day and two naps.

Waking mostly healed from that headache, I went to work that evening on some pending deliverables. This time, without the corporate network behind me, the Chromebook wasn’t useful. The Mini had most of what I needed in Adobe Comp CC, so I cranked out deliverables quite quickly. What was a lingering wonder became a near present confirmation. I would acquire the iPad Pro.

The unintended consequence of the Pro, even more than when I was doing the same level of design work on the Mini, is that other designers are asking how an iPad might serve their own workflows. A few have trialed some note-taking apps, others are using Duet to extend their Mac’s display abilities. It’s pretty interesting what happens around the conversation of tools when the conventional ones are thrown aside and new avenues looked for.

My setup challenged normal approaches to design and productivity. I would forgo the Smart Keyboard and use the on-screen. I would eventually purchase Apple’s Pencil stylus, but rarely keep a ballpoint around (unless Post-It notes were needed). And that corporate-issued laptop, a Lenovo running Windows Vista, would be relegated to nothing more than a third* monitor. I was now firmly into a tablet-first productivity experience. This shift quickly turned into several categories of perspectives to which are addressed in this writing piece:

  1. Tablets Should Be Your Workstation
  2. iOS is More Capable if You Forget What You Are Used To
  3. Limitations in Software As Opportunities in Behavior Change
  4. Challenges of Tablet-Based Design Deliverables

*Yes, third monitor. As with most professionals in information technology, mobiles are never far away. In my case, my mobile and watch definitely took on a higher usage frequency than that laptop.

We know the dance. At various points near or just after the top of the hour, people shuttle back and forth with notepads and coffee cups in one hand, and a open laptop in the other. Why opened laptop? Because it’s takes half the meeting for it to resume from suspend (or so it feels). Plus, connectivity from one side of the office to the other is suspect; you can’t have spreadsheets taking a long time to load because of connectivity issues to the network drives, Salesforce, or SharePoint.

This isn’t the issue with tablets. As a matter of design, tablets are seemingly perfectly designed for the meeting culture many of our offices have become. Quicker to resume from suspend (screen-off) is easy, but I like the collaboration skills it encourages. For example, sitting in a meeting talking over product requirements, I’m annotating or updating wireframes (in Adobe Comp CC), or sketching workflows (Paper by 53 usually, Penultimate other times) when the conversation tangents into social and technical spaces beyond scope. There was often the case where before the meeting has finished (and sometimes before the conversation has finished) that I’ve not just made notes, but updated the deliverable and placed it to the shared workspace (InVision and Confluence).

In other instances it’s purely a space issue. I notice many analysts and developers using external keyboards and second or third monitors in order to better address workflow. However, there’s the matter of that workstation and it’s footprint. From risers or a dock for the laptop, to wedges for the keyboard, to the spaghetti streams of wires connecting all of these, desk-space is at a premium. And don’t be a person who needs to have reference material at ones desk. There’s little room in cubicle neighborhoods and yet folks make it all work: bins, bags, shelving and even boxes from other products delivered to the office.

The picture noted here speaks to my tablet-run desk. Dominated by the iPad Pro, the only real partners in productivity are post-it notes (eventually digitized using Evernote’s Scannable). The phone was never connected, and the company-issued laptop pretty much never moved. It served two functions — InVision uploader and occasional third monitor. Everything else, handed quite well by the Pro, so much probably a bigger shock that I rarely needed to even charge the Pro before the end of the day (9–10hrs of battery life easily).

Without needing worry about being an admin to my desk-workstation, I was free to use the physical space as well as the digital canvas of the Pro to create the interface components and environments I was hired to do. For the most part, I was successful. Part of that success though had to come when I stopped putting laptop perspectives into my tablet’s frame.

It is usually a surprising assumption that a tablet, let alone Apple’s tablet, can be used in a productivity setting. So then I’m always armed when the question arises:

…that works when you are drawing like that, but what about when you need to do real work?

My response is usually to ask what is meant by real work. If they say they crunch data, I open Excel for iOS, then a custom UX Audit (based on Nielsen’s Heuristic Evaluation), or some other custom dataset I’ve customized for our needs and ask what work? Or, I open the PowerPoint deck I use to teach Windows/macOS Excel features side-by-side with each other and wait for the response. When asked about coding I pull up Git2Go and Textastic and then using a multi-finger gesture slide over to Safari where I open the tabs interface, pushing a second tab window and opening my local instance so that a live-local preview can be seen. When the jaws close and folks see how adept I have become on a tablet, it shifts the conversation.

The resetting in expectations is akin to finding out that the history you were taught is mostly a lie. A resetting of the question around what one is comfortable with usual follows, along with some adding an acknowledgement that what works for me is too far into a future they can’t imagine for themselves. Yet, the future is front of them. That future is in part going to mean direct-input computing, perhaps some voice, and definitely a breaking of screens into more than just a glowing box.

Apple (and Microsoft) have been marketing their tablets as replacements for workstations and laptops for sometime now. And while it is a bit of marketing fluff in the language, there is some truth is the approach. Applications and services designed for tablet-specific interactions do transform not just how we approach work, but become a catalyst for how work is better done (perhaps work is the wrong verb).

Or even a better thought, what if tools are changing and it requires more than deft fingers to do the next things within these production interfaces?

As I would bend the Pro more and more into my workflow, it was less about workflows as normal, and more about looking thru those workflows to motivations, efficiencies, and opportunities. If the tools change for even the producer, the resulting work can and should look different.

I believe there are countless opportunities to reframe the product and the workspace when a tablet becomes framed as the creation station, not just a consumption one. And yet I think — maybe similar to others who have put forth thoughts on other computing changes happening afoot — that what’s not challenged isn’t that the tablet isn’t capable, but that the modes that we have now in PCs seem more capable of everything.

And yet it’s true. You can’t do everything. Of one of my major frustrations is how I can create wireframes (from scratch or template), and then upload them to our InVision instance, but then I need to go to the work PC in order to add the interactivity between them. Sure, InVision has a mobile app, which grants me the upload facility. But, it is almost like it was thought that while a mobile device might be great to display and comment on interaction patterns displayed there, actually creating those interactions is something another platform is needed for. That amounts to a fear of design to me (willingly ignoring the technical hurdles of creating image maps inside an app that become reproduced on a website); a fear to actualize what a tablet-as-canvas can create if untethered to the past’s methods.

…What you might not notice when you use an application, web service, or something else digital, is that there were a considerable amount of decisions that went into making that feature. There were napkin sketches, wireframes, prototypes, several (tens or hundreds, hopefully not thousands of) meetings, and a host of happy hours which made that feature an eventual reality…

Now, I did run into limitations (best) exposed because I was on a tablet. One scenario was that data tables didn’t know up as desired within the mobile app-view of the product. The lack of awareness towards specific constraints around tables isn’t seen so easily by persons who desire to have others sit at a laptop all day. I was able to not only display the issue, but use the expansive screen size and differing philosophies of mobile browsers and in-app web views to explain what’s was being missed in product planning and development. After resetting expectations, and a few weeks of pulling hair out, I was able to develop on top of a grid system the means to deal with tabular data that respected mobile and non-mobile contexts.

The limitations I ran into with that mobile problem shifted how I would do wireframes and even analysis from that point forward. Instead of designing pages, I would map components against prescribed contexts. Instead of allowing designs to break hard at various view ports, I would design with the perspective that most of it will break and it will need to be graceful despite my blindness to the user’s context (yes, I did more UI blind than I would have liked). I would have to speak more by the pen than by text — but receive text and talk as feedback mechanisms because I would be proposing what had not been considered. The tablet, this (often talked about as a) canvas, became not just a workstation, but a listening post.

Productivity is a matter of solving humane problems with tool sets and behaviors. It seems normal to use various methods to get there. And yet, what using an iPad over the years, and what the Pro has magnified in this role, is that you sometimes need to even change the tools you use if you want to go about changing the behaviors your product proposes. It’s an obscure and hard way to work, but it offers the best rewards because instead of relying on the past tools to inform the future, you are allowing the past to be a foundation to something you can better build in the present for that future.

There are many expectations that land at your desk when a tablet is chosen. Some being easier to deal with than others. Expectations of a tablet and its craftsman not being visible enough, or contextual enough, to clarify that work is being done is a challenge I ran into fairly often. And one that took more in wrangling politics than technology in order to solve.

Some of the early feedback I needed to address had to do with the appearance of productivity. Tablets don’t look productive. Depending on your space, you might be everything except back-straight staring into a blue-white screen. Your hands will be busy with touch, tap, drag, and other gestures. And if you are a proponent of using a stylus, there’s the pen/pencil in hand, between the lips, or in the ear, while interfacing directly with that glowing screen. This challenges the very thought that work happens with a keyboard — and I relished breaking up that perspective.

Another challenge, and it wasn’t so much this project but the comments of a friend who kept me grounded in this experience, is that deliverables in UX come in different flavors, and a good designer should be able to go between those levels of fidelity and interactivity quickly. If I were doing UX as his level, my tablet would probably have been closer to the Surface Pro rather than the iPad Pro (he codes a good bit more; compiling and a few other actions are just now coming to the iOS in a decent enough capacity). While I am able to do some things quickly, the tools for desktop/laptop operating systems are more capable when higher-fidelity or certain types of interactivity are desired. Granted, I wonder why it is taking so long for the InVision/Marvell/Adobe/[insert company of the month]/etc of the design work to create an end-to-end solution for designing software for any platform on these mobile platforms. Being stuck with work-arounds because a service layer does 90% of the tasks is the way the Windows/macOS generation does productive computing. That should not be the case now.

I see some challenges in steps beyond this role. In a more senior position, being able to use a tablet (regardless of platform) has to not just maximize your individual productivity, but set others up for success as well. There are parts where this happened well — for example Paper, Evernote, and even Confluence. There are parts where this didn’t such as working with Adobe Comp CC even though the other UX designers were using XD (Adobe Experience Design) — we didn’t have assets in a space we could all easily use them, and the product design decisions were only getting to the point of seeing cohesion on the project when I departed. If it were not a Salesforce project, I could also see where devs having access to code outputs would have been ideal, rather than flat wires or mildly interactive prototypes (almost possible with InVision). And then getting these inputs and outputs into a frame where it spoke to the quality of the product. So while I could make a spreadsheet that threaded UX heuristic and product vision, it was a spreadsheet, not a data mosaic which connected inputs, outputs, and user feedback. This doesn’t exist on a tablet platform, let alone custom apps; so making a tablet bend into these contexts will be a challenge for the foreseeable future.

That said, those challenges are not without a means to solve them. Using the product suite’s little known features alongside the conventional ones opened a window into my work. An afternoon tweet about one piece of software led to an offer for a demo from another. That demo led to participation in an alpha program and a shift in how the team approached day-to-day status reporting, deliverables, and even design/play-time when generating ideas. Challenges to making Agile work alongside the UX paradigm opened the door on the methods of sketching I employ, and pushed the stakeholders and owners to consider quicker the impacts of decisions that had yet to be designed. And finally, to be able to create whole worlds on a tablet bends the definition of productive not to what fits into hours, but what fits into user’s contexts (I built a prototype completely on the Pro; used InVision to demonstrate).

It is not abnormal for me to take private experiments and push them into a productivity frame. As a matter of practicing what I preach, it is more or less an expectation that I will take some lightly understood tool and employ it in measures which might be harder to fathom. These decisions create for work for myself, and can tax the patience of those around me.

…What I am observing most, isn’t that others are jumping into the same stream as I am, but my use is causing them to question what really matters — and then seek for themselves whether the software or hardware is ripe enough for them to continue to eat…

Yet, it’s inside of those experiments that I learn lessons which might only bear fruit for others many years or iterations down the line. I’ve had more of these experiments which have failed than have succeeded. Probably more on the funnier-to-me side of things, it is usually the acquisition of these tools and methods by friends and family which do the better job of selling the benefits of various approaches I embark upon. I might jump off the boat, but they do a much better job of making it to shore and showing others the way there.

There is a perspective that going to work has to mean some repetitive actions in order to push someone else’s goals forward. And certainly, there is a good part of that which happens as part of this social contract. However, I have always felt that there should be another, just as affirmative, part of that contract: that we should have domain over our tools and environment to not simply do the work, but refine the craftsmanship that makes the work valuable enough to be done.

In this UX Designer role, craftsmanship became style. Style turned itself into a platform. And the platform experience kept manifesting itself in principles of usability, functionality, and delight. Well, to that latter point it was a bit harder to emphasize — I was doing the UI and UX for enterprise software (there is only so much delight in that space). Having my fingers and stylus firmly planted into the very pixels of the design and feedback of the users granted me a chance to reset my platform to one which valued their appreciation of software/service craftsmanship.

So should tablets be your workstation? Sure. If you are ok with the thought and exploration that iOS is more capable than its given credit for, then the iPad Pro would be a recommended direction. Do understand though that limitations in iOS or the iPad Pro can be and should be reset a opportunities to do something better with hardware and software. Those opportunities will challenge, and maybe even change, many behaviors. And that’s ok. When a tablet is a workstation, the challenge will be to elevate the quality of your deliverables. Sometimes that will be easy, other times that will give you a headache. As a UX Designer, that’s the craft I signed up for. And as an office worker, your craft isn’t to just consume someone else’s perspective of work, but for you to refine your craft so that work is a creative endeavor worth your finger’s touch.

Designing a cooperative, iterative, insanely creative pen of a future worth inveinting between ink & pixels @AvanceeAgency

Designing a cooperative, iterative, insanely creative pen of a future worth inveinting between ink & pixels @AvanceeAgency