Designing against device convergence

Once, things were separate

Born in 1986, I can just remember the time before the emergence of the PC as a staple in the American home. My first computer arrived when I was in elementary school. Between the monitor and tower, it was was the size of a poor man’s mini-fridge.

I remember playing mahjong before school, being amazed at the textures and sounds as I connected the various tiles. I’d spend my nights creating animated shorts in Felix the Cat’s Cartoon Toolbox. I can remember traveling through the MindMaze in Encarta in the same study that held our A-to-Z set of Encyclopedia Britannica.

Knowledge and entertainment at your fingertips with Mindmaze (Source)

Before the computer, there were board games, books, trips to the library, venturing outside. I remember thinking about how silly those encyclopedias were, now that I had all that knowledge at my fingertips. The possibilities for entertainment and learning were endless and colocated. Even creativity came in that box. Time itself seemed to stop and be defeated — I controlled a machine that could hold endless hours of anything. And I was hooked.

Not much later I was witness to the emergence of the internet. Now my computer could be connected to the world. Relationships could be digital now, too, and in an untold number — limited only by my willingness to engage. I’d stay up late making new friends across the US in an AOL chat room. I’d wait 15 minutes for pictures to download of my friend in Ireland. I had an online girlfriend with the screen name Kitty29.

Multiple interfaces and devices converge into a single device and interface: The smartphone (Source)

Fast-forward to today — Message a few friends, order a pizza on GrubHub and learn about the political situation in Malawai without leaving the couch. Smartphones are our music players, email machines, note takers, business systems, time wasters, and everything in between. We can travel up the pyramid of needs to enlightenment without doing much of anything.

And of course, I am no exception — I pay for my newest IPhone in simple installments of around $120. There was a time when I’d think that steep, but for something that I spend 2–4 hours a day on between work and play, it’s hard not to justify the fastest, most reliable experience available. I need the best on the market to allow myself to be the best I can be. At least that is what I tell myself.

It’s not all nostalgia

In old Greek, literally “The pain from an old wound” (Source)

Are you having any pings of nostalgia? It’s not uncommon to remember fondly this simple past, a time without machines. A time with simpler machines. You see it in articles, talking to people. Certainly the past holds a glow that’s hard to pin down.

But, if it were only nostalgia, why is vinyl making a comeback with those who never owned records before? Why do people speak out against the transition from physical to electronic books? Why people at the center of the technology scene worship their trip Burning Man to unplug? How can we explain the rise of yoga seminars and meditation as a new way of life for this supposedly golden digital era?

I posit there’s more to this than nostalgia — there is something to be said about separation of devices, of utilization. Below, the case for this separation — and what it might mean for the thoughtful designer.

The costs of convergence

Competition for attention

Anxiety (Source)

Perhaps the greatest cost convergence is the conscious and subconscious competition that comes when using a convergent device. When opening the iPhone to check your email, you are bombarded with 100s of options — play a game, surf the web, review that text message. Each set has its own notifications and calls for your attention. With device convergence, it’s hard to block out the noise— and temptation — of competing applications in the same space

This is often chalked up to “Information overload”, but the condition may better be examined as “Infinite choice syndrome.” Once the options to engage became too numerous, it is nearly impossible to choose without narrowing the set. This narrowing process can cause intense burden over time.

For the thoughtful designer, exploring ways to separate and untangle their application or device from the noise will lead to users with more focus and a more enjoyable experience.

The loss of the tactile

How would you feel about a phone you could take off the hook when someone called? Is there is a sense of beginning in taking a physical phone off the hook? Is it a more satisfying end in hanging up, putting that phone back down? Consider the clear feedback when pushing a number and feeling the response below your fingertips. Consider the feeling when you touch a loved ones skin, or pet a kitten.

In the convergent world, tactile experiences are often lost. A simple game of solitaire loses the ability to sort, shuffled, and shift cards. Our hands cramp at the form factor of one-size-fits-all phones, but they also lose the ability to physically manipulate items in space and the inherent satisfaction therein. For the disabled, these tactile signals were even more important — low vision and blind users rely on the physical entirely for signal, augmented now with various sound interfaces (when available)

Consider the recent decision for the IPhone 7 to remove the physical device jack and pushable home button as move further down this path. How will people react? How can competitors approach the lack of tactile and movement away in this space as a competitive advantage?

Lack of optimization

A minimalist alarm clock (Source)

As devices have become centralized into one interface, they have lost some of the ability to be optimized to task. Taking our phone example further, it’s much harder to know you’ve successfully dialed a number in the smartphone interface. The simple flashlight has been replaced with the less-powerful and hidden-in-a-menu flashlight button on phone.

Even the humble alarmclock has been sacrificed on the alter of smartphone for many. Waking up, snoozing, users once had a nice big display of time and a large button to satisfyingly smash. Now we’re charged with deep thought and interface navigation first-thing.

The thoughtful designer might dig into which uses and tasks have been seemingly “replaced” but with less optimized experiences, and move into a separated entity to better meet the need even at the cost of convergence.

A single point of failure

Being lost and being “lost” (Source)

Perhaps often overlooked is the new single point of failure inherent in a single interface or tool. Whereas you could still get around with a physical map if your Walkman died, if your phone battery dies you truly become an island in the absence of other devices.

Losing your phone can border on tragedy if you are in an unknown place, or have relied on the device to store essential information — phone numbers, notes in Evernote, locations, recipes. The separated media of yesterday allowed for less worry around battery life and location of any given device — as no one device stored everything.

The risk to the individual of not being able to rely on their device is magnified by increasing desire for smaller sleeker devices that come at a cost of battery life and heartiness. If a device is stolen the risk is magnified as all information is now in the hands of another.

The smart designer may use this as an opportunity to understand how to build more reliable, hearty devices or build in redundancy where possible. In messaging, find a way to simplify and allay fears of users burdened by the one-device carry of all important information.

What this means for the designer

In painting a negative picture of device convergence, we’ve been lax in describing the inherent benefits — less waste, less plastic, and overall a more streamlined experience for many tasks (and switching between those tasks)

Still, for the designer there may be something to embracing device and task separation. Following the potential pitfalls explained here, there may be an advantage to thinking outside the convergent world.

What do you think?

Tell me what you think in comments below. Which devices or actions do you wish were separated out? What other costs may be missed?