Device Multiplicity & Magical Continuity

From ACM Interactions / March — April 2015

Photo by Alfred Rowe on Unsplash

It has become rather routine to present a multi-device graphic on a company’s website, complete with laptop, tablet, and phone as a unified happy family, when selling a branded product or service. This imagery ostensibly promotes cross-device flexibility, if not uniformity. Today, that’s simply a baseline expectation, given that many people use multiple screen-based (mobile) devices over the course of a day, or across many days. And yet, underneath this benign ubiquity there’s the ominous specter of interminable, inescapable notifications/alerts/messages (i.e., “attention-disrupting entities”) distracting you anywhere, anytime. With the emergence of wearables, there is the dubious sense of being alerted on any part of your body-of devices buzzing with thrilling delight, yet not in a pleasurable way!

So many different sensorial indications combined with temporal gaps of “information jet lag” across devices amplify the tedious annoyance of playing catch-up, or being redundantly bothered across different screens and devices. Turn off one alert and another is buzzing — it’s truly a game!

Modern-day Whac-A-Mole, with distraction and dispersion of attention. My, oh, my! What can we do?

When you think about it, this insistent push for the multiplicity of data in a variety of forms demands a continuity of experience and, thus, intelligence of the system. There needs to be a finely arbitrated model of interaction between the user and all of her means of engagement & modes of expression. This necessarily goes beyond a coherent visual design system — although that is a vital benchmark — and maybe includes moments of breaking consistency.

At a macro-interaction level, there must be a well-defined set of principles around contextual awareness and smart defaults, with a silent, magical sense of “knowing.” Ah, there’s the rub!

How does a device (and more accurately, the app, service, or system) know anything about you? Sure, there’s historical data and deductions based upon user gestures (likes, recommendations, etc.) at the micro-interaction level. But what we need is a richer sense of knowing that involves an interrelated mix of the following:

  • valid assumptions made by the product team, including engineering and product management, informed by customer insights
  • useful adaptations to contexts and situations, to provide the right data, at the right time, in the right format per context or activity in progress
  • intentional inconsistencies to break a visual or behavioral model where appropriate, given the physical or cognitive context, such as social, audio, or lighting cues of the surroundings.

Maybe we need some kind of “smart ghost” that pervades the system as it extends across devices and platforms, via the APIs and protocols and handshakes, to serve as a connective intelligence to enhance continuity and support the perception of a unified, smooth experience. Thus, when you pick up and interact with one device, your other devices know what you did and when and perhaps for how long, and in what sequence, and physically where it occurred. There’s knowledge of battery power and of social gestures such as sharing and liking. There’s awareness of when to pick up where a task was left off from one device to another, across platforms, across networks-even across identities and profiles. And, of course, there is certainty of device form factors (screen size, resolution, and orientation) to further enrich a magical sense of awareness.

Yes, the system magically “knows” (or more accurately, employs sophisticated machine learning algorithms and sensor-based techniques) how to fluidly support natural, distributed cross-device behaviors, so it’s more than just pretty screens rendered nicely on different slabs of glass — which will eventually wrap around your wrist or even your neck! In effect, these responsively designed screens become a powerful kind of coordination and camaraderie that help you get through your day.

There’s one more thing needed to fully realize this “magic”: knowing when to expose the seams and edges of that continuity.

The smart ghost must allow for users to break apart and compartmentalize or deliberately fragment their experience. When the app or service or system knows the boundaries (home vs. car vs. office, or even the bedroom vs. the dining table, or talking with mom vs. cooking dinner for family), it can anticipate what’s desirable for interruption or not. And then rejoining smoothly, effortlessly, without user interaction, feels like real continuous magic, paradoxically.

This is the true value of a multi-device setup: a sense of continuity that doesn’t disrupt unnecessarily and lets me smoothly go about my daily routines in an enhanced manner, providing what John Dewey poetically referred to as an “integrative aesthetic experience,” whole in and of itself. That’s when multiplicity of information expression achieves the continuity of magical, natural engagement, regardless of device or screen, brimming with a quiet, powerful intelligence that supports our daily living.

Copyright held by author. The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2015 ACM, Inc.

Originally published at




This began as an archive of my columns published in ACM Interactions, 2015 — 2020. It will evolve into an ongoing collective of guest writers and new ideas.

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Uday Gajendar

Uday Gajendar

Design catalyst / leader / speaker / teacher. Always striving to bring beauty & soul to digital experiences.

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