Building Things for Humans

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Credit: Flickr / Honda News

I had a bit of a career crisis earlier this year. I asked myself, when did I become an iOS developer? I did not mean for that to happen. And so I made a plan, where I would diversify, and expand my skills, and explore. There’s are many good reasons not to tie your career to one platform, (as someone once observed to me, “there are a lot of unemployed BASIC programmers”), and if you work at a competitor, all the more reason.

At a crossroads, I had choice between mobile, and non-mobile, and whilst there were many other reasons and thoughts in this decision, I ended up staying with mobile. But I wasn’t feeling great about it.

A year ago, I gave a talk, where one of the things I mentioned was that I had the second best job in the world, because I get to build things for humans. It was why I wanted to work where I do – but I’d lost sight of that, in the day to day, fix this bug, build this feature. The bigger picture was obscured.

Mobile is Where Your Human Is

Here’s the thing about mobile though, humans often hate their computers, that thing they sit down at with a heavy heart and a large coffee every morning, but they love their phones. They take it to bed, to the bathroom, with it they capture the highlights of their days and lives, they turn to it in crisis. A mouse and keyboard separated humans from the computer, but a touch device is closer to them. Pet it, play with it, know where it is every minute of every day.

I build things for humans. I take pains over and pride in creating a great UI. There are those who despise UI, “real” engineering, after-all involves zillions of cores and unimaginable amounts of data. And we need that stuff – I don’t disparage it – but as far as your human is concerned, the UI is the application. Creating a great user experience is gift a software artiste gives a human.

Bridging the Gap Between the Analog and the Digital

I’ve been on a bit of a blogging hiatus of late, and one reason for that is that I upped and moved to the Southern Hemisphere. But whilst my accessories have yet to arrive, my personal computer has been sitting in my apartment since the day I moved in, well over a month ago. But I haven’t turned it on. I didn’t even have internet in my apartment for the first month – why did I need it? I’m rarely home and I have a data connection on my iPhone, that at a push, I’ll just tether my iPad to. When I was on vacation in San Juan, not deliberately disconnected, but coincidentally so (our cabin was damaged, and we were relocated to a more luxury one… without internet), but I didn’t take a laptop. I went “low tech”, with two smart phones, an iPad, and a Kindle.

Engineers sometimes find this weird, but it’s not. I see people at airport security – well dressed businessmen, young urbanites, pulling the tablet out of their bag, the cell phone from their pocket, but no laptop. Moving, I was pulling out two computers. This was difficult and seemed like lunacy – but I remember when it wasn’t so odd, your work machine was locked down, so of course you would take your personal one too. Once I got my iPad, once of the best things was that on business trips I could just leave my laptop at the office – who wants to carry it around? There’s exploring to do.

But I am never parted from my smart phone. The closest I get to disconnected is when I’m in another country and turn off data. But there’s always internet in some form, free wireless in cafes, or broadcast from a friend’s phone.

So my smart phone knows where I am, every minute of every day. My calendar is sync’d, and that says where I will be. Around my wrist, my nike fuel band tracks my activity, combine these and it’s pretty evident what I’m doing – Spinning? Skiing? Walking my usual route to work? My contacted people via twitter, email, text, phone, reveal the most important people in my life.

And so little is done with all that information, but there is a lot of potential there.

As an example, I’m not a huge downloader of apps to my phone, but two I’ve seen lately that I’ve thought were exciting:

Pair, which uses the device a human is closest to, to bring them closer to their favorite fellow human.

Twist, which uses information about where the human is to keep who they are meeting updated with their ETA.

There’s a gap, between the digital and the analog. I find these apps interesting, because they bridge some part of it. That gap is where I think software artistes can create transformative, compelling, experiences for humans, particuarly on mobile, and it’s where I like to play.

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