Distractedly Intimate: Your Users on Mobile

Credit: Flickr / bronx.
Credit: Flickr / bronx.

We Are In Love


Have you noticed, how people hate their computers, but love their phones? Truly, it is our most intimate device – we share every moment of our day with it, we sleep with it, we capture special, and not so special moments with it, and it is our constant connection to the people we love the most [interesting slide deck on mobile usage].

The keyboard separates us from the computer, but touch brings us closer to the device. We stroke it, we pet it, and we interact with it differently because of our emotional attachment to it. Have you noticed, how many people seem to fear their computers? For the most part, they don’t fear their phones, or tablets.

My grandpa never opened his laptop, but he claims to use his iPad every day. I think he’s just sparing my feelings because it was a gift from me, but his usage habits seem to be about lack of need, rather than the laptop which was always “not working” in some intimidating way. I don’t think he likes email. But he doesn’t call me either, so I’m not sure that’s anything to do with user experience.

Let’s Play

In 2009, 8 of the top ten most popular (paid) apps were games [source]. That’s still true today [source]. Different games, but still games. These devices are personal, we use them for pleasure, for distraction. Computers are “work”. Phones, and even more so tablets, are for fun.

I think you can look at the things I work on, and be surprised that someone so obsessed with user experience would focus on B2B. But actually I think there is the most potential for happiness differential in these unloved places, on our most loved devices. Creating a great game, or consumer application, is at this point just an incremental improvement. B2B apps are the apps that people have to use for their job.  I used to work summers at a company that used Filemaker Pro. I interned at IBM, where yes, I had to use Lotus Notes. These pieces of software are sold on the features that the administrators want, not on the experience of the humans who use them. There a huge amount of ignored human misery there. Making a great B2B experience that also wins on administrator cares – like security – has a much bigger happiness differential.

Sometimes the best we can aim for is like a good dentist – quick, and painless. There’s a potential there – maybe it’s not to make people happy, but to make them less miserable, less stressed, less overwhelmed. But the potential for happiness differential is significant.

Love In a Time of Mobile

Who has set a special ringtone for your partner, or you bff, or home – wherever that is? It is a way to differentiate, without looking, the calls that you really want to take… or sometimes that you’re avoiding.

In the age of the app, there’s a natural extension to this, and it’s not just designating a sound, but a space, on your device for an important person in your life.

There are a few, but the first one I heard of was this app called “Pair” – they later renamed it to “Couple”, which I don’t like as much but whatever. Anyway, it had a message client, video chat (kind of, it connected to FaceTime so didn’t work on Android, or iOS to Android), you could draw pictures with your “pair”, and share your location with them. It also had a feature called “thumbkiss” where holding your thumb to the same place on the screen would cause the phone to vibrate. And a section of “memories” which collected the pictures you had sent, and you could go and see the picture in context of the stream of communication – what text messages you had sent.

There is a sweet story around it. This guy was in California doing a startup, and missing his girlfriend in KW, Canada – where I used to live – and he made this app as a way for them to stay in touch [source].

And it’s a little gimmicky, and there’s not much feature-wise that doesn’t exist in other places, but I think the charm of it is, it’s a place for the person you love, on the device you love.

We Have Changed

Text Messages

Text messaging originally began as a way to share emergency information, but it gained popularity with the public and as of 2007, 74% of phone users worldwide used text messaging [source]. If we think about where we are now, the way we communicate on our mobiles now, text messaging was the start. It was billed as a way to communicate when one or both parties were in different countries. It allowed us to communicate in places we weren’t able to before – during meetings, in public places.

As a teenager, I got kicked off an unlimited text messaging plan for sending too many. Teenagers today face far fewer restrictions, because they can use data instead, and services like SnapChat [interesting article by danah boyd] or Viber. Although text messages are still really popular [source].

Long Term Trend – Everything on The Mobile Device

One of the most miserable parts of flying is security. You have to take your laptop out, go through the naked body scanner – in Australia they say “You have a choice, we don’t make you. But you can’t fly if you refuse.

Since the iPad came out, I’ve noticed that sometimes you see smartly dressed people, likely travelling for meetings, travelling without a laptop. They just have a tablet and a smart phone. That makes sense, right? Why carry a laptop if you’ve no time to do actual work, a tablet is a fraction of the weight, with better battery life, and functional enough that if you need to write a short document, or take notes, do some research.

In another story of my failed tablet giving, I re-gifted my dad a tablet I got given as a thank-you for some diversity stuff I did. I thought he could take it on business trips instead of a laptop, but actually he just carries both.

But I maintain, eventually he’ll ditch the laptop. I think a lot of people will. We – software engineers – will be in the weird class of people who actually need a computer and can’t make do – probably. Maybe. The long term trend is that we’ll be able to do everything on mobile. 13,000 people a year buy a car using the EBay mobile app [source]. I find that incredible, and it’s just the start.

And check out this – someone is selling sheep on Instagram.

Meanwhile, when laptops can also be tablets, and there’s a 7” tablet and a phablet, the lines are blurred – in this what is mobile, and what is “computer”? What is tablet, and what is phone?

The Rise of The Amateur Artist

Apple is the second most popular camera manufacturer on Flickr [source]. One of the side effects of the mobile revolution, is that a lot of people are wondering around with the ability to take high-resolution images in their pocket.

And they do. Our urge to express ourselves, to create, is enabled like never before. And there’s some beautiful work out there. When I found Darcy the Flying Hedgehog, I declared – the cutest place on the internet has been found. And it was just a regular person, who took artsy pictures of their adorable hedgehog and posted them on Instagram. But when they stopped – Darcy is too old now, apparently, they had over 400,000 followers, many of whom were disappointed not to get to see more pictures of Darcy. The last picture had 63,000 likes, and many people commenting to express their disappointment.

Or consider the slightly tragic story of the man who takes pictures, with his smartphone, of him with his imaginary girlfriend. He calls it “hitori date” or “one-man date” [source]. He uses wigs, and paints one hand with nail-polish, and takes sweet beautiful photos that illustrate a couple in love, when in reality, he’s very alone – and seemingly, quite despondent about it.

We Are Not Really Here

Our Lives Are Online

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Recently I did something… morally questionable. I went out on a date with a misogynist. And I live tweeted it. It started as a joke, and can I claim it happened by accident? But then he started saying things like “so do you actually write code then?” and “I’ve worked with a few women, but only one or two of them were any good”.

And you know… I just kept tweeting. There was a hashtag. I type really fast and I pretended that I was on call and helping someone with an emergency.

I can’t claim that I enjoyed my evening with him. He didn’t come up with anything I hadn’t heard before, but he did pack a lot in to the two unbearable hours I endured with him.

Socially conditioned that it’s rude to run away, I took the more passive aggressive route, channelled my inner Lady Gaga – life is art – and my friends appreciated the show. I had people pinging me from as far away as New Zealand, my exploits were discussed over dinner in California. Someone in New York hoped it was satire. It wasn’t. People I’ve never met or spoken to tweeted, one from Nigeria. Another, in North Carolina, advised me to run away.

My favourite response was one from my friend who messaged me the following morning saying: “please continue to express yourself in ways that allow me to feel a part of your life“.

Rather than moan about the desolate wasteland of broken promises and missed expectations that is my romantic life, I invited my friends in. And we do this in less extreme – and less morally dubious ways – all the time. We post pictures of the places we go, and the things that we buy, the people we love, and of ourselves.

The downside to this is that these are for the most part, not a whole view. We emphasise the positive things. More time on Facebook correlates with low self esteem [source]? That’s not surprising, really.


I didn’t hear from the guy again. Which is mostly a relief. I imagine him telling his friends about it and saying, “She was on her phone all night! She said it was a work emergency, but everyone knows women don’t have jobs like that.

Because now we talk about this idea of “being present” which is the flipside of being distracted. We used to just be where we were, but now we feel pulled every which way [source]. Creating an idealised version of life, rather than actually living it [source 1, 2, 3, 4].

And so we practise things like “mindfulness”.

From Google N-Gram Viewer
From Google N-Gram Viewer

The disconnected vacation is now a thing [source 1, 2, 3]. Notice the qualification – disconnected – we used to just call this vacation. In theory, we can turn these devices off. But sometimes it’s easier to go somewhere remote without service and have a break that way instead. It requires less willpower.

Design for Distraction

There’s a tumblr called “Damn you autocorrect”. It’s hilarious text messages that are the result of the autocorrect feature… but also these message, these snafus, are the result of not giving texting full attention.

Texting whilst driving is more dangerous than driving drunk. Texting whilst walking causes poorer recall, slower walking, and actually a change in gait [source 12].

This is the cognitive overhead of distraction. Of multitasking. Which actually women don’t do better, but rather less badly on a subset of tasks [source].

You can think of it as distraction has a cognitive overhead comparable to that of being drunk.

On mobile, your users are multitasking. They are watching TV – splitting their attention. Ad break, and the device gets more. But when a Kardashian gets married, they are back to the TV.

We have to consider this in our designs because, you know, Kardashians get married a lot. And forms and pages are especially hard, because I’m filling it in but then Lady Gaga wore something fabulous and I forgot what I was doing.

This is your user on mobile. In love. And also kind of drunk.

There’s No App For That

I want to finish with a story about going mobile.

Who reads Postsecret? Postsecret is a project where people put their secret on a postcard – often with an image that illustrates it in some way, and they send it to this guy Frank, who puts up a selection each week on a blog. I love Postsecret, I have the books (Amazon), I saw the live show, I read it every Sunday. And for years now it has featured in talks I’ve given because I think it is a great story and example about bridging the gap between digital and analog.

They released a Postsecret app. And it was a great concept, people created their digital secrets and shared them, and commented on them. There were beautiful stories that came out of it, in the same way that the “don’t jump” campaign came from the blog. And the digital secrets seemed different, the use of pictures was different.

They had to pull the app. Anonymity is the foundation of this project, but it wasn’t sustainable in this model. The necessity that users could be anonymous enabled some small subset to destroy it for everybody.

And Postsecret doesn’t have an app anymore.

We can talk about web versus native, but I don’t think that is the most important thing to consider. I want to take this broader view of mobile and consider what changes.

If we look back at what destroyed the Postsecret app, it was nothing to do with form factor. It was about lowering the barrier to entry (no need to buy a stamp), and removing the gatekeeper. These seem to be almost inevitable side-effects of creating this mobile-centric experience. But they couldn’t build around them. I don’t think they anticipated them.

As we approach the point where mobile traffic overtakes desktop, it’s time to rethink what we are doing, and what assumptions we haven’t considered. How is our usability when our user is distracted? How about when they are interrupted? If we’re not making a game, or even if we are – there are many games, and there will be a pull to move away. We can’t eliminate it, but we can reduce it – how do we do that?

And what else haven’t we thought of?

15 replies on “Distractedly Intimate: Your Users on Mobile”

This rings very true to me. I think there is a tension here with the digital consumer/digital creator distinction too: I love to code but you can’t yet do that well on mobile; it makes my heart sink when I hear that schools are buying iPads. Srsly? Art, literature, maybe. Science and ICT? Wrong tool for the job.

Thank you so much for taking the time to put this up! A fantastic talk. Really well received. Thanks again,

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Thanks so much Hannah!

Totally agree with you on iPads for arts and literature, but not for science and IT. I think women especially need to be more empowered as makers, not just consumers.

Really glad people liked the talk 🙂

[…] Cate Huston from Google has written up her talk “Distractedly Intimate: your users on mobile” (and has also written a meta-post about returning to speaking after harassment – I had no idea this was her first talk after a hiatus, and judging from the student reaction, nor did the students. The talk was very well received) […]

[…] The second talk, by software engineer Cate Huston, focused on the relationship users have with mobile devices versus the relationship they have with their desktop or laptop computers. Phones, she pointed out, tend to serve recreational purposes: they connect us with people we care about, can be filled with games or useful apps, and tend to be feature very simple and accessible designs. Our computers, on the hand, tend to be the location of work for many people. They are also much more complicated in design than phones are, and seem more liable to break down or behave unpredictably. Because there’s so many reasons to love mobile devices, it’s easier than ever to be distracted by them–and programs should be built around this intimate and distracted relationship. I’m not doing justice to Huston’s talk, which was eloquent and entertaining, but you can read it on her website, Accidentally in Code, here. […]

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[…] tweet a talk more than once. This particular one was full of tweetable soundbites and timely, my talk on mobile is full of stories and I don’t think it would work as well. Maybe the talks I prep for next […]

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[…] a fit of inspiration, I refreshed my Distractedly Intimate talk to contain a preview of my next mobile talk, titled “Mobile is a Systems Problem”. […]

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