Two days ago I left a technology event in Cambridge, MA. The night before I had just flown in from Europe and fell asleep before I plugged in my iPhone. I woke up early and left the house with only a third of my normal charge. Inevitably, by the time I reached the technology event in the afternoon, the phone was dead.
As a designer, I often make a special effort to be observant. While some people might forget where they are, or zone out while competing their mundane daily activities I’m often doing the opposite, trying to understand exactly how and why things are happening. But not all the time. Often, like most people in Boston these days, I’m on my phone sending an e-mail, googling some fact, reading an article, or playing a game.
As I left the technology event and headed towards the subway I instinctively reached into my pocket for my phone. I took it out to check the time on the train, and play a game or keep refreshing an empty browser window wishing that down in the subway the one bar signal was good enough to load my content. But this time, my phone was dark, and so instead all I could do was explore the station.
The first thing I noticed was how many people were on their phones. Before the ubiquitous mobile phone, you were either reading the newspaper, reading a book, people watching, or just waiting for the train. It seems to me that the phone is the most distracting of these–unless you have a particularly good book. Most of the people also had headphones on.
The next thing I noticed was the different pieces of information that were placed around the station. The neighborhood had invested some time and money to tell a story in this station. From the interactive instrument installation to the history of Cambridge timeline on the wall there is relatively a lot to learn in the Kendall Square T station. But with the smartphones, there was less attention and little idle time.
Before the smartphone, installations in a subway station were an easy win. You have a captive audience outside of the cold just passing the time–learning from your display. As long as you design for the short term visitor you could have a true moment of engagement. Today, to create the same engagement, it will take something different. You have the new competitor that has much more to offer, is much more customized, and can be as quick or long as the user wants. So how do you compete with the smartphone? You don’t, you join the team.
So far this isn’t being done correctly. This is being done backwards with difficult and unhelpful QR codes, seemingly outdated SMS interactions (in this context), and both of them relying on a wireless signal the user doesn’t have. We need to rethink this. We need to ask how and why we grab the user’s attention. We need to understand how the system degrades gracefully so when the phone or tech doesn’t work you aren’t left with a hassle or mess. We need to create engagements that enhance and are enhanced by the smartphone. In doing this, we have an advantage–these displays take place in the real world with real people, and at least for now, if done correctly, this has a lot more potential and wonder to unlock than even the best designed app.