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Avoiding Narcissus: Finding inspiration in Unusual Places (Book Review)

Book coverA review of
There’s Not an App for That: Mobile User Experience Design for Life
By Simon Robinson, Gary Marsden, Matt Jones

Morgan Kauffman

The cover of this fascinating and thought-provoking book provides a cautionary tale the authors want to help designers avoid. You may remember the myth of Narcissus, who, upon seeing his reflection in a pool of water, became so entranced by it that he drowned in his own image. The cover shows a modern-day Narcissus (based on the image by Caravaggio) peering into a wheel of screens of mobile devices with colorful and enchanting apps. He looks as if he’s about to fall into the digital experience. It is a wonderful image that seems to ask if we are all about to fall into our own screens, to be tugged away from the real world by them, never to emerge, like Narcissus. This is exactly what the authors of There’s Not an App for That: Mobile User Experience Design for Life try to explore.

The authors, Simon Robinson, Matt Jones, and the late Gary Marsden explore ways to build on human experiences—outside the screen—in order to enrich the user experience of mobile devices. This might not seem to be a novel concept, except that human experience is often not used as a source of inspiration. Instead of mimicking human tasks, either broad, like “communication,” or narrow, like “texting,” the authors draw us out from behind the looking glass and invite us to consider the wider world. Inspiration can come from so many places if we don’t keep our heads down, focused on our screens and instead, look up so we see the physical world in all its richness along with the social interplay of life. The authors give great examples of inspiration from food, fashion, fitness, and even from mess and uncertainty. They discuss how a design can enhance mindfulness and, perhaps most importantly, how to design for different levels of literacy and for sharing of information. This is important to remember because in many places mobile devices are shared.

How can we design applications that don’t drag us away from life, but instead blend physical and digital in ways that engage us in the world around us? This book takes you on an illustrated tour. Even more important than the specific examples the authors give are new mindsets, for example:

  • Moving from touch screens to feeling augmentation
  • Looking up from heads-down to Face On
  • Creating systems that derive inspiration from clutter rather than simply helpfulness
  • Designing for public and social use
  • Assisting people’s mindful interactions instead of the distracted, distant interactions we often have when using mobile devices
  • Creating systems that help everybody regardless of literacy or where they live

One of the things I liked most about this book is the way it poses questions to ponder. It suggests alternatives and asks us to challenge not only our own thinking, but the authors’ thinking as well; a novel approach to stimulating thought. It provides a rich collection of different ways of thinking about the design of mobile devices. It also includes numerous “Design Pointers.” These challenge us to think about how the topic can apply to real-world design issues and to think “outside the room” (as the authors put it), rather than providing the typical “tips and tricks” that are commonly found in books about design.

My favorite section (perhaps predictably) is how our designs can make a difference in the world. To accomplish this you have to actually be out in the world and partner with local populations to create apps, or rather systems, that can improve people’s lives and allow sharing that is accessible and low-cost for even poor and illiterate users. This is a tall order, but the authors have lots of experience doing just this. For example, before his tragic death, when Gary Marsden was a professor at the University of Cape Town, he and his students designed countless systems based on mobile devices that have had a positive impact on real people who are poor and in need. Co-authors Jones and Robinson have also had experience designing for the so-called “developing world.”

There is passing mention of how we need to re-examine our tools and methods when doing this type of work because these methods have been developed to create Western-oriented apps and, in many cases, they simply don’t work outside the so-called “developed world.” This is a complex and important area that warrants a great deal of attention, although it is outside the scope of this book. Still, I am grateful that the authors raise the issue because it is clearly something we need to address as a profession.

Ultimately, the authors are attempting to help us build apps and mobile-based systems that can also help us—as users—to remain engaged in the fullness of life. If you’re looking for quick cut-and-dried pointers, this is not the book for you. But if you want to think deeply about the way you design and how you might do it differently, you won’t be disappointed.


Excerpt: Provoking new thinking

Throughout this book we’ll be trying to get you to think of alternative ways of presenting content and interacting with your users.

One technique that can help generate interesting deviations from the norm, whatever the platforms you are building on, involves imagining a world where certain characteristics commonly taken for granted are removed.

So, what about the world where you can’t see anything any more, or your sight is partial? What would your mobile device feel like then? A research team in the UK came up with the Haptic Lotus, shown below, through just such an experiment.

A white plastic device with a center “body” and folding petals sits in the palm of a hand.

The Haptic Lotus is designed to be held in both hands, its petals opening and closing as it gets nearer or further away from a target location. The team deployed the device as part of an “immersive haptic theatre experience,” where audience members explored a pitch-black room carrying the device. While there were many fascinating insights from the work, let’s pick out just two of the comments from people who took part:

“The device was like a purring cat, or a pet.”

“It was interesting to have something ‘alive’ in your hands. It was companionable.”

Using Bret Victor’s inspirational piece as a starting point, we’ll be looking at how to break the dullness of glass screen prods to develop designs that are more “‘alive’ in your hands.”

Problem 1: From Touch to Feeling

What’s The Problem?

Digital interactions through mobiles are an increasingly prominent part of day-to-day lived experience. But what are they doing to the richness of this everyday life?

Our starting point, in this first Problem, is to pause for a moment and think about the extent to which the smooth glass of our phones, which separates us from the digital world inside, numbs or dulls, rather than enlivens. As you’ll see as you read on, this book is a celebration of what it is to be truly alive—to revel in the complexity, ambiguity, messiness, and stimulation the world provides.

Why Should You Tackle It?

If we look away from our interactions with gadgets, we see inspirations for what mobile experiences might be both now and in the future. We see a world of multisensory beings that taste, smell, see, and feel the world. Sometimes we are hit with a double espresso jolt of life—think of the pain of falling off a bike; other times we feel it much more subtly—as a gentle breeze brushes the hairs on the back of your neck. We live in a world where emotion is as important as efficiency.

We also experience a world that we can shape and manipulate through an equally broad spectrum of actions: from demolishing a wall with a sledgehammer to creating beautiful origami with deft finger folds.

Our challenge to you here, then, is to consider how these human skills can be put to better use, and inform the interaction designs we make both today and on the devices to come.

Key Points

  • “Touch,” as in “touch screen,” is a limited design resource compared to what humans are capable of in terms of the ways we can sense, respond, and manipulate.
  • We have been built for physical materials; digital materials currently lack many qualities to enable us to fully engage with them.
  • When we think about the physical world, we are reminded that not every interaction is pleasant, calming, and joyful. Facing up to a spectrum of emotional responses can introduce new thinking to interaction design.
  • Research labs and visionary designers have been exploring how to break through the glass to create digital experiences that engage better with these multisensory, emotional, and multi-manipulator abilities.