Multi-Device Application Design

by June 19, 2013

In my sixth video for Intel Software on re-imagining desktop application design, I look at how Ultrabook applications fit in to a multi-device world.

Today it's not just one device that defines our computing experience, it's multiple devices and how they're used together to get things done. Consider more than half of laptop owners in the United States also own a smartphone. A third of smartphone owners have a tablet and an increasing number of people -more than one in ten- have all three. In Multi-Device Design we'll look at how we can design Ultrabook applications to live this new cross device reality.

Complete Transcript

Hi and welcome back to Re-imaging apps for Ultrabook with Luke Wroblewski. Today we’ll review the new technologies in Ultrabook computers we’ve used during this video series to help us rethink what desktop application design can be. Then we’ll explore how people are increasingly using multiple devices throughout their day to get things done and how Ultrabooks applications can fit in to these new cross device use cases. It’s exciting stuff so let’s get started.

Throughout this series, I’ve outlined several technologies that are now available in Ultrabook computers and why these capabilities provide new opportunities for desktop apps. But before we recap these, let’s consider why it matters. To do so, we can look at what happened with a similar change on mobile devices. It wasn’t that long ago that mobile phones looked like this. Today they’ve become very different devices defined by amazing technologies like multi-touch, location detection and a set of sensors that tell us all about the motion of a device. These capabilities did more than give developers and designers new features to build on, they re-shaped an entire industry.

Looking at mobile phone profits from 2007 to 2008 highlights the dominance of the small screen dial pad phone that was the hallmark of companies like Nokia and LG. As you can see in this chart, in those days these companies raked up the bulk of mobile phone profits. But when a new class of mobile device arrived, the modern smartphone, things changed dramatically. Profits shifted to a different set of companies and those who previously dominated the market fell significantly. It wasn’t just profits that were impacted -new platforms and new business models emerged as well, not to mention a new class of applications designed and built for the capabilities of today’s modern mobile, device.

Today the same kind of opportunity to build a new class of applications is present on the desktop. Ultrabook computers have been enhanced to include new technologies like multi-touch, location detection, and -through a combination of several sensors- the ability to detect the motion of a device in three dimensions including shakes, pivots, twists, and more.

We looked at these capabilities in depth when we redesigned the Tweester application. Tweester is the ultimate social networking tool for the storm chasing crowd. In each of our previous videos, we looked at how we could re-imagine this existing desktop application to take advantage of new Ultrabook capabilities. Let’s do a quick recap.

The original design of Tweester looked like your typical desktop application where everything was designed for cursor control. This meant both menus and form elements consisted of small targets that required the precision of a mouse to be used effectively. When we collected data, like the location of a storm, we did it without the benefit of modern capabilities like location detection.

In the redesign of Tweester things changed dramatically. We optimized the interface for touch by making small cursor-based targets large enough to be used with our fingers and even rethought some of the interactions using touch gesture controls. WiFi beacons and GPS data now provide us with accurate location information without relying on cumbersome form inputs.

We’ve even considered how capabilities like device motion can help storm chasers find interesting weather patterns and locations to explore. Maps in the Tweester application can be panned and pivoted quickly just by moving the device on which they are displayed.

To get an in-depth look at all the things we’ve done to rethink Tweester for the Ultrabook platform, take a look at the previous videos in this series. Touch targets, touch gestures, location detection, and device motion all feature a number of enhancements and new opportunities for existing desktop applications to take advantage of Ultrabook capabilities available now.

While we’ve thought a lot about how to improve Tweester, we’ve really only looked at how it works in isolation on an Ultrabook. But the truth is Ultrabooks don’t live alone. It’s really a multi-device world out there. Consider more than half of laptop owners in the United States also own a smartphone. A third of smartphone owners have a tablet and an increasing number of people -more than one in ten- have all three. Today it’s not just one device that defines our computing experience, it’s multiple devices and how they’re used together to get things done.

A study of smartphone, PC, and TV users from August 2012 found that 90% of them used multiple screen sequentially and 98% did so that same day. So people move from one device to another very frequently as they go about their daily lives.

Simultaneous device use is also high. 81% of people in the study used their smartphones and TV at the same time. The majority of these multi-device owners used smartphones and PCs and PCs and TVs at the same time as well.

Due to the popularity of simultaneous and sequential device use, it makes sense to consider how our applications live in a cross-device world. That is, how can the processes and information our users care about flow through an ever increasing set of diverse computing devices.

To help us wrap our heads around this opportunity, I’ve classified cross-device usage into four categories: access, flow, push, and control. Let’s take a look at each once in depth and see how we can adapt the Tweester application we’ve been working on to date to live this new multi-device reality.

Access is perhaps the simplest cross-device use case but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy to get right. Put simply, access is ability to view or interact with the same content or features across more than one device. Access is not just important to a small set of multi-device users, it is quickly becoming a basic expectation of most users. Let’s see how access applies to Tweester.

If I’m viewing Tweester on my Ultrabook, I can see all the latest updates from the storm chasers I care about, the latest storm data being collected now, and maps that show where the people and weather I’m interested in are. I can also add new updates for others to see as well. When I leave my Ultrabook in the office and head out with only my smartphone, the same information and features are still with me, just now on my mobile device. There’s the latest updates, weather info, maps, and more right at my fingertips. While the Tweester user interface has changed, note that we haven’t removed any critical features. Instead we’ve optimized these features for the unique input and output capabilities of the device. Making things accessible across multiple devices means considering what makes each of these devices great and crafting an appropriate interface.

Content isn’t the only thing we want to move seamlessly between devices. Our processes should travel freely as well. With the flow pattern people are able to pick up right where they left off when switching devices. To make this happen seamlessly flow often requires real time synchronization between devices.

Tweester allows storm chasers around the world to not only share the weather they’re seeing but capture useful information about it as well. So if I’m out in Oklahoma tracking a storm, I can use Tweester on my Ultrabook to create a new update about the weather around me. There’s some really strong weather nearby that I want to make sure other are aware of so I’ll slide the scale over to indicate there’s a significant tornado nearby that is tearing off roofs and uprooting trees. Because I’ve started this process on the Ultrabook, all the information I entered is available to me there.

But it is also available on my mobile device as well so I can just continue the process I started on the Ultrabook. Note all the changes I just made are in sync: the indication of the current weather including torn roofs and uprooted trees, which by the way, is not the kind of data you want to enter twice when it is happening around you. Thankfully all my changes are present and accounted for and I can continue editing this update and post this update on my mobile. That’s the power of cross device flow.

Access and flow highlight sequential use cases. That is, how people move between devices to get things done or access information. Push, on the hand, is an example of a simultaneous cross device use case. With push, one device sends over some data, often in the form of a file or stream to another device.

Looking at the interactions between a large screen TV or monitor and a Ultrabook in tablet mode highlights the power of push. When I enter a room with a WiDi enabled television carrying my Ultrabook and viewing the Tweester map, you can see that it automatically displays on the big screen and mirrors what I am seeing on the small one. So I can quickly see the details of where a storm might be happening and what people are saying about it. This instant push of what is happening on my screen to a larger device is an indication of where we can go with cross device use cases. Seamless, instant-on experiences that take advantage of larger screen space when available allows us to have highly portable experiences without sacrificing the benefits of larger displays.

While push and mirroring are relatively new in the cross-device world, people are already taking note. A very recent study found that 40% of smartphone and tablet owners are aware of screen mirroring capabilities. However, only 7% are actually using screen mirroring to project things to their TV sets. So the opportunity space for technologies like WiDi is wide open.

Last but not least is control. That is one device acting like an interface to another, usually remotely. In essence control is one device telling another what to do.

Looking once more at our Tweester application, we can create an interface for a Ultrabook in tablet mode that simply consists of menus and actions. We can use this interface to display content and information on a much larger screen. So let’s start by turning on the map. As you can see, it shows up instantly on the TV in front of us and we can zoom and pan it on Ultrabook. Perhaps we want to display storm information as well, so let’s turn that on and again see it displayed on the large screen. Here’s an update with a photo, lets tap that and you guessed it, have it appear on the larger display we’re controlling. You’ll note with control, the interface is very different on the two devices. We’re no longer just mirroring or pushing content from one device to another. We’ve actually created a separate interface for each device. One acts as the remote control to anther and we can take advantage of what makes each device great.

As you can see, cross device usage is pretty exciting stuff. Whether it is the ability to access content on a variety of devices; the opportunity to have our processes follow us as we switch screens throughout the day; the capability to push content from one device to another; or to allow one device to take control of another, cross device usage is filled with lots of opportunities to once again re-think standard desktop application designs.

These opportunities continue to increase as people not only bring more computing devices into their lives but begin to use them simultaneously and sequentially throughout the day as well. This multi-device reality works best when designers and developers think about how to use the unique capabilities of each device to create compelling cross device experiences. We spent several videos in this series outlining the unique capabilities of Ultrabooks so you have a clear sense of what they bring to multi-device experiences like access, flow, push, and control. These cross device use cases are a great way to re-imagine desktop application designs for today and tomorrow.

As always, further information on developing applications to take advantage of Ultrabook capabilities is available in intel's ultrabook developer community site. You can find the link in the blog post accompanying this video.

Thanks for your time and I’m looking forward to seeing how you re-think your desktop application designs for cross-device usage and beyond.

Full Series

Check out the complete re-imagining desktop application design video series.

Disclosure: I am a contracted vendor with Intel. Opinions expressed on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent Intel's position on any issue.