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I’ve never been to Oregon before last week and, despite the forecast for rain, I was totally excited to check out Hipsterville. Iconic places like Powell’s Bookstore and Voodoo Donuts were on my list to visit, but I was really headed north for WebVisions Portland.

WebVisions digs into the future of web design, UX, tech and digital media in NYC,ChicagoPortlandBarcelona and Berlin.

When I first registered for this event in November, the summary seemed a little broad but everyone wants to know about the future, right? (Especially us here in Labs!) So I figured it’d be perfect - and it was! There was a fairly even split between developers, designers, and management, as well as a great variety of talks. Out of 50 talks in 2 days, everything from failure to WWE to “the future of the future” was included.

But before all these awesome talks started on Thursday, there were workshops on Wednesday! I had the opportunity to sit in Dan Saffer’s “Microinteractions” as well as Steve Fisher’s “Responsive Content Modeling.”

Wednesday


Microinteractions | Dan Saffer (@odannyboy)

The details are the design.

This workshop was probably one of my favorites of the week. I thought I had no idea what microinteractions were before I stepped into the room, but nearly as soon as Saffer began talking, I realized that I knew all along! “Features” are complex; “microinteractions” are forgettable. They are the “feel” of a feature, and are often a signature moment like the Facebook “like” button.

Microinteractions are made up of 4 parts:

  1. A trigger that initiates it
  2. Rules that determine how it functions
  3. Feedback that the rules generate
  4. Loops and Modes that make up its meta rules

We studied each of these parts and participated in brainstorming activities that allowed us to come up with ideas that would potentially improve a product like a microwave, an online shopping cart and checkout process, and the LED light on a TV. While many of the ideas seemed unrealistic (or at least improbable), it put a new perspective on how we could make nearly any product better with small - and monumental - changes or additions.

Responsive Content Modeling | Steve Fisher (@hellofisher)

A website is a black hole without its content.

While I don’t do much design or layout these days, something I have always had trouble with is finding the correct placement for content, especially when working with a responsive site. In the past I have always just built the frame of what I needed with something like Lorem Ipsum, then added real content when the product was closer to being complete. However, Fisher taught me that using principles of Atomic Design, your website can look, feel, and work much better.

Most of this workshop was spent working in teams to prioritize and organize content of a project. Step by step we created user personas, organized pages, judged and ranked content chunks and blobs, came up with design principles, and finally got a simple wireframe drawn on paper.

The process was a lot to squeeze into an afternoon, but the most important thing I took away from it is the simple ranking system.

To prioritize content, label as 1, 2, or 3:

  1. Essential - doesn’t necessarily have to be on the top of the screen, but MUST be there
  2. Great - may or may not be missed
  3. Nice to Have - isn’t important and doesn’t have to be included

Once content chunks are ranked, they can then be organized for the page. 1s will always be prominent on both desktop and mobile screens. 2s will always be included, but will not necessarily be in a prominent spot. 3s should probably still be included somewhere, but you want to make sure they don’t clutter the page - these chunks are often “hidden” from the main view on a mobile device, but should still be accessible to some degree. Avoid hiding content altogether on smaller screens if you can.

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Thursday


Keynote: WWE Ethnography: Let’s Get Ready to Rumble! | Tomer Sharon (@tsharon)
Never have I ever learned so much about WWE. But it was such a perfect example for an intro to ethnography. Plus, Sharon even imitated The Game to kick off his talk: http://youtu.be/NefR0ViNQRo. How awesome is that?!

Your Web Font is Crap: Here’s How to Choose a Better One | Jim Kidwell (@jimkidwell)
I had no idea how much detail I should be looking for in web fonts! Usually I default to Helvetica but now I definitely want to branch out. Good fonts include:

  • a full character set
  • extended characters for additional languages
  • ligatures
  • contextual alternates
  • small caps

Space Matters: Offering the Living Room Experience | Laura Hammond & Denise Su
The “living room experience” is all about providing comfort and familiarity to your users during testing. Being in the hot seat and being watched through a one-way mirror tend to make users extremely uncomfortable, so what can we do to make their experience better? Instead of a stark white room with a wimpy desk and office chair, change the environment to make it more comfortable - set up a relaxed environment, focus on the fine details, and minimize the hardware.

The 21st Century Campfire | John Hartman (@feedia)
When is the last time you had a single device in front of you? (I currently have 4!) Transmedia storytelling allows stories to be told across multiple platforms, whether that is leaving a task on one device and picking it up on another, or even multiple devices interacting with each other. Be NIMBLE: Navigating Interactive Media Beyond Linear Experiences.

Designing for Failure | Ben Fogarty (@benfogarty)
"Failure" is something we encounter often in Labs, so I thought this would be a good talk to sit in. Fogarty says that failure - planned and unplanned - is a valuable and inevitable element of creating anything significant. In the words of Thomas Edison, "I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work."

Pseudo-Element Master Class | Jason Lengstorf (@jlengstorf)
A classic example of a pseudo-element in action is a CSS clearfix, using :after on a wrapper or container. There are lots of fun things that pseudo-elements can help create, though, like drop caps with :first-letter or animation and effects using :before and :after. So when should these be used?

  1. The stuff you’re adding is decorative
  2. The page still makes sense without them
  3. You’re providing hints or clarification

Keynote: News for Web Lovers | Tim Bray (@timbray)
Bray’s talk was fairly pessimistic (and he acknowledged that), but I managed to keep my optimism in check and found myself determined to keep doing what I do. In his words, “there’s a real risk that the whole Internet vanishes into one App Store or another,” and apparently we are in danger of losing some goodies of the universal browser. This may be the case, but I figure continuing to learn and grow as a developer will keep me on the right track.

Friday


Keynote: Let’s do Humanity in the Machine: What Comes After Greed | Brian David Johnson (@IntelFuturist)
One word: Inspirational! By the end of this talk, I felt inspired to change the future for the generations to come. Johnson’s job at Intel is to look 10-15 years into the future and come up with a vision of how people will interact with computers. It is hard to imagine what devices will look like a single year from now, let alone 15. Even so, he says it probably won’t be as “science-fictiony” as people think. I, personally, can’t wait to see.

Watch Your Wearables Disappear | K Mike Merrill (@kmikeym) & Marcus Estes (@marcusestes)
2014 is turning out to be the Year of Wearable Computing, and these guys are 100% on board. Merrill even had 2 bands on one wrist and a camera on his shirt pocket. They talked about plenty of devices that have already been released, but what kinds of wearables will be released in the future? Will wrist- and face-wearables continue to grow, or will they branch off to another body part? Technology will continue to get smaller and - potentially - “disappear.”

The MARS Project: Teaching Afro-Futurism as Methodology of Liberation | D. Denenge Akpem (@denengethefirst)
"Afro-Futurism rethinks and remixes concepts of identity, hybridity, states of alienation, and belonging." Akpem’s Mars Project allowed her students to think as pioneers of Mars and, using visual and performance art (like digital renderings and spoken word poetry), they used pieces of the past to create their own vision of the future.

Hammering Responsive Web Design Into Shape | Ken Tabor (@kentabor)
As a fellow employee of Sabre, I showed my support in Ken’s talk and ended up finding his methods quite helpful! He provided a multitude of sites and repos that are available for testing different screen sizes, talked about using a virtual environment with Apache to test projects, and explained how to use that environment across multiple devices on WiFi. Another helpful hint: Google Analytics provides screen size, device brand, OS name/version, and browser type for everyone who has accessed your site!

Envisioning the Future of the Future | Ana Maria Pinto da Silva
Pinto da Silva works in Microsoft’s Strategic Prototyping group, who look at current and emerging technologies, like us here in Labs. She talked about the methodologies, ideas, and processes that lead to synthesizing, projecting, and transforming the world of technology. To do this, she walked us through 10 steps to take in the lab:

  1. Conduct pre-mortems
  2. Fear factor five
  3. Question
  4. Process design
  5. Talk time
  6. Cross pollinate
  7. Become a time bandit
  8. Invest in community
  9. Work in situ
  10. Heat the room

The Future of Augmented Reality | Lynne d Johnson (@lynneluvah)
Learning about augmented reality was a great way to end my day as well as the conference. Johnson began her talk with “OK Glass, take a picture” to one side of the room. I had not made the connection of Glass being AR, but “a layer of technology on top of reality” fits quite nicely. AR technology has the ability to provide utility in real-world experiences and, still an emerging technology, I am definitely excited to see where it heads.


Unfortunately I had to leave early Friday, so I didn’t get to see the closing keynote by Maria Giudice. However, the rest of WebVisions was a great experience and I had a fantastic time. It is definitely something I would like to attend again, and would recommend it to anyone in the industry. (Maybe I can make it to Barcelona next time. ;))

Oh yeah… Voodoo? Best donuts EVER.

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—Maegan

It’s no secret that, around the world, the number of people over age 65 is increasing.  In the United States alone, the number is expected to double in 25-30 years to 80 million.  The result will be a large increase in the percentage of the population made up of older people, from the current 13 percent to 20 percent.

This type of shift doesn’t occur without tremendous impact on virtually every aspect of our lives.  That includes new challenges and opportunities for business as well.  For every area that will be undoubtedly be stressed by the longevity trend, there will be areas of growth.  At the same time healthcare experiences tremendous pressure to keep up with the demands on it, leisure activities, including travel, will see tremendous growth.

The decrease in the number of workers supporting a growing population of non-workers will be problematic, especially from a social programs cost perspective.  On the flip side, many more retirees than in previous generations will have not only the financial means but the physical ability – thanks to improving healthcare – to travel well into their eighties and nineties.

Older travelers will increasingly seek out more active travel experiences traditionally associated with younger travelers.  Leisure travel programs focused on adventure, education, health, and fitness all stand to benefit.  Expectations of products, services, and discounts designed exclusively for travelers will grow and, accompanying that growth, will be innovative new approaches for marketing to this segment.

For companies in the business of delivering travel-related technologies, older travelers will increasingly be far more comfortable with – even reliant upon – a variety of technologies, especially mobile devices and applications including a variety of “wearables.”

In hospitality, efforts are underway to provide products and services to an aging population.  Many of the same business practices and employee skills are transferrable leading to a natural progression from hospitality-only to a hybrid consisting of hospitality, senior housing, and continuing care (Marriott, for example, is already a leading provider of senior living residences).  Similarly, a growing segment of the population will seek to take advantage of innovative living arrangements fully-staffed homes, full-time spa living, serial cruising, etc.

From a planning standpoint, the bottom line is this – “older” is no longer synonymous with unhealthy, inactive, and many other words typically associated with aging.  As a consequence, many assumptions need to be questioned by businesses of all types but, especially travel.  Opportunities are emerging for new strategies and for new product and services to be introduced.

In August of this year, with a Kickstarter pledge goal of £30,000, a United Kingdom-based startup, NFC Ring, received pledges of over £240,000.  NFC Ring is just the latest in a line of innovative new capabilities that indicate a bright future for Near Field Communication (NFC) technology.

What is NFC?  It is a set of technology standards that can be used to established radio communications between smartphones and other devices when they are touched to each other or are in close proximity to one another (typically no further apart than a few inches).  Until recently, most of the excitement has been around the ability to perform touchless payment transactions.  Applications include authorizing a credit card payment, passing through a turn-style to board a train, etc.  To be clear, much of the near term spotlight will continue to be focused on transaction-oriented applications of NFC technology.  They’ll become more and more mainstream as millions of smartphones begin to use the capabilities.

A world full of other equally exciting opportunities, however, is now being imagined.  One example is the intersection of NFC and automobiles.  In 2011, NXP Semiconductor and auto electronics manufacturer Continental announced plans for smartphone-based keyless entry.  In 2012, Hyundai announced plans to include NFC-based locks and ignition systems in its cars (wonderful news for those who misplace their keys but maybe not so great for those who misplace their phone?).

Since those announcements, though, wearable devices have burst onto the technology scene.  The NFC Ring mentioned earlier can be used to unlock your smartphone when you pick it up and, conversely, lock it when you are no longer holding it.  As NFC Ring and other wearables are enhanced, they should also be able to provide the ability to unlock your car as you reach for the door handle or start the engine when you place your hand on the steering wheel.  The ring can even be hacked, making it possible to have it do things even the creators of it didn’t imagine!

A lot more progress is required for this new age of interconnected devices to be fully realized.  First and foremost, standards adoption must continue.  For example, unlike Nokia, Samsung, Google, and others, Apple did not include NFC in its iPhone 5, opting instead to introduce its Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) based iBeacon technology — for now, at least.  As always, there are rumors about iPhone 6 but we’ve learned not to pay much attention to them (a recent GigaOm post provides more details on the evolution of these competing technologies for any of you who are interested).

Regardless of how the competition plays out, the reimagining of what smartphones and wearable devices can do to make our lives simpler and more secure has begun.  Whether NFC standards emerge as the winner or not is something for the technology suppliers – and the market – to determine.  Given how exciting some of the capabilities are, let’s just hope the competitive landscape doesn’t slow things down too much.

NOTE:  This will be the last Trend Tuesday post this year.  Everyone have a joyful and safe holiday season.  See you in 2014!  - TB

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Traditionally, the need for predicting the future has been associated with sophisticated business operations.  In the travel and hospitality industries, especially, we’ve come to rely heavily on forecasting to price products, maximize hotel revenue, and optimize the yield of every airplane that takes off and lands.  Now, however, the ability to make smart guesses about the future is beginning to be extended to every day, personal decision making.

Several factors are playing a role in making accurate, actionable predictions about our own lives.  The most obvious one is our willingness to have a variety of information about ourselves collected and available for reference at all times.  This has happened through both social media — where we explicitly share our likes and dislikes, making them available for predictive analytics – as well as retailing (both online and offline) where our past browsing and purchasing behaviors have proven to be a reliable predictor of future purchases.

Over the years, for example, Amazon Marketplace’s personalized recommendations are one of the primary means by which Amazon continues to grow its sellers’ businesses.  Tens of millions of highly accurate recommendations per day for over 2 million sellers equals huge success.  In the world of air travel, recent acquisitions are being used by the most popular search engines to provide forward-looking insight and advice to buyers of airline tickets.

A new kind of predictive intelligence, though, is starting to improve individual lives in very personal ways.  They include increasingly sophisticated music recommendations like those provided by Grokr Labs’ Fantastic.  They focus on areas as specific as calendars for intelligently planning your day in advance (Tempo).  Others assist with understanding and planning in advance multiple aspects of everyday life by providing weather, traffic, and well… you name it (Osito and donna).

Most of these solutions emerging now, designed to predicting how our days are going to go, are in their early stages.  Many of their features are experimental, at best, but continuing to advance in accuracy as they evolve and have more and more content on which to base their advice to us.  They are all ultimately focused, however, on something really valuable – handling as many simple tasks on our behalf as possible, freeing up our time and our minds to focus on the more important, complex tasks ahead.

A few solutions in this category have already come and gone.  Some will prove themselves to be invaluable, though, to the point that we’re likely to look back and — just as we’ve begun to do with smartphones and other technologies — wonder how ever lived without them.

I didn’t realize Open Graph protocol was a thing until yesterday.  One thing it does is it allows you to dictate how your content will be represented when it is shared via social media.  Here are the links that explain more about it, and that I have found to be helpful:

Tools:

http://ogp.me/

https://developers.facebook.com/tools/debug/

https://developer.linkedin.com/documents/setting-display-tags-shares

https://dev.twitter.com/docs/cards

http://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/richsnippets

The more I play with various APIs, the more I think about how important it is to provide good libraries for developers to make those APIs dance.

One of the most exciting things going on in hardware technology right now is flexible displays.  While slightly curved screens have been around for years, such displays were inflexible and far too thick and heavy for optimal use in many situations.  The coming challenge for software companies will be to reimagine every application requiring display technology and to consider the myriad ways they can take unique advantage of these amazing new displays.

LCD screens, so common in today’s HDTV displays, broke through many display thickness barriers.  The coming wave of flexible displays, however, will produce screens that are even thinner than paper.  This technology represents another giant leap forward.

Virtually every need for a digital display may someday be met by screens capable of being bent, rolled up, or folded and placed in a pocket.  The possibilities for the application of these displays, based on organic light-emitting diode (OLED) and active-matrix OLED (or AMOLED) used in many of the latest mobile phones, are seemingly endless (active-matrix refers to the manner by which pixels are addressed).

It’s a little early, though, to say whether every application of flexible displays will be successful but experimentation will be widespread.  LG’s new curved screen smartphone, the G Flex, has a screen that can bend without breaking.  Among the benefits are the possibilities that the phone fits more naturally into your palm or follows the contour of your face as you’re holding it to your ear and talking.  LG, a leader in the flexible display space, also claims the world’s first curved OLED television screen.

Flexible display technology is not without disadvantages.  It’s costly, as is the case with most new technology.  There are issues related to color balance, mainly related to the short lifespan of blue diodes (longevity is less of an issue with red and green).  Finally, energy consumption and cost are high when certain colors are displayed (Hint:  Black is good, white is bad).  Experts believe that all of these issues will be overcome as the technology matures and the market for them grows.

What I’m really most interested in seeing is how the new flexibility manifests itself in places familiar to travelers — airports, airplanes, hotels, trains, and automobiles.  Imagine video-based displays along the inside, curved ceilings of trains or wrapped around a corner or pole in a terminal instead of taking up large sections of wall space.  Someday, we’ll maybe even see the highest resolution screens ‘unroll’ from the ceiling above on airplanes then roll back up prior to landing.  The reduced weight alone could result in significant fuel cost savings, not to mention lower maintenance costs.

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Airport Beats by Sabre Labs ~ Sabre HackDay 2013.

What if you could hear travel data? What would it sound like?

While I was traveling last week, the rest of the Labs team was busy with Sabre’s annual 24 hour HackDay event, pushing itself to take data beyond just visualization as we know & love it today.

The team took flight data over a 24 hour period from five of the busiest airports in the US and experimented with the relatively new concept of data sonification. With so much happening in visualization focused on just one of our senses, the team began exploring how we might as humans begin to consume & interpret data using more than just one of our senses.

And the end result, in the only and first word that came to mind when I first saw this? Awesomecakes. x10.

I had the pleasure of attending the Big (D)esign Conference a week ago.  It was a really good, high value conference.  I really enjoyed my time there and learned a lot.  I took notes in Evernote – the notes do not do the talks justice, but you can get a high-level overview of the things I took from each talk.  In some cases I linked to the slides that the speakers posted.  If I were to recommend 3 talks from the conference, I would recommend the following (in no particular order):

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Admittedly, I thought twice about focusing this week’s post on the topic of choice — gamification.  For one reason, in its broadest sense, it’s a really big topic.  What I finally decided, though, is to focus on one simple example of gamification, one that we encounter every day without giving it much thought.

What is it?  It’s a number.  More specifically, it’s a number that we watch appear, then disappear, then reappear…  but it’s the ‘going away’ part that is the actual objective of the game.  We see the number in a growing list of places and we know that, if we don’t make it go away, the number will just get higher.  It’s usually a number that appears in white in a blue circle or, at other times, in a red circle.

I’m referring, of course, to notification badges.  They appear on our phones at the corner of the icon for the application with which they’re associated.  They start at 1 when the first unacknowledged notification appears and go up incrementally until we begin to acknowledge them.  As we act on them — view the messages they represent, for example – they decrement until there are zero notifications, at which point, the badge will typically disappear.

That’s all kind of basic stuff, right?  So why a blog post about this simplest approach to gamification?  Well, it’s all about user behavior.  More specifically, it’s all about driving desired levels of user engagement.  Struggling to get users to respond to the capabilities of an application?  Add a badge.  Want users to spend more time with some aspects of an application?  Figure out if there is a way to add a badge.  As simple as it sounds, ‘gamifying’ an app in this manner can turn even the most mundane task into the start of an engaging experience that demands our attention.

When we see them and then get rid of them, by performing the task(s) the application provider wants us to perform, we get two rewards.  One is the content that it has guided us toward which may be nothing but a message but could be something more important, interesting, or immersive.  The other is – don’t laugh — the sense of accomplishment at succeeding at the game of getting the number to go away.

Gamification can be very complex, requiring lots of thought and intricate design.  Or, in the world of mobile device usability and user engagement, just little number can be a really big thing.

I’ve had my new iPhone for nearly a week.  By far the best improvement is the finger-print passcode.  The idea that I press the home button, then leave my finger there - and that’s all I have to do in order to log in - is a winner for me.  I still punch in my code occasionally, but that’s a habit thing.

The most “fun” feature has to be the slow-motion camera.  It was raining yesterday and I got to film my son discovering puddles for the first time.  Really fun.  Kudos Apple.

Eclipse and the ADK handles delegate/interface methods so nicely.  Xcode will give a warning, but you still have to type it all in.  Eclipse will fill in the stubs for you.  If you can warn me about methods that are missing, then hook me up and save me a few keystrokes.

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Distractions.  They’re everywhere these days.  I’m not talking about the kind of distractions that have been around for decades like a phone call interrupting a favorite TV show or a baby crying down the hall.  I’m talking about the audible notifications we hear on our smartphones when a new Facebook post or a new email in our inbox compete for attention.  The effects of all these latest tech-driven distractions are collectively leading us toward becoming what Gartner Research calls an Attention Deficit Society.

It’s interesting, or maybe a little frightening, to think about how technology and the myriad ways we use it is rewiring our brains.  Everything we do, but especially the things we do repetitively, changes our brains a little at a time.  Research shows, for example, that a taxi driver typically develops a larger than normal hippocampi – the area of the brain that’s called upon when we recall the specific ways to get from point A to point B.

Studies have shown that, when we hear or see a notification appear on our phones, a small bit of dopamine is released into our brains.  Without getting into a lot of biochemistry details, a chemical called dopamine is released into our brains and acts as neurotransmitter.  It plays a key role in getting signals from one nerve cell to another in our brains and registering pleasure.  The ultimate effect is that each hit of dopamine adds to what ultimately becomes a sense of reward.  Essentially, each of those little dings, buzzes, numbered badges, etc. chemically reinforces the idea that something pleasurable is happening — the realization that someone is speaking to us or thinking of us and seeking our attention in some way.

On a more serious note, however, our collective attention deficit, driven by this semi-steady stream of rewarding interruptions, has become a challenge for both business and society as a whole.  In such an environment, how can a business effectively compete for the attention it needs from its customers and potential customers?  And, if it’s successful in ‘breaking through’ and achieving that attention, how does it go about keeping it long enough to sell something or build a more lasting relationship?

One of the answers is to, on a fairly constant basis, re-imagine and redesign the user experiences associated with its products and services.  This is especially true for companies that make their living online and even more so for those whose customer relationships are increasingly focused on mobile capabilities.  At the very least, every customer interaction should be evaluated to understand whether it delivers immediate, obvious utility to the user.  Delivering the value it needs to provide, both quickly and seamlessly, can help mitigate some of the need for a longer attention span on the part of the user.

Another way, depending on the nature of the interaction, is to increasingly deliver an immersive experience for the user – something that makes it more difficult or less rewarding to divert their attention to something else.  This is the opportunity that would most often be associated with capabilities based on rich content or some game-like aspect.  For me, Candy Crush is a text book example of the latter but I’ll save a post for the effect gamification has on our attention for another post – that little sound my iPhone just made tells me I have a new set of lives and can resume play!

Evil by Design - I’ve started this book and I’ve been enjoying it.  I agree with Kathy Sierra that these things can be abused, but I think it’s important information to know.  I don’t think claiming innocence is an option.

The Power of Habit - I’m a few chapters into the audio version during my commutes.  Interesting, fascinating.  I want to go through BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits program after this book to compare.

Why We Fail - I am especially excited about this book.

Microinteractions - I have yet to start on this.

Design for Emotion - Again, yet to start.