Mobile Devices Have Become 'Prosthetic Brains,' Web Guru Says

Alistair CrollAlistair Croll

Photo: Flickr/sfllaw

Mobile app developers should not be thinking “disruption,” they should be thinking “interruption,” contends Web guru Alistair Croll.Literally.

He means mobile apps should be int erupting us, just like a phone call rings, and an e-mail or text beeps.

Croll is an author and expert on how to measure success on the Web, with a string of startups under his belt (Coradiant, Rednod, CloudOps, Bitcurrent, and accelerator Year One Labs). He’s got an upcoming book, too, “Lean Analytics” co-authored with Ben Yoskovitz (also with Year One Labs).

And after 20 years of running startups, he’s got some interesting ideas of what most mobile app developers do wrong.

The biggest mistake in mobile these days, is buying into the “Mobile First” myth. That just means “make this web page work on a tablet,” he recently argued on his blog, “Solve For Interesting.”

Instead, a mobile app should know what we want and give it us … automatically.

Business Insider recently caught up with Croll and asked him to explain himself.

BI: You wrote: “Mobile devices aren’t consumption devices, they’re prosthetic brains.” The Common thought is that they are consumption devices, so, what do you mean by that?

Alistair Croll: If you need to check your phone to find out about a meeting, you’ve failed. If your phone understands that you need to know about a meeting, and tells you about it, then you’ve won. In the former case, the burden was on you (to check) and the phone was simply a reference.

I’m talking about the human/machine hybrid of us-and-our-digital-lives. The best interface is one that’s invisible until it’s needed, and then completely intuitive. That requires that the machine itself understand how to tailor its interface to the human.

It’s important to remember that the idea of “design” is accomplishing a goal or an objective. For many functions, the human is the weakest link: we get distracted, misremember things, make mistakes. Smartphones, and their successors, can fix this, but to do so we need them to own the interface (rather than us to own it.)

BI: Why is interrupting people a good thing in mobile design? Besides email or SMS, can you point to examples of mobile apps that do this well?

Alistair Croll: [One example] is Google Now, which says things like, “you need to leave for your meeting now because traffic on the way is heavy.” But there are plenty of others that approach this: CBC News has an app that sends you alerts based on your region. United Airlines’ mobile app tells you when your gate has changed, and so on.

I’m arguing that this is the interface of the future.

BI: How can you tell if your “interrupting” mobile app is effective?

Alistair Croll: At a high level: are the interruptions useful, or annoying? I got a message from United telling me to check in; then another saying my gate had changed. That helped me get a good seat, and not miss my flight. That was beneficial. On the other hand, I got a notification from LinkedIn telling me someone with whom I had no shared connections wanted to reach me, a PR person. That wasn’t useful; LinkedIn could have suppressed it.

If you’re trying to quantify things, then it’s easy to build analytics. If I get a list of stories that [social news feed app] Prismatic thinks I’ll find useful, when I click on some of them, I’m teaching Prismatic how accurate its predictions were. With every click, I teach the machine; every interruption it sends me is an experiment. This mentality of “everything is an experiment” is core to the concept of Lean Analytics.

BI:  If the average user has a bunch of apps on a mobile device, say 50 apps, and they are all interrupting us to tell us stuff, doesn’t that create chaos for the user?

Alistair Croll: No. I have one notification centre. BlackBerry 10 has this notion of a “hub”; on an iPhone, there’s a notification panel that pulls down across the screen. It collects all the information, all the interruptions I’ve got. I don’t use 50 apps. I use one interface (the notification centre) to access 50 information sources. That’s why designing for interruption is so important. That wasn’t my idea; that was thinking by Brad Feld and Fred Wilson.

BI: What other aspects of “mobile first design” do people not understand?

Alistair Croll: Interruptions have a Goldilocks problem: If an app is too spammy, or if it overloads a notification centre, it’ll get muted. If it isn’t there often enough, it’ll get forgotten, and the app won’t get user engagement.

There’s a “virtuous loop” of learning and feedback, a constant cycle of optimization and data mining, that needs to happen. Interruption is anticipating what the user will find useful. And anticipation is predicting the future—for which we need machine learning and Big Data.

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