by Denise Gershbein
Everywhere I look recently, I see possibilities for personalizing or customizing products and services. I m not talking about choosing a nice skin for your media player or downloading ringtones for your Razr. I'm talking about a quantum leap that's occurring as consumers morph into creators. But as our creative will to shape the world around us grows stronger with each new device we use, will the technology encourage or hinder our efforts?
We're no longer content to passively use products and systems as they were designed for us; there's now an inherent belief that we can and should have exactly what we want, when we want it, our way. We don't watch live TV anymore, we TiVo our shows and watch them at our leisure, minus the annoying commercials. We don't listen to the radio, we create our own stations on Pandora that only play music perfectly attuned to our specific tastes. We read ReadyMade magazine to learn how to MacGyver a solar tower in our backyard. And there's a lifehack for just about every activity you can think of, from using your cell phone as a check register to getting down to one remote control.
I'm all for doing it my way, but it feels like things are about to get out of hand. For example, we recently had a debate in our office over Yahoo! s newly released Open Shortcuts. The idea is fantastic (using the search box to tell your computer where to go or what to do for you), but the implementation left some of us with a bad taste in our mouths. To operate an Open Shortcut, you have to type the Yahoo exclamation point "!" before your shortcut. So to go to Yahoo! Mail, you d have to type "!mail." Doesn t that feel a bit like old-school computer language to you? Creating an Open Shortcut is even more esoteric, requiring users to find the instructions page, go to the search box and type a command, the name of the shortcut, and then copy in the URL.
Fortunately, I'm a consumer who understands search technology, toolbars, shortcuts and scripting. But how is my technophobe mom going to understand how to use an Open Shortcut, much less create one? She doesn't have the same understanding that I do of the technical reasoning behind these shortcuts. But like anybody else, she'd like to be able to walk up to her computer and just say, "Computer, open my mail!" Why should she be frozen out of these kinds of personalized, powerful features?
Open Shortcuts made me wonder: have we reached the limits of "widgetization?" Have our interfaces become so crammed with personalized features, tools and icons that we ve literally run out of space? Is our desire to have things just our way and our imaginative power for creating new tools moving so fast that the applications for building these tools can t keep up? As designers and coders continue to build personal tools like Konfabulator widgets, Google Maps mashups, and Flickr hacks (like the one for the Kodak EasyShare-one wi-fi camera), a divide grows between those who can build the technology and reap its benefits, and those who are left behind.
It's time for designers to step back and take a collective breath, to take stock of what they're doing and who they're doing it for. Gone are the days of applications and devices with finite feature sets. Designers and their employers are no longer the sole arbiters of users' needs; at this point, every user's "need" is only limited by her imagination.
Designers have to think beyond typical product usage and capture the essence of consumers innermost goals and wishes, and then empower those desires. Today's designers and technologists are no longer simply building search boxes for web browsers or wi-fi connectivity within digital cameras. They're also creating the interactions that consumers will use to build their own processes and commands inside those browsers. They re developing the technical architecture consumers will use to make their camera talk to whatever and whomever they like.
The most intriguing and successful products will have to accommodate varying levels of technical skill in other words, my mom as well as myself. Google took a step in the right direction when it released the code for its maps. Letting loose what had always been proprietary information for the likes of Microsoft, Google encouraged scores of free coders to create new tools such as real estate listing maps (Housing Maps) and maps with real time locations of commuter trains (dartmaps). Ning.com has gone one step further by offering a web application that helps you build social networking internet applications, something previously reserved for those with deep coding knowledge. Now I want to see the product that lets my mom create a social networking site for her walking group, complete with her own Google maps walking routes and Flickr photo links of the latest gathering.
As companies look to develop more robust products that include democratized personalization tools, they'll have to serve consumers desire for creative control over their technology. Designers will have to rethink the limits currently imposed on those desires by size and scale, iconization, and "widgetry." The next great gadget producers must understand that they're creating products for a world in which the next mashup is always just around the corner.
Denise Gershbein is a senior design analyst with frog design.
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