The Lure of the Screen in App Development

The greatest gift of the garden is the restoration of the five senses.
Hanna Rion

Having seen a lot of software development projects (by students) for smartphones, I get the very strong suspicion that most students got a screen fetish.

Yep. We are visual creatures. Men and women alike. Just think of porn. Sure, most men like photos and videos, but even if most women prefer writing (“50 Shades of Grey” anyone?#1), it’s text that accessed visually (mostly, there are audio books).

And it shows.

Many apps go for interfaces that are exclusively visual. You present people with a visual interface, based on some heuristics or Apple/Google design guidelines, and that’s it.

And in many cases, it might actually be the best way. Smartphones and tablets go by the screen. That’s the thing people talk about (“Retina display” anyone?). The resolution. The colors. The quality. The glass.

But we have other senses as well. We hear, we touch, we smell, we feel vibration, we feel warmth and cold, and much, much more.

And in many situations, these neglected senses might actually be vastly more useful, hell, lead to higher usability, than visual information.

Just take an app for supporting better driving behavior (in the sense of driving more environment friendly). Students are often in love with their design, but let’s be honest, even if you don’t subscribe to a more libertarian view, driving environment-friendly is not the most important issue when driving. There are children crossing the street. Hell, *I* might be crossing that street. And visual information is distracting when driving, when your sense of sight is the most important one and when visual attention has to be used efficiently and economically. And when any critical (e.g., steering/stopping) action must not be dominated by another non-critical action (essentially, everything else).

So develop an app that demands visual attention to be useful? Especially when performing driving behaviors that command visual attention in themselves? Why design something that might be good as a standalone app, but not (never) as part of an integrated cockpit in which many other information are more important and in which nothing should ever be more important than what is behind that glass plate in front of you?

Probably, because most courses are strongly focused on visual interfaces. You can easily sketch them, there are tools that provide you with visual design elements. There are rules tailored to the processing of visual information.

In contrast, it is very hard to use our second most precious sense: sound. It’s actually much more useful in, e.g., emergency situations. When you are asleep and a fire breaks out, it’s your auditory sense that warns you about the fire. (Actually, about the smoke. People usually suffocate. If they were on fire, they would wake up — pain works — but they just suffocate in their sleep. At least, they do if they don’t have a smoke detector.) But yeah, regarding sounds, there are fewer tools. Fewer good tools. Fewer easily accessible classifications of types of sounds, e.g., those that draw attention and those that do not, those that are pleasant to hear (even a millionth time) and those that are not.

Seriously, the lack of good sound design might actually prevent the usability of a lot of otherwise very useful apps.

Just take an example: “Quake 3: Arena”. It’s an old game, but highly visual. It’s fast-paced, you run around a lot. 99% you are focused on the screen. But reinforcement of behavior (i.e., killing opponents) comes more via the auditory sense. Via short spoken words like “Impressive“, “Excellent“, and the like (and yeah, they are also presented visually).

Why not use something similar for an app that’s used in a car? Why not use the sense less occupied with the survival of others (and yourself, especially when considering your peace of mind after running over someone with a heavy object)?

Seriously, stop the lure of the screen, provide some tools for sound design, and let’s use senses that are more appropriate for the situation.

And if lives aren’t important enough, hell, it might be more usable and sell better.


#1 If that sort of thing interests you, read some good non-fiction BDSM books. Otherwise you are like the few men who think real sex should be like badly-acted porn.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Legal Side Effects of Logging User Behavior (esp. when driving) | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY
  2. Getting the Right Design before Getting the Design Right | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY

Comments are closed.