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Unnecessary developments

7 Mar 2016

This is my editorial for the Spring 2016 issue of HardCopy magazine:

EdisonI recently attended a software conference. You know the sort of thing: a couple of keynotes in the morning, followed by breakout sessions running in parallel across a bunch of rooms through the afternoon. Normally I don’t have trouble with such things: I go onto the website, look at the schedule, perhaps print out a few pages, and my day is organised. However this time it was different. This time I was presented with a singularly uninformative website which exhorted me to download and install the conference scheduling app, which appeared only to be available for smartphone. As I was concerned that I might have to book the breakout sessions I wanted to attend – there being nothing on the website to imply otherwise – I duly downloaded and installed.

My smartphone is perfectly respectable – a Nokia Lumia 520 running Windows Phone 8.1 – but I almost immediately ran into problems. For a start, the app was slow to respond – perfectly respectable by phone standards, but slow in comparison to opening up a web page on my quad-core SSD-based desktop. Once loaded, it presented me with a whole bunch of options, and no explanation as to what I needed to do. When I finally did get to the breakout agenda, I was presented with a flat list. It seemed impossible to find out, for example, what sessions were on at a particular time. There was a ‘pin’ symbol which started out grey, and turned red or green if I touched it, but no indication as to what this might mean. There did seem to be some sort of manual, but this was in PDF format, and I really wasn’t prepared to go through the hassle of downloading it and then trying to read it on the smartphone screen.

When I got to the actual conference, I quickly discovered that I did not need to book the sessions in order to attend. Furthermore, I was presented with a single sheet of A4 which clearly listed all the breakouts by stream, room and time. This was possible because an A4 sheet has a ‘screen’ area some twelve times larger than that of my Nokia, while still being considerably lighter and, moreover, foldable. What’s more, I don’t need an instruction manual to do with it what I wanted – namely choose which breakouts to attend.

So next time you design an app, or are asked by a client to design an app, ask yourself if it really adds anything that can’t be done in a more traditional manner. And make sure the client explains clearly on their website exactly what the app actually does. This app did indeed supply me with a stream of ‘information’ that the client decided I might find interesting, and the unwanted ability to ‘share’ with other delegates. What it didn’t do was make it easier for me to schedule my day, or find out what I needed to know, which was that I didn’t need the app to do what I wanted to do.

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