TOI (Times of India) Mobile App: Carrots and Sticks

Have you ever seen an ad incentivising the download of WhatsApp? Or Facebook app? Of course you haven’t. The app provides enough carrots as it is. The product is the promotion itself. But when I spotted the following ad in today’s Economic Times (a TOI group publication) I felt sorry for the app designers, developers, the marketing advisors and the advertising agency all at once. Er… lets add the client to the list as well.


The logic here is that if a user has chanced upon the TOI app (which is a newspaper app) and decided not to download it, a ₹50 mobile recharge would change her mind. Another version of the logic is that If the user has not heard about the TOI app yet, here is the bloody ad, now go download it!

If you haven’t noticed, Paytm also gets to see your valid Facebook credentials in the process. Hmm. No free lunch after all!

I have a few questions here. If I, as a user, did not hear about the app until now (years after its launch) was I living under a rock? or did nobody see it fit to recommend it to me yet? Was the app providing no special experience to its users so that they talk about it? And more importantly would people, who want ₹50 mobile recharge to download the app, actually use it?

Ok, let’s be fair and say that the small carrot will at least make the user download and open the app once. The number of downloads would go up momentarily and the marketing advisor and the ad agency would throw a small party in the cafeteria. But would the app deliver an experience that would turn the users into proponents? Would the experience make people talk about the good things designed inside the app? Its future-readiness? Its advantages over the printed version?

Agreed that TOI was the first Indian publication to have a mobile app (historians, please correct me if I am wrong). But to maintain the edge, they need to use sticks upon their UX designers and not such carrots. Build a great user experience that will make people use nothing else as their primary source of news.

Note: Frankly speaking, the author had downloaded the TOI app long back and is currently carrying out a frantic search for it on his handset. Perhaps it was the old phone.

iPhone 6 : More Than a Handful

God always intended the mobile phone to be used with just one hand. Atheists, agnostics and Dawkinians may wish to replace the first word with ‘natural selection’ ‘higher power’ or ‘watchmaker’, as required. I would like to replace it with ‘Steve’.

Indeed, Steve did so. iPhone designs up to 4S did agree with the average grip of a human hand. One of them, to be precise. Since his departure from this world, his beloved company seems to be bowing down to commercial pressures of coming up with ‘bigger’ phones.

iPhone 5S topped up one row of app icons. Although they were hard to tap with one (average sized human) thumb, the new size displayed 16:9 videos pretty well, and everybody was supposed to keep quiet since it was the best iPhone ever (as ever), moreover, the width of the phone was still the same! So why are you complaining, huh?

But with iPhone 6 and 6+ things have literally gone out of one hand. Although 6 can still be called ‘a phone’, 6+ is clearly a case of wrong branding. How about calling it iPad ‘Nano’? The app icons turn 90 degrees when you turn the device, just like all iPads!

But I digress. We were speaking about ‘phones’.

Since I’ve started using 6, my index finger must have reached the top of the phone at least 100 times only to realise that the power button is no longer there! Now it is on the right side. With a bevelled edge that can let the phone slip out of your hand, and the new placement for power button, the phone looks like any other phone sporting a droid.


Not that the product designers don’t realise this. That is why we see many attempts at reconciling with ergonomics. A few Android applications have introduced ‘single hand mode’ like in the case of the calculator app shown below. But I can understand the challenges of ever growing device dimensions that Android app designers face.



Thanks to the new ‘heights’ Apple devices have reached, iOS app designers now have challenges of their own. And their own UI designers have shown the way-When you tap twice, ever so gently, on the home button, the icons descend down to reach your puny little thumb! I can almost hear Tim going, “Best workaround ever”!


But should we pat ourselves on the back? Is there any glory in overcoming obstacles that we place upon ourselves? Maybe one day, according to the Darwinian theory of survival, we may grow bigger palms. Pigs could fly. And Apple may go back to producing 4S.

Sigh! What a lovely machine! And so apt for our anatomy!

iOS 8 Spotlight Search: A Simple Yet Helpful Tweak

Sometime, amidst the frenzy of new arrivals of features and capabilities, simple things go unnoticed. No matter how small, every design decision to make life easy for the user must be applauded. Case in point: Visual treatment tweak to Spotlight Search on iOS8.

Once upon a time, when Steve was alive, iOS made sure that the user is taken to a different screen to perform search for apps and other data on the device (as well as on the internet if the device is connected). The reason – To let the user focus on the task at hand and not be disturbed visually.


There was one problem, though. The user had to scroll away from the current screen. And if the screen was 5th or 6th on right, the user had to either scroll frantically to go to the search screen on left, or press home button and swipe left.

iOS 7 corrected this, making Spotlight search available on every screen. All the user had to do was to swipe top-down and the search bar was there!


What got forgotten was the focus earlier design provided. As the search bar appeared, the chaos of app icons stayed on, adding a few moments for the eye to travel to the search bar.

Now, in iOS 8, this has been corrected. The whole screen gets blurred so that the user can focus on the task at hand.


This may seem trivial, but not to the UX team at Apple. Someone over there is fighting out these small issues. You may call it going back to what worked, or realising your mistake, or an internal argument getting settled with actual product usage test. However achieved, this design tweak will add up perhaps a milligram of user satisfaction. Yet we must agree that every bit helps to achieve a great user experience.

Foursquare: Turn On Turn Off

There are times when I get fed up with my always-on online presence. Facebooks of the world have made it difficult for their users to log off by hiding that menu option under something called ‘Account’ or ‘Settings’. I hear them sing, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!”

Yet one of the joys of having a mobile device is to be able to turn off location services every now and then. Go underground, become invisible to the prying eyes of my foursquare friends. Go missing!

But when my pangs of solitude get subsided, I invariably come back to civilisation by the means of Foursquare. All eager to know who is eating what, at which restaurant. Who is shopping where, with whom, etc.

As a user I want the app to submit to my wishes, not take orders from it. But see what treatment I got:

Situation – I launch Foursquare app.
Condition – my locations services are turned off.
I see this:


Well, I don’t wish to click that close button. I do wish Foursquare to ‘turn the location services on’ as the question suggests.
So I tap on the pink band. And what do I see?


Ah! A lesson in how to use my phone! Perhaps handy for the first time iPhone users, but I’ve been playing with this toy for over a year, thank you very much!

With a little irritation I press ‘Got it’. Because I really did. And I discover that I just closed a pop-up box, but no action is taken:


So I am missing out on amazing recommendations and tips sent directly to me! Boy, wasn’t that the reason I took this course of action? So I tap ‘Turn on your Location services’ only to see that pop-up I just closed. No action!

Before I compose a post criticising Foursquare, it was only fair that I check what other apps do. Google Maps simply told me that my Location services were disabled. No Action. No tutorials either (thankfully)!


Among all the apps only Instagram did what I expected it to do. It realised my Location services were disabled, and simply showed me a dialogue box, where all I had to do was to tap on ‘Settings’, and I was taken to the Location services settings screen!


In two taps, I was back in business! Back to life!

All above mentioned ape are successful in their own right. But the one that thinks carefully about user experience gets my vote of approval. The key is to care about user expectations, draw as many scenarios as possible before settling on the final interaction design of the application.

In this regard, Instagram wins hands down. Foursquare, are you taking notes?

Linkedin: Never never repeat repeat yourself yourself

Yes, I live in a place that has spotty network. This somehow makes me an ideal user testing candidate, because if you can help me, you can help all your users.

Here is what happens to most of my social postings: I make a post. I hit the submit / post button. And wait. Nothing much happens… My post is yet not there in the public eye. Or so I gather from the page that has long stopped refreshing itself. I have tweeted a tweet twice, I have pinned a pin twice. I have even posted the same thing on Facebook twice. Once I realise my mistake I scramble to look less like an idiot and delete the repeated post! Maybe I am too paranoid about my posting as if millions are watching my every move. Well, this false sense of fame is a direct byproduct of social media!

But one such network is worried about their users reputation (understandably, since it’s their business) and that is LinkedIn!

I just posted something on Linkedin, and I wasn’t sure if I had really done that (again I have my network to thank). So I composed the entire post again (along with the appropriate link that I had to share. But something interesting happened! Take a look:

Screen Shot 2014-01-05 at 8.39.17 am

Don’t you love when such error messages start with “We are unable to…” as opposed to “You goofed up there, buddy!”

All it took for them to realise that I was repeating myself was the content of my post that matched exactly with a post that was made last! How hard is it technically? But to think about introducing this kind of error message is not commonplace. It goes to show that nothing is more important to Linked than stopping me from looking like an idiot and I thank them for that!

PS: As one of my observant friends pointed out, even twitter sports a similar functionality, but uses a more folksy language (Opps! You already tweeted that). Whereas G+ and Facebook couldn’t care less.

Whatsapp: iOS 7, yet none the wiser!


I have seen everybody who uses whatsapp hate it for one or the other reason, Yet, nobody I know can stop using it. There are groups made, conversations stored, jokes forwarded. In short, social life as we know it. Some people I know, when they lost their mobile phone, were more worried about their whatsapp conversation that went away with it!

And yet, there are problems. The first one is about how to react to a message. In a group conversation, messages flow like water under the bridge. More appropriate comparison would be Facebook posts. So if one fine morning you saw 30 unread messages and you find one joke (15th message, say) quite funny, there is no way to ‘like’ that message, or send a smiley as a reply to it specifically. Some people may find it rude that their jokes are not laughed on! So if your smiley is 31st message in response to the 15th, it may create a funny string of conversation, as you never meant your smiley as a response to the 30th message! (good luck with convincing the sender on that).

Now I know Whatsapp has a structure of ‘messages’ and not ‘posts’. But I did expect (unrealistically, perhaps) that they would make this change at least for group conversations with their iOS7 version, but no sausage!

The second and more irritating thing about Whatsapp is that you HAVE TO scroll through all the messages (especially long winded jokes) to reach the bottom and see the latest one. Like in FB, there should have been a limit on how many lines you display before someone deciders to ‘continue reading’. On a mobile device, one scroll is enough to decide if you wish to read anything or just move along and see other messages. There is a real danger that important messages may get lost in this landslide!

This unending scrolling once irritated me so much that I actually left a 40-jokes-an-hour kind of group saying that I am afraid the real important messages would be lost and members rather email me or send me a text if they wanted my attention. What’s wrong with a simple truncating of messages and letting the user decide if it is worth reading? I sincerely hoped that they would make this change in their iOS7 version*. Again, no sausage!

Therefore, I remain, a reluctant user of Whatsapp even in this new year. Well, you can’t blame one to embrace the only popular way in existence that defeats the ‘charging-per-message evil service provider regime’ on daily basis, can you?

* I asked a developer about this and I was told that on Android, you can do this truncating programmatically, but it’s impossible on iOS as of now.

Bing Facebook Plugin – Translating delight

Contrary to what the readers would believe, I do not always criticise bad user experience. At times one must applaud the efforts of those who believe in providing a great experience to the users when they least expect it.

One of the things that Facebook has made possible are friendships that go beyond the boundaries of nations and languages. Somebody in the offices of Facebook or Bing (Who blinked first? Dunno.) decided to be helpful and provide a small link that shows translation of a comment! I dedicate this short blogpost to whoever was responsible! Take a bow!


PS: It appears that the translate-link is presented only when a comment is posted by someone in a different location, because when I tried being cheeky and wrote something in latin, but no link appeared… Or maybe it did not appear for ME… :-)

McDonald’s Happy Meal Toy – a lesson in First User Experience

As countless parents before me, I order a Happy Meal every time I go to McDonald’s regardless of the mood I am in. Some of the toys do bring out the kid in me and I rip open the packaging and play with the toy before presenting it to my daughter.

Every time I look at the plastic pack decorated with a few wordless illustrations and warning messages in a dozen languages, I hear it say “the toy may be for you, but this is really for us. For the warning messages are torn and thrown away, but not before letting the manufacturer off the hook if something goes wrong.

Yet every time my daughter starts to play with the toy, I get a question or two about how it works and we both sit staring at the enthusiastically torn plastic pack and try to unravel the mystery of the instructional illustrations.


Truth be told, Most of the toys are self explanatory. And the payoff is so attractive that there is little chance of someone grumbling about the illustrations being less than informative. In fact, most of the times the instructions are looked at after the toy has been tinkered with.

Yet not everything that is sold (product as well as service) is as attractive and welcoming as the seemingly free McDee toy. Most of the online instructions about how to use a certain service, payment system or  banking application think that their first user experience, their welcome screens, their help are going to be overlooked anyways because their customers are dying to get their hands on their offering. This belief prevents any attention or care going into crafting such screens and messages.

Unlike the McDee toy, many offerings have a price tag, a need for the customer’s commitment, a decision in their favour among the competing offerings. Perhaps that is the reason why Fisher Price puts a well designed instruction card inside every toy box.

I sincerely hope that fierce competition eventually will force businesses to pay more attention to their first user experiences. All they have to do is start thinking about themselves as Fisher price and not McDonald’s, who incidentally, are not in the toy business anyway.

iOS7: The case of the missing ‘Decline’ button

One of the primary functions of a mobile phone is to ‘manage’ an incoming call. It was iOS 6 that gave us the ability to decline an unwanted incoming call not just with a curt ‘No’, but with a polite message. My favourite is “Can’t talk right now, I’m driving.” Because that’s when I need to decline the call yet be all reasonable about it. But sometimes the call is from a landline, or from an unknown number or from an unwanted caller, and I prefer to just cut the call.

So far I had both the options at my disposal. But iOS7 has changed it all.

If the phone is not in use, and a call comes in, you can do the following:
1] Respond with a message – that’s still there.
2] Remind yourself to call back – that’s handy!
3] Or just take the call by swiping your finger on the green button.
But there is no 4] – Decline the call!

When you are using the phone, however, the Decline button appears!
Here are two screenshots for comparison


And haven’t we been here before?
Remember how the tweak was originally introduced in iOS5?


The handy “Decline with a message” utility was added later in iOS 6:

photo copy

It seems Apple is going back to their original iOS4 mechanism. And I can think of just one reason why they are doing so.

Sliding is a better mechanism to make a choice than tap when the phone is not in use. You don’t want to accidentally decline an important call, do you? Perhaps the phone is in your pocket and you’d rather take it out and look at who’s calling before you decide to take an action: Press the Power button Twice (not that elegant).

Here’s my suggestion – How about giving the user a slider than provides a choice?


Not that this is such an original idea. This has been attempted in a few Android interfaces as well as Windows. But Apple has stayed away from it for some reason.

While the fanboys are busy glossing over the sex appeal of the new interface (or drool over the parallax effect) and the critics are busy maligning the colour schemes and icons, showstoppers such as this can seriously damage the intended rich user experience.

Let us hope that Apple introduces it in the later versions of iOS 7.

The evolving nature of typographic control

In the beginning there was the printed letter. (never mind the handwritten, hand-scribbled, hand made and other such off-hand instances of total control since the age of cave paintings) It gave the person in charge of composing printed matter a fair degree of control over how the output looked, for more often than not, the same person was in charge of designing the wooden typefaces to be put in the wine-press contraptions of Gutenberg-era.

As the printing industry grew, the typographer and the printer got separated, each blaming the distant other about why the printed stuff did not look like what was intended. Type designers said their intentions were lost in translation and printers were too busy keeping the presses profitably running to worry about employing a full time typographic overlord.

But then came the age of Letterpress, Linotype and other machines cleverly closing the gaps in mechanical spacing. Typographers cried with joy and declared that they had regained their freedom. This continued and was enhanced by the entry of the blessed machine called the Computer. Now there was complete control over typography as it was no longer bound by the laws of physical space. The letterforms could align themselves to whatever shape the designer chose, or dance on any path that the Mouse had drawn onscreen.

What everyone forgot in the midst of much champagne uncorking was the fact that it was the ‘medium’ which had placed the typographers in the driving seat and not the tools of creation. And the medium was called the printed page. Physical. Unmoving.

Even the ones with a little philosophical bent of mind dismissed the thought by saying “If not paper, what else is supposed to convey the typographic intent? huh! Guess I need a refill”.

“But the medium is the message”, cried a Canadian professor. Television was giving a new dimension to how typography was conveyed. There was a limit on space but no limit on the dimension called ‘time’. The letterforms could be animated, twisted, turned in time. Control? Yes, typographers got it. with a few exceptions such as pixels, screen noise and remote control.

In the television era there was one typographer at the source, one message, one design, but millions upon millions of television sets across the world. With different physical size, brightness, contrast and colour settings. Yet in a strange way, there was some typographic control. The pixel dimensions remained very much the same. At least in the same geographical territory. There was a small learning curve when it came to PAL, SECAM, NTSC and frame rate and underscan dynamics but it did not pose as tough a challenge as the one internet presented.

The beginning of the great Internet era! This was when the typographer almost gave up. The web delivered the intended design to the whole connected world. And the world received it – in different physical screen sizes, pixel depths, colour settings, operating systems and horror of horrors – in system fonts. Only! Not to mention the restrictions on alignment.

“What!”, cried the scores of print designers, “This internet thingy is a passing fad. Let us stick to print. Let us talk about the complete control that we always had over the printed page. Let us speak of the days when we fought to kill every single ‘widow word’. Let us bury our heads in newsprint. Hey, this way the world looks much better!”

But the world was changing its ways. Bits were faster and cheaper to move than atoms. Clicks replaced Bricks. Designers and typographers (at least some of them) had to pull out their heads from the sand and take up the new challenges of designing web presence for the commercial world.

Until the invention of web fonts designers pretty much had two choices – either design with universally available fonts or make images of their typography. In a low bandwidth world that was, headlines set as jpeg or gif images sparked small wars between the designers and developers (and created a rift that will put to shame the warring factions within advertising agency disciplines such as servicing vs creatives and art vs copy!).

The bandwidth problem was solved. so was the problem of system fonts. Now typographers thought they finally had control over how the letterforms looked – on any screen. Enter ‘Responsive’ design! Now the design could rearrange itself to suit the conditions on the user’s computer! (even if it was a phone and not a computer – which is pretty much the same thing now). Type changed size and placement on different devices but conveyed the typographer’s intentions perfectly.

Processor power continued to increase according to Moor’s law. Pixel and colour depths soared. Retina displays took away the jagged edges of serif typefaces. The designer could be in total control again! And yet, somehow, things are set to change again.

User preferences on devices and browsers can alter the typography on a web page or inside an application window. The user can change the alignment, font size – and some typographers may find this unsettling – decide if the font should be serif or sans serif! (Okay, before you launch an argument about the virtues of sans serif fonts on screens, let me assure you, that at the time of writing this post there is no conclusive research that proves either provides a better reading experience onscreen). See the few screens shared below of the Pocket app (formerly Read it Later) where the user gets total control over the typography onscreen.

Technology will continue to provide ever greater control to the user, not the designer. Perhaps the way forward for typographers (or any designer) is to design for possibilities. and not for one single instance of presentation. If we as designers are sensitive to the user and curb our desire to dictate every single thing, we can create meaningful user experiences.