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Killer App

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Talk of the death of the World Wide Web seems to be a popular subject at this moment. I like the idea. As I work with my array of portable devices, I’m enjoying apps that focus my attention and deliver targeted (limited) content. The migration of people from general-purpose computers to dedicated appliances was predicted years ago by none other than the man most quoted in this column, Donald Norman. Norman wrote in the Invisible Computer in 1999, “The notion that a product with fewer features might be more usable, more functional, and superior for the needs of the customer is considered blasphemous” but that is just what is happening in the iDevice/apps world.

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When I’m at home, I’m much more likely to read blogs on my iPad than on my laptop. The iPad is just designed better for casual reading even though they both have the capability to serve up reading material. Wired Magazine editor Chris Andersen said on The Charlie Rose Show recently, “If you look at a session time on our website, three minutes is a good session time…when you look at the stats on our iPad app just three months into it, we’re looking at 40 minutes, an hour, or even longer [sessions].” Through these limited function apps we may be gaining back the focused experiences that have been so scarce recently. If we were able to apply that kind of information delivery to purpose-designed spaces such as the classroom or conference room, we may be able to refocus on the agenda instead of falling down the familiar meeting “rabbit hole.”

Spaces have had a long head start evolving toward special purpose use over the last several thousand years. Architecture once was very general purpose (most mud huts initially did not have separate dining rooms, I suspect). Today we expect to have meetings in the Conference Room, and a meal in the Lunch Room. A current problem with our workspaces is that many of them contain that old single-screen multipurpose, multitasking computer that can open a rabbit hole in a perfectly good conference room—one where you start in one direction and end up in an entirely different place at the end of the meeting.

Imagine a room where the information available in the room is more static, informative, and tailored for the content of your meeting. Similar to a GPS-enabled car that knows where you are and where you want to go, an “information-ready” room could tailor the data in your space to the goals of your team. First you might add a few tag words and link a couple of files to the reservation form on your Outlook calendar. When you arrive at the conference room for your meeting, the displays on each wall would be purpose driven: a schedule wall, an action item wall, and a mind map or idea wall might wrap around the conference table. If it is a brainstorming meeting, the fourth “app wall” could display ideation tools like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. Each wall might have a limited number of apps that could be run to allow for customization for different types of meetings.

In the conference room today we waste a huge amount of time either getting distracted or flipping back and forth between discrete views of important content. We simply lose the ability to make connections between all the bits of information we’ve seen during a meeting. The goal of the multiple, persistent display room is to maintain view of information that will let you better comprehend the complexity of your goals. No more ALT-TABing back and forth between your Gantt chart and the revenue projections— multiple dedicated views of your data would be visible, dynamic, and would constantly inform your conversation and decision-making. In the “information ready” meeting room, multiple “app walls” would paradoxically provide more information and better focus. The evolution of multitasking computers to monotasking appliances has just begun, but I welcome a return to a more focused experience.

Paul Chavez (pchavez@harman.com) is the director of systems applications for Harman Pro Group. He is a usability evangelist and a futurologist. Chavez has designed a variety of audiovisual systems ranging from themed attractions to super yachts. He has also taught and written on the topics of interaction design, audiovisual design, and networking.

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