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It’s really hard to create polite software for mobile phones.
What purpose does your software have? Is it to enhance productivity, empower users, move stuff from the inbox to the outbox? Is it to keep its owner informed and up to date on the latest news? Is it to maintain a Bluetooth connection between the phone and the laptop?
Should your software be upbeat and helpful, should it be efficient and toned down, or should it simply be invisible and out of the way? Software has a predominant manner of representing themselves to the user. Programs whose appearance and behaviour conflict with their purpose will seem jarring and inappropriate, like a clown at a wedding, to quote Alan Cooper.
Cooper describes three application postures:
Sovereign posture programs takes over the entire screen, for example a spreadsheet or a word processor. Since Sovereign posture programs are used for extended periods of time, the users tend to be quite familiar with the program. Speed and efficiency is far more important than ease-of-use. Colours are muted and it's OK to display a large number of UI controls. Toolbars? Bring them on!
Programs having Transient posture come and go. They perform a single, high-relief function with a tightly restricted set of accompanying controls. A printing dialogue box could be an example. Transient posture requires clear, easy-to-understand appearance and use. Bold and large is good. Come and go quickly. The taxicab of applications.
Cooper also groups desktop widgets/gadgets with transient apps. The purpose of desktop widgets is to give easy access to changing information with zero interaction. A desktop widget should be easily glanceable while staying out of the way so you could argue it had more in common with the next posture:
Daemonic posture is a program that normally doesn't have a screen presence or lives in a control panel. It's mostly invisible, doing its thing in the background. Only when important events or errors happen does the daemonic program alert the user.
Mobile application types
Apple doesn't talk about postures but suggests 3 different application types; Productivity, Utility and Immersive.
A Productivity Application enables tasks that are based on the organisation and manipulation of detailed information. People use productivity applications to accomplish important tasks. Mail is a good example.
Data is often organised hierarchically and the user interaction model in a productivity application typically consists of organising the list, adding to and subtracting from the list, and drilling down through successive levels of detail until the desired level is reached, then performing tasks with the information on that level
A Utility Application performs a simple task that requires a minimum of user input. People open a utility application to see a quick summary of information or to perform a simple task on a limited number of objects. The Weather application is a good example of a utility application because it displays a narrowly focused amount of information in an easy-to-scan summary.
A utility application tends to organise information into a flattened list of items; users do not usually need to drill down through a hierarchy of information. The user interaction model for a utility application is very simple: Open, scan information, close. Optionally, change settings.
An Immersive Application is what it sounds like; full-screen video, fun and games.
Mobile application postures?
Are Coopers postures relevant for mobile? Yes, to a large degree. Sovereign posture is relevant in for example email applications. Use the pixels efficiently and provide as many shortcuts as you can.
Transient postures are for all types of dialogs like “send this picture as an email”, and for the current crop of mobile widgets. Daemonic postures for the battery indicator and the SMS alert.
The trouble is of course that the choices 3rd party developers have when developing an application is the following:
A little bit exaggerated perhaps, but true in essence. All the iPhone application types have sovereign posture. The reason is because that it is the only way to build apps on that phone. The same goes for Nokia, Samsung, Sony Ericsson (albeit to a slightly lesser degree).
If you want to build a weather app and you think it makes sense to add it into the calendar? Or maybe add it to the idle screen? Sorry, you have to build a full screen weather app. Want to build a sync app and add it as a menu choice in the phone book? Sorry. Want to build an image manipulation app and plug it into the camera app? Sorry.
There is no basic human right that says that you should be able to plug your software into anyone else's. No one is required to open up their apps or data to others. But for smartphones, that is the smart thing to do. It is hard for one piece of software to serve all users’ goals. Let applications behave cooperatively. It works on the internet…
There are some examples of efforts towards different behavioural stances in mobile apps. See for example a previous post about living icons (read the comments).
Google made a search app that is available from the idle screen.
Photo from www.allaboutsymbian.com
For the most part, current phones have siloed applications built with a Single Document Interface. Do you have examples of applications that successfully integrate or cooperates? Please share in the comments.