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Posts Tagged ‘mobile

Last year I outlined how the poorly designed McCafe app could be used to learn design principles. Missteps and mistakes are often the best sources of learning.

My StarHub is an app that I use to check my data consumption and it is a wellspring of lessons on how NOT to design a mobile app.

The app claims to let users customise what they see. Currently, there are four fixed cards and six selectable ones. The latter are selected by default.

One cannot actually customise as 1) there are fixed selections (including ads), and 2) if deselected, the optional cards return after restarting the app.

The people behind the StarHub app might have forgotten (or do not care) that the customer likes to customise. Perhaps they need to adopt a new custom and repeat it as a mantra.

The app also breaks the old web page three-click rule. This is the rule that states that a user should be able to find what they need within three mouse clicks. In the mobile app universe, this should be a one or two tap rule given the nature of the platform.

Once I open the app, I need to make six taps to know how much data I have consumed in detail. I need to tap on:

  1. My Account.
  2. Mobile usage.
  3. The filter option (I manage and pay for my family’s numbers and mine does not appear by default and I have no option to choose my mobile number as default.)
  4. My number in the filter.
  5. The done button.
  6. Data usage to view current usage.

The app offers a minimalist graphic on main page that looks nice, but 1) it does not always appear, 2) when it does, it sometimes happens after a delay, 3) it is not detailed enough for my needs.

All this puts form over function and the needs of the designers over that of the user. This makes for a terrible app experience and I am reminded of it every time I use it.

Designers of user interfaces should be familiar with the concept of user-centric design. I wish more were passionate about the practice of the same. This is particularly important for designers of educational apps, especially those that provide access to content and learning management systems. No one wants angry, frustrated, or anxious users even before the learning begins.

This was a tweet that was both funny and sad.

Many people in the so-called first world carry phones in their pockets or bags that are portals to the world’s information. They seem to be underutilised when their typical use is “to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers”.

Not just these uses, of course, but more of the same. As a result, these are very much less than what phones could be used for.

I say that phones are misused, particularly in schools, if their full power is not harnessed. Today’s mobile phones are not just handy Google portals. They are also:

  • Connectors to more knowledgeable others
  • Collators of news and information
  • Providers of sounding boards
  • Oases of ideas
  • Amplifiers of messages
  • Translators of many languages
  • Tools for making e-portfolio artefacts
  • Navigators to resources and treasures
  • Monitors and managers of our time and energy

And so much more.

But so little of this potential is used for learning in schools because dominant pedagogy is shaped by the past and driven by fear. Consider how the list of possibilities quickly becomes one of worries about:

  • Cheating
  • Misinformation
  • Spreading propaganda
  • Radical indoctrination
  • Creating confusion
  • Wasting of time and energy


The same tool or instrument in different hands does different things.

A hammer in the hands of a vandal destroys public property. A hammer in the hands of a skilled worker repairs that damage.

A violin in the hands of an amateur might sound like a cat being disembowelled. A violin in the hands of an artist soothes the savage beast.

The difference in mindset and practice is down to the type of teachers and how we prepare them. The type of teachers is a function of recruitment. Preparation is a function of professional development. Recruitment does not offer a perfect filter; professional development is an attempt to manage the people you have.

If teachers are underutilising mobile technology or misusing it, what are we doing to right this wrong?

No, it is not a new word. I call a mobile app experience, particularly a bad one, an apps-perience.

I share some thoughts on using a commercial app by McCafe in Singapore. I hope to illustrate how edu app designers might learn from the negative examples McCafe has generously offered.

I provide screenshots from an iOS and Android phone because I used both to make sure that the experience was consistent. It was consistently bad.

Lesson 1: Bare-essentials registration
Most apps require user registration. The McCafe app requires your name, gender, full date of birth, email address, and phone number. As it only requires your phone number to tie the app to you and to send an SMS verification, this is the only data it actually needs.

It collects more information than it requires and this tells you that it wants your data for more than just providing you with a good deal. You are the deal for McDonald’s and its third party allies.

If you use this app, be sure to deselect all the options under the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) section. If you are lonely and like spam, select them all.

Part of the McCafe app registration process.

The registration process feels unnecessarily long, burdensome, and intrusive because of the amount and type of information it seeks. For example, it could have left out the date of birth details while including the age declaration option. After all, there was no way to verify a user’s age.

For that matter, there was no way to check the user’s name, gender, or email. If establishing identity is the purpose of registration, the phone number is enough. After all, our phone numbers are already tied to our identities when we sign up for mobile subscriptions.

The lesson for edu apps designers is the same. Respect the privacy of the user. If an edu user has an institutional ID number or email address, use just that. If not, get the bare minimum, e.g., email address, for setting up and verifying an account.

Lesson 2: Do not nag
When I start the app on iOS, I get this reminder. I cannot deactivate it unless I let the app notify me and allow it to track my location.

Nagging reminders by the McCafe app.

I choose to allow neither. All other apps I use stop nagging me once I choose no. This screen does not provide a “no” option and appears each time I launch the app. You can imagine how much joy this brings me. Not.

Lesson for edu apps designers: Reminders can be important, e.g., project deadlines, and you should give the user a choice to be reminded or not. If so, the type of reminder should also be an option. These reminders can be built into the OS, e.g., app badge, notification area, slider, or popup. Alternatives to these might be a reminder feed to a calendar, email, or messaging app.

Lesson 3: Mind your language
After the nag screen, I get this warning message (see screenshot below). This is two unwanted reminders to tap on before I can start using the app.

The McCafe app thinks that my iPhone is jailbroken — the app prefers jailborken — even though it is not.

The McCafe app thinks my phone is

The only good thing about this message is that I get a chuckle every time I see it.

Maybe the app developer has Scandinavian roots. Maybe there is a sneaky collaboration with IKEA for new line of toddler barriers, Jaīlbørkën. You heard it here first.

Lesson for edu app designers: You might not be providing an English learning experience, but if that is the language of the app, use it properly. No “borken” English, please.

Lesson 4: Put the user experience first
This lesson is hard to describe with a screenshot because it is the process of using the app to 1) claim stamps (five add up to a free drink) or 2) use coupons. Both use a QR code system that appears on the user’s screen.

The process seems simple enough. Pull up a QR code that identifies you or the coupon, then scan it. The problem is that the setup is designed for the cashier and not the user.

Every other app interface I have used that requires a user-generated QR code allows the user to align the code to the reader. This is like tapping your EZ-link card to the reader.

However, at McCafe the reader is positioned so that you cannot see where you are aiming the QR code app; only the cashier can. I experienced this for myself and I watched people after me doing the same thing. Each time the cashier had to guide the user’s hand left or right, up or down, and forward or back.

Two-step verification of QR code in McCafe app.

This process is even more awkward when you have to use a coupon because you have to scan the QR code twice. You try to scan it the first time. You then have to tap a “Next” button on screen for another QR code to appear.

When you do this, you have to turn the screen towards you, tap the button, and start aiming again. Watching a line of people do this can be mildly amusing if it did not look so stupid.

Lesson for edu app designers: Do not make your users feel stupid or make them do stupid things. Your users have experienced other apps and quite a few of these will feel slick or even sophisticated. Those other apps are no less secure and it is no shame to learn from other app makers.

Bonus lesson
This app rant is not about getting a free cup of coffee or poking fun at a mega corporation. One cup or small pokes are not going to make a dent in a company that used to have a clown for a mascot and now aligns itself with the passé Angry Birds.

This is about learning not just from a textbook or highly theoretical principles. With keen observations and critical questions, educators can deconstruct and reconstruct lessons from everyday phenomena.

Such lessons bring fresh perspectives to old issues and are fun and meaningful to the learner. That is the most important lesson of all: It is more about the learner and learning, less about the teacher and teaching.

Have you ever wondered what mobile apps might look like if they existed in the 1990s?

I got an answer when my son’s school authorities provided a notice for parents to download a “notification and attendance” app.

If you cannot remember what web pages looked like in the 1990s, this rude reminder might help.

The app reminded me of the web-based Java applets of old. It was plain and perfunctory. If the app could have an odour, it would be that of a musty attic or a mouldy basement. If it had an introductory screen, it would be to swipe cobwebs from its interface.

That is my way of saying it was unappealing. It was as if the app maker resented creating it.

The app was awful in form and function:

  • It constantly nagged you to log in.
  • It looked like it was ported from a desktop for point-and-click instead of swipe-and-tap.
  • As a phone app it was meant for portrait use, but it seemed to be designed from a landscape point of view.
  • It seemed to have borrowed its layout from a backward webmail programme. (Cough, iCON, cough!)
  • The designer might have taken paper prototyping too seriously. The layout and buttons look like paper outlines and stickers.

I share two screenshots and offer more specific comments with the examples below.

Snaapp app critique 1.

Screenshot 1: 

  • This is an example of the app’s blocky and monotone design.
  • Note its poor use of English.

Snaapp app critique 2.

Screenshot 2: 

  • The tappable icons or hotspots are inconsistently designed. 
  • The notification is incomplete: Saved to what location?
  • The landscape photo is saved in very low resolution as a portrait with black letterbox bars.

Local app makers need better design sense. For example:

  • Visual design: The look and feel should be modern or at least current, not a throw over from the Geocities web page era. A tight review of the five most popular communication apps should reveal a mountain of design clues.
  • Usability design: The mobile app should be a dedicated app instead of a wrapper of a web app. Good apps focus on what the user wants and needs, not on designer or desktop hangups.
  • Social design: A communication app should be designed for people to interact. It is not just for one party to disseminate. Users expect to be participants and to provide feedback. Build and promote those affordances.
  • Current design: Today’s design is flat and avoids skeuomorphism. Instagram recently changed its Polaroid-like camera icon to a modern, flat icon. Old design is like Microsoft clinging to the diskette “save” icon even though no one uses diskettes anymore.
  • Language: An app can look gorgeous and be user-friendly, but if its prompts are in broken English, its design is broken. This is not nitpicking; this is about taking pride in work.

Old and complacent design encourages old and complacent practice. Perhaps this is a strategy the app provider is using with schools. It looks safe and familiar to decision makers, so more schools might adopt it. But the app makers ignore other stakeholders and users at their peril.

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Is it passé to say that mobile is important?

After all, practically everyone in the first world has at least one mobile device, you can order practically anything with your phone, and your phone connects you to practically anyone.

Unless you are in school, even in the first world.

No phone zone.

Far more articulate scholars and thought leaders have written and spoken about the importance of mobile in education. They are merely a search away — on your phone no less. However, most schools have, or remain, no phone zones.

So how about something more emotional to connect with that idea. You probably sleep with your phone near you. What happens if you drop it? BuzzFeed found out with this prank.

Video source

How important is mobile in schooling? You can and should seek answers from rigorous academic research and reflective practice. But the answers should also connect with you as an individual and with each teacher and student.

Take someone’s phone away or threaten to harm it and see what the reactions are. Their phones are their lives. So why should their use in schools be any different?

One of the people I learn from outside the realm of education is Beth Kanter. I subscribe to her blog‘s RSS feed.

ABC 10/52 by Skley, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Skley 

Recently she shared what she learnt from a presentation by Sree Sreenivasan.

ABC was “Always be Charging” – imagine the stories we will tell our grandchildren about sitting in airports near the plugs to recharge our phones.

ABC, always be capturing. He said use your phone as a notebook and take photos.

And finally, always be connecting. That is share (selectively) what you capture so you can connect.

These are simple but astute observations about current life.

These are also why educators need to be ABC: Always be contemplating or always be considering ways to go mobile and to connect better with other educators and their learners.

Greenbot led with an article about the fifteen things we seem to have forgotten to do because we now have smartphones.

How about fifteen things we can do or do better? I contrast their cannots with the cans in my own series on how they affect teaching or learning.
1. Cannot make phone calls. Can communicate in many other ways.

Successful N800 video call by rnair, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License   by  rnair 

When is a phone no longer a phone? When it is too smart to be just a phone. It is a messenger, updater, tweeter, emailer, orderer, reminder-er, etc. Messages may be shorter, but they can be so much more efficient and no less meaningful.

And when you need to hear someone’s voice, you still can. Better still, you can see their faces too.

Instead of insisting there is just one way to communicate, teachers should take the smartphone cue and learn the other ways their learners have already adopted.
2. Cannot remember phone numbers. Prioritize your brain for better things.

Memorization might be one basis for learning, but it is not the only way.

Memorization is a case for just-in-case learning of stable information. We used to remember phone numbers in case we needed them for use later. Dumbed down memorization, rote, is one extreme path that many still take thinking that it leads to academic success.

Memorization does not prepare you for just-in-time and situational learning of volatile information. A smartphone, wearable device, or something similar can be used to collect, record, or process data, or provide performance support. The devices help us deal with more important things instead of fussing over trivial ones.

Educators might refer to important things such as higher order thinking skills (HOTS). Memorization has not gone away; it has simply been outsourced to the phone.
3. Cannot read a map. You can interact with one.

Toward Lonsdale Street satellite view - by avlxyz, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  avlxyz 

Maps attempt to put a three-dimensional space (actual world) into a two-dimensional one (flat world). Both paper and electronic maps suffer from this and place an unnecessary cognitive load on the user.

However, tools like Google Maps offer street views which are attempts to recreate the real world as seen by human eyes. Smartphone maps allow users to overlay useful information like traffic, restaurants, points of interest, etc. Tapping on these overlays might reveal more information in the form of user-provided photos or reviews.

Traditional maps are important to the cartographer. Smartphone maps are important to you.

Old maps, like schooling, are one-size-fits-all. Electronic maps, like education, serve the individual.
4. Cannot balance a checkbook (cheque book). You can learn to be financially literate.

The article is US-centric, hence the spelling and the antiquated reference. I have a cheque book that is about a decade old and looks as good as new.

Balancing your finances is as much a mindset as it is a skill. Neither bundled pieces of paper nor apps alone are going to make you fiscally responsible. That said, smartphones with the right apps allow users to keep track of finances, set up expenditure alerts, and manage funds quickly and safely. Paired with financial literacy programmes, these apps are powerful ways to teach self-management.
5 & 6. No need to write in cursive/Write legibly. You can write in other ways.

The premise is wrong. How many people actually wrote legibly in the days before the smartphone?

Schools, for the large part, still insist kids learn how to use pens and pencils over typing, so the writing persists.

I say this as one who was schooled with fountain pens and enjoyed the art of manuscript writing. If there is a need for writing, it might only to be to pen one’s signature. But advancements in biometrics should remove that some day.

When kids leave the schooling system (or when they step out of it each school day), they enter worlds where they can type, audio record, video record, draw, animate, and so on. These are so much more complex and richer than just writing.
7. No need to take good pictures because of Instagram filters. You can do and learn much more.

Video recording by Onefound, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  Onefound 

With smartphone photos, you can backup, tag, edit, share, comment, and tell a compelling story. You can get feedback, and if you heed it, then take better photos. You can do all these in a fraction of the time it took with film.

Doing all these requires an open and sharing mindset. There is nothing like doing to ingrain this system.

But I draw the line with obsessive selfie-taking if it becomes less about sharing and more about narcissism.
8. Cannot set an alarm clock. Yes, you can… and more.

You can still set not just one, but multiple alarms on your smartphone. You can let the the smartphone set the right time, keep track of time zones, or serve as a stopwatch, countdown/up timer.

Integrated into apps, smartphone clocks remind us to look up from our screens, stand up from our work desks, and cue any event in life. Paired with behavior modification, these can nurture better life habits.
9. Cannot do basic arithmetic. Why would you want to?
See point 2.
10. Cannot wait in line. Wait, you mean we can better wait in line.

Texting Congress 3 by afagen, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  afagen 

We can while our time away by reading, gaming, chatting, listening to music, watching videos, working, ad nauseum. These do not replace full blown instances of entertainment or education, but they make use of what I like to call interstitial learning time [1] [2].
11. Cannot just use the toilet. You can do more business than you expect.

41/52 - Some Alone Time by KJGarbutt, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   by  KJGarbutt 

Seated relatively comfortably, you can extend your interstitial time (see point 10).
12. Cannot just read a book. You can read several.

You can carry hundreds of books in a device no heavier than just one book. You can have a book read to you. You can interact with media elements, learn to read non-linearly, and develop literacies beyond just text.
13. Cannot just turn on lights. You can have greater control.

You can monitor your home and access your computer remotely. You can schedule electricals to be switched on or off on schedule. You can be there without being there.

You can also be there without being there with online resources, mobile-friendly MOOCs, and video conferencing.
14. Cannot be productive. Yes, you can.

media stacking by Will Lion, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Will Lion 

The device that many like to call distracting is simultaneously an enabler. You can install apps that are time and/or location aware to limit use when not appropriate.

Distractions are not problems. They are opportunities to develop discipline and self-management.
15. Cannot stand up straight.

It is hard to argue against this one. Fear-mongerers like to mention problems with eyesight, ignoring people in social situations, and other ills. How about the danger of not looking where you are going or driving?
So where does this leave us?

The original article suggested fifteen things we no longer seem to be able to do thanks to the adoption of smartphones. Perhaps some of these things we should no longer be doing because they are no longer relevant or because they hold us back.

Click to see all the nominees!

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