New Mobile Features for United and Target

United Airlines and Target last week both introduced new mobile features for smartphones, becoming the latest national brands to try and increase customer loyalty with time and money saving mobile features.

With United Mobile Check-in you can have your boarding pass sent to your mobile device via email for some itineraries. No printing is needed. According to United’s website, once you receive your boarding pass, you can scan the barcode on the screen at airport security checkpoints and at the gate during boarding.

The service is currently limited to eight airports: Chicago O’Hare, Dallas – Fort Worth, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York LaGuardia, San Francisco and Washington Dulles. United said they plan to expand the service to other airports. If there is a seat change, upgrade or change in departure gate, your boarding pass can be refreshed to display the new information.

Target meanwhile introduced mobile coupons last week.

Target claims it is the first major retailer to send scannable coupons to cell phones, although there have been other coupon sites offering mobile coupons in the last year, including Cellfire, Coupon Sherpa and Yowza.

To enroll in Target’s mobile coupon program, you can register at Target.com or text the word “COUPONS” to 827438.

The service sends text messages with links to a Web page that features various coupons. CNET reported that the program works with any phone that has a mobile browser and data plan for Internet use.

Target reportedly will replenish coupons as they expire, and the coupons are good at any Target store but not at Target.com.

JCPenney announced last year it was partnering with Cellfire to pilot a scannable mobile coupons program at 16 stores in the Houston area.

The timing of the mobile coupon offerings takes advantage of growing use of mobile devices to access the internet. Industry publication Internet Retailer reported earlier this year that online coupon redemption increased 360% in 2009 over the previous year, indicating consumers’ appetite for discounts is exploding just as more people are embracing the mobile internet for shopping.

Target Mobile Coupon Signup
Target Mobile Coupon Signup
Target Coupon Confirmation
Target Coupon Confirmation
United Mobile Check-in
United Mobile Check-in

Performance is User Experience

Thinking about a website’s user experience cannot be limited to just the design of the user interface and people’s interactions with it. From the consumer’s point of view, their experience extends to everything that happens from the moment they first visit the site to when the product or information they seek is delivered.

One important aspect of the user experience, perceived site performance, can be particularly vexing to site users and designers alike. That’s because when a site is slow to download or respond to user actions it causes the visitor to focus on something that is getting in the way of what they are trying to do. The guidance around response times Jakob Nielsen provided in his 1994 book Usability Engineering is still true today, perhaps even more so given people’s increased exposure to broadband internet access at home and work.

Fortunately there are many tools out there for measuring how your site is performing in terms of download speed and response time. Here’s a few free ones I use:

Firebug Net Performance
Firebug Net Performance
YSlow from Yahoo!
YSlow from Yahoo!
Tamper Data
Tamper Data
Bandwidth Place
Bandwidth Place

Firebug: The Net tab in the popular Firefox Add-On displays the size and download speed of each of the individual elements that make up a particular web page. It displays the information in a waterfall graph showing when each object’s download begins and ends, allowing you to easily see when a Flash object or other large file may slowing down the site’s perceived performance. This is especially useful if your site has third-party advertising served from a network you don’t control.

YSlow for Firebug: YSlow is an extension to Firebug from the Yahoo! Developer Network. YSlow measures a site’s download performance across 22 categories and provides guidance on how to improve performance. YSlow looks at things like file size, the number of HTTP requests needed to deliver the entire page, and image scaling.

Tamper Data: This Firefox Add-On gives you an extremely granular look at a site’s HTTP and HTTPS requests and responses. You can see file sizes, duration of requests and responses, and HTTP response code your server sends back to browser. This is useful if your site is experiencing slow response times because of requests to third-party content or if there is a problem in your content distribution network.

Bandwidth Place: This website can measure your computer’s upload and download speeds and show if your network connection is creating a bottleneck. If your download speed is comparable to what your site users have, which is often the case for intranet applications, this can help you understand what your audience is experiencing.

For industrial strength monitoring, Keynote Systems and Gomez offer paid services that can monitor download performance and response time from a geographically distributed network of computers that allows you to see how the site is performing from a worldwide perspective.

Keynote and Gomez also offer continuous monitoring services in which intelligent agents repeatedly visit a site from numerous geographically distributed locations and run through a scripted set of actions like performing a search, adding an item to a shopping cart, and checking out. Their services also provide email and SMS text alerting when performance thresholds have been exceeded. Keynote also has a free service, Keynote RedAlert, that can be used for 30 days to test scripted monitoring.

iPad Misses on Several Key Points

The world got its first look at the long awaited iPad from Apple this week. And after digging into it bit I think I can wait a little longer to actually get one, though, as Apple has missed some key functionality.

iPad Home Screen

A few of the key features Apple missed are:

No camera: Video chat is impossible without a built in iSight camera. With the hardware as large as it is there is no reason not to have a camera, and one better than the 2.5 megapixel on the iPhone.

No multitasking: There’s no reason a more powerful processor couldn’t have been included so that Mac OS X could be supported. And that’s another miss in itself.

No Mac OS X: Limiting the iPad to the iPhone OS removes a lot of key functionality for mobile users. Unless someone is planning to use Google Docs and other cloud-based apps there is a lot you can’t do with Apple’s “magical” new machine. Business travelers and many other users will find themselves having to carry an iPad and laptop.

Battery not removable: The 10-hour life of the battery is a big improvement over iPhone, but for the cost of the iPad it should come with a removable battery so a heavy user could charge it and swap in a backup.

Lack of clarity on GPS: It’s not clear if the iPad has a dedicated GPS chip or if that will be available on all models. The tech specs indicate Assisted GPS will be used, but not a dedicated GPS chip like one would find on a Garmin. It’s hard to believe Apple wouldn’t match the quality of location-based services available to the 3GS so I suspect this is more of a marketing or semantic problem than a technical limitation of the iPad.

While the iPad is a big advance in multitouch technology and will provide a great mobile web surfing experience, it does not offer enough functionality to replace the laptop, which is what many people were expecting. This is likely a business decision by Apple to not cannibalize the market for their Macbooks. The iPad may have strong appeal to BlackBerry users who want some of the iPhone experience without having to give up their Berry. Only time will tell if Apple made the right calls in limiting what iPad can do.

Beyond Mice and Keyboards

The ubiquitous keyboard and mouse that have dominated computing for the last 30 years are getting some company and competition as gesture interfaces become a reality outside the test lab.

Microsoft’s Project Natal for Xbox 360 promises an immersive user experience in which the interface becomes more invisible than ever before. With Natal the user is the interface. Looking to take the user experience far beyond Nintendo’s Wii, Natal uses a 3-D depth camera and microphone for motion, gesture, and audio input. Xbox claims Natal will let people steer an on-screen race car by moving their arms in steering motions and use gestures like actual kicks to move a soccer ball on screen. In one demo, Natal recognizes a person’s face and automatically logs them into their Xbox profile. Think Wii without the controller. Wikipedia has a brief article on Natal’s background and technology.

And if you think this is a just going to be a high-tech gamer toy, look at the opportunities for communication and commerce in this post on Engadget. Imagine manipulating your TV’s menu system with the same gestures you’d use on an iPhone. No convoluted controller or touch screen required. It’s like Minority Report in your media room.

Motion-detecting interfaces aren’t limited to efforts as ambitious as Natal. Here’s a look at Pek Pongpaet using the accelerometer in the WiiMote to control an on-screen X-Wing fighter. Many areas of education, from aeronautics to architecture, could be revolutionized with touchable and movable experiences. Pek also did a recent demo at DePaul University in Chicago where he used the Wii Balance Board to connect to a website through WiiFlash Server to steer a car on screen by leaning in the direction he wanted to steer the car.

It’s clear new ways of human-computer interaction are coming thanks to multi-touch UIs and gestural interfaces. Aching gamers’ thumbs everywhere will be rejoicing.

Thought Provoking Look at Multi-touch Interfaces

I recently saw a thought-provoking video from 10/GUI on the potential for multi-touch user interfaces in desktop computing. The video suggests a radical change in desktop UIs that could bring the interactivity of the iPhone, and more, to a desktop O/S.

This is exciting stuff. While I see plenty of issues with the concept as presented by 10/GUI, there is no doubt multi-touch technology gain an increasingly important presence in desktop computing. It will be up to UX professionals to make sure it isn’t just a technology in search of a problem to solve. In fact, the new challenges that will need to be addressed in the realm of human-computer interaction promise a very interesting future.

For example, in the 10/GUI video the multi-touch pad is placed in front of the keyboard. This could potentially force the keyboard to be farther away from the user than they like. I also see problems with unintended signals getting sent to the touch surface by accident when the user is actually typing on the keyboard (this happens all the time now with laptop touch pads set in front of the keyboard). Sure, the touch surface could be smart enough to know when someone is typing and not be engaged, much like how the iPhone dims as you bring it to your ear to conserve the battery when you are using it as a phone, but what would this do for applications in which the user has to move quickly between the two input modes.

On the other hand, the 10/GUI concept solves the problem with systems like HP TouchSmart that force the user to place their hand in front of the screen and obscure their view (not to mention the smudge marks on the screen).

Maybe it will be better to place the touch surface to the left or right of the keyboard in a user-selected location, much like Wacom tablets are used today. Wacom’s Bamboo is in fact moving us a step closer to the future imagined by 10/GUI. Beyond the ergonomic challenges, there is the learning curve for people who are not computer power users and the challenge of getting people to think about information spaces as linear, as 10/GUI’s con10uum proposes.

Yet another question is what applications exist that could really benefit from this kind of desktop input. The slider example offered by 10/GUI is not an accurate reflection of how soundboards are used. Usually a sound engineer will be manipulating just one or two inputs at the same time. Of course the iPhone has shown that once you build a technology infrastructure to support new means of interaction, the creative power of the development community will find new and exciting ways to use it. Virtual piano anyone? Exciting stuff indeed.

Ever since Microsoft Surface gave us a glimpse of multi-touch interfaces beyond the smartphone, we’ve wondered what future interactive experiences might be like. While far from perfect, the 10/GUI con10uum concept is another opportunity to get us all thinking about how we might design a very different future.

Getting Excited About HTML 5

There are some pretty exciting things coming in HTML 5 that will allow us to advance web interfaces even further than we have with the current generation of Ajax and other technologies. With backing from the market dominaters like Google and the legions of open source developers who will surely take hold of these, we could be getting closer to the mythical end of the desktop. How close will be determined by the creativity of designers and developers as much as anything else. And, of course, IE’s dominance and lack of support for standards will continue to hold us back, so the true pace of advancement is anyone’s guess.

Tim O’Reilly has a good post and discussion on some of what was covered at the Google I/O Developer Conference this week so there’s no need to rehash it here. Note: The graphs are a bit goofy and leave one wondering what is the standard unit of measure of user experience.

Take a look also at the Working Draft on the W3 website.

Pragmatic Marketing Framework

I just finished a great three-day seminar on the Pragmatic Marketing Product Management Framework. The framework focuses on starting any product design by looking at market problems and the people in the market, instead of the technology that is being developed. Although the framework is geared toward the building of technology products, the idea of focusing on users, markets, and their problems at the start of a development effort can be applied to many industries. How many ecommerce, travel, or financial services websites have features that are there because the engineers could build them instead of a consumer saying they needed them? The framework includes many methodologies found in user centered design, including contextual inquiry, interviews, personas, usage scenarios, and focusing on user tasks and goals. The framework also provides solid boundaries between product management and development activities. Learn more at http://pragmaticmarketing.com.

WordPress for iPhone

I’m testing the WordPress iPhone app and am finding it pretty darn intuitive. There is definitely a well-defined UI convention in apps that makes them far superior to web-based iPhone sites. Once again Apple has scored big with their app model. I’m curious to see if more website operators move to creating apps instead of iPhone versions of their sites. Of course Apple could help speed that up by streamlining the process for getting them in the App Store.