Of all the trends developing as a result of the rise of mobile computing, none is perhaps more ripe for development (or exploitation) than the analytics of user interaction. Even as hardware progresses and new options for interaction (such augmented reality and NFC) arise, they are meaningless if no one actually uses them, and thus the software underpinnings that support these new hardware mediums is of perhaps greater importance. With this in mind, I believe that the advent of the push notification is among one of the most important user-facing developments in the mobile sphere to date.
It’s something we often take for granted: that regular buzz or chirp of a new message or notification that we consequently check with little hesitation. But the reality is that each of those notifications is a discrete user interaction and the result of carefully-cultivated conditioning. For any application that relies on frequent updates to the user, whether synchronous (e.g. messaging systems such as BBM or iMessage) or asynchronous (i.e. most turn-based games), the delicate balance between the quality and quantity of these interactions can mean the difference between a timely app and one that’s overly invasive.
I find it’s most useful to think about these interactions as a form of micro-transaction, a term that has become popular in the mobile app community (particularly for game developers) as a way to continuously extract revenue from an established user base. Some companies (Zynga comes to mind, above all others) have exploited the use of micro-transactions as a means of keeping their users chained to a given game without necessarily providing additional value. Benjamin Jackson at The Atlantic has an excellent article discussing the “Skinner Box” effect that results from this sort of cyclic behavior perpetuated by Zynga’s user-base:
[Demitri] Detsardis [general manager of Zynga's New York office] nodded in approval as Rob Tercek, the panel’s moderator, summed it up:
The games themselves aren’t where the action happens; the strategy component is: when do you reach out into your social graph? When are you going to spam that list? How frequently are you gonna do that?
I’ll reiterate this in plainer language, just in case the quote wasn’t clear: Detsaridis said that one of the most compelling parts of playing Zynga’s games is deciding when and how to spam your friends with reminders to play Zynga’s games.
This excerpt highlights the potential pitfalls of gamification and secondary reinforcers; techniques that Jackson collectively refers to as “dark patterns,” designed with the sole purpose of manipulating users into performing activities or spending money where they otherwise might not in the pursuit of completing an objective in-game. These same concepts can be easily transposed to any mobile application through the push-notification system, particularly with the inclusion of location- or contextually-aware APIs. Once an app can anticipate your needs based on current location or recent activities, it becomes much more difficult to ignore the offers and promotions provided to you.
But not all of these scenarios are negative, there are still opportunities for beneficial user interaction if the notifications are tempered properly. To use another gaming analogy, I’ll again refer to Jackson’s article:
At IndieCade in October 2011, Adam Saltsman, Canabalt’s creator, discussed the notion of “time until death.” All of us have a finite amount of time on earth, and any time we spend on a particular activity is time that we can’t spend doing something else. This means that the time we spend gaming represents most of a game’s cost of ownership, far more than any money that we spend. If that time is enjoyable (or rather, if its benefits outweigh its costs), then the game was worth our time.
The notion of “time until death” can also be applied to notifications; each notification that interrupts us from some other activity should be treated with its own half-life, and should require a specific end objective in order to be worth our time. Developers seeking to create real engagement should be mindful of the feedback that each notification in their app generates with the knowledge that users expect notifications to be a temporary state in an application, and not tied to a long-term time commitment. Push notifications are powerful as developer tools because of their instantaneous nature, helping users stay connected with information as it happens, but also must be wielded responsibly in order to maintain the trust of their user base.
Very thorough analysis by “Pxldot” of Android OS adoption and fragmentation. Unfortunately, it’s looking like ICS is being adopted at an even slower rate than Gingerbread. Google would never admit to it, but judging by the numbers, each subsequent new release of Android doesn’t catch on until the following year, making Gingerbread look like the new XP.
Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins continue to innovate in the video game commentary space with their launch of The Penny Arcade Report:
In short the PAR is what we want to see from games journalism. It does not update every twenty minutes. It is not just a source for press releases, and we are not interested in top ten lists. The PAR is focused on longer form journalism with in-depth research and interviews.
Judging by the attention paid to the design and layout and some of the early articles, it looks like it’s going to be another solid addition to their already-successful expo, children’s charity, and webcomic. These are the guys I point to when people ask what video games are good for; their efforts demonstrate that games can not only be considered a form of art, but also real agents of change through their vibrant community of players. Holkins and Krahulik started with nothing, and turned Penny Arcade into one of the most visable and well-known names in the webcomic business. PAR has already made its way to the vaulted halls of my RSS feed aggregator, and I look forward to more content from them.
A nice explanation of one of OS X Mountain Lion’s most significant (if rather mundane) features: Gatekeeper. There is a very fine line between protecting users from malware (read: themselves) and interfering with the overall experience of the OS. Apple has chosen to strengthen their “walled garden” approach by providing the option of only allowing App Store applications to be run, while also appeasing developers working outside the App Store through the use of signed certificates in lieu of explicit Apple approval.
The question is, will this always be the case? The desktop represents a more diverse software ecosystem than mobile, but if the App Store for Mac is able to gain even a fraction of the traction of its iOS counterpart, we could see a fundamental shift in the classification of a true “desktop” application into that of an “app.”
…Steven Sinofsky, president of Windows and Windows Live Division, described the restrictions that Windows on ARM (“WOA”) would impose on its desktop. The built-in Windows apps—including Explorer and Internet Explorer 10—and four Office apps—Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote—would run on the desktop, but nothing else would. Third-party applications would be prohibited, and there would be no provision to port existing desktop applications to run on the ARM desktop.
I actually don’t think the lack of plugins is that big a deal for WOA. The bigger issue will be the dilemma that is created for developers: since porting is out, is it even worth it to create a WOA version of their application? Apple encountered a similar hurdle when the iPad was first released, but even then, people were still working within the iOS environment. This move by Microsoft strikes me as an effort to provide full office support on their lightweight WOA platform, while still maintaining separation between Metro and full-blown Windows. But giving developers a reason to question the ambiguity in development for your not-yet-released platform isn’t going to win a lot of people over right out of the gate.