Chia Hwu on the anthropological side of mobile app design

Chia Hwu is CEO of Qubop, a mobile app consulting company. Her background spans product design, marketing, and both hard sciences and the visual arts, and includes seven Silicon Valley startups. Before Qubop, she was Director of Marketing and Developer Outreach at Corona Labs, where she was responsible for leading brand strategy, public relations, and product marketing for their mobile tools.Chia previously worked at the Google-funded 23andMe, where she built the company's user communities, created a new product line and social campaign, and managed some of the earliest efforts in marketing genetics to consumers. She is a coauthor of Teach Yourself the Twitter API in 24 Hours (Sams) and an expert at the integration of game mechanics and social features into apps.    

Chia Hwu is CEO of Qubop, a mobile app consulting company. Her background spans product design, marketing, and both hard sciences and the visual arts, and includes seven Silicon Valley startups. Before Qubop, she was Director of Marketing and Developer Outreach at Corona Labs, where she was responsible for leading brand strategy, public relations, and product marketing for their mobile tools.Chia previously worked at the Google-funded 23andMe, where she built the company's user communities, created a new product line and social campaign, and managed some of the earliest efforts in marketing genetics to consumers. She is a coauthor of Teach Yourself the Twitter API in 24 Hours (Sams) and an expert at the integration of game mechanics and social features into apps.

 

 

API Economist: The API Economist is very interested in your understanding and expertise of the smartphone market. What’s fascinating is that Apple is deriving the majority of profits from the iPhone. Yet Android devices surpass iPhones in total numbers. What does this mean?

Chia Hwu: Apple is very committed to their hardware platform. It's not going to go away anytime soon, because it’s where the company makes the most money, so Apple’s commitment to the iOS platform is in billions of dollars of revenue. On the other hand, Google, which doesn't make much money from Android, could decide to do things differently in a year or two. Google’s executives could decide, "We're not making any money on Android, so we're changing our mobile and now we're going in a new direction." That's one thing we think about at Qubop, since a mobile strategy should take into account how platform owners are making money.

API Economist:  It looks like most of the Android adoption is being driven by handsets, but not tablets. Is this what you are seeing?

Chia Hwu: Yes, Android is still mostly phones and relatively few tablets. The only company who makes significant revenue from Android tablets is most likely Amazon, but they don't make money on the hardware. They're making money selling the content on that hardware.

API Economist: Do you see potentially somebody like a Samsung emerging to help reduce device fragmentation in the Android market?

Chia Hwu: I don't really think that device fragmentation is going to go away in the near future, as much as I'd like it to, given that we make apps for all the different platforms. We actually expect fragmentation to increase, because every hardware maker and carrier wants their own platform, so Samsung wants their own platform. For example, if you look at what’s happened with Amazon, they’ve essentially forked Android already. They have their own version of Android. A lot of the carriers and hardware makers in China have also forked Android, and they’ve put a lot of work into their version of Android. They're probably not going to throw away their version of Android and say, "OK, we're going to give up on our version and go back to the standard version of Android that's put out by Google."

API Economist: Why are iPhone apps so fundamentally different from iPad apps, or smartphone versus tablet? You definitely see two entirely different approaches to app design. I mean, just look at Facebook and LinkedIn.

Chia Hwu: One thing we at Qubop think about as we design are use cases; our thinking is fundamentally user-driven. When you're walking around with your phone, it's usually in one hand and you're doing something with your other hand. And whenever you have a smaller device, it's more likely to be used for a shorter amount of time, perhaps while going from one place to another, waiting in line, and so on. But with a larger tablet, we usually see longer sessions. People tend to sit down and take a little more time with them. So the context is different -- you can add more information. Not just because of the screen size, but because people have more time and patience to interact in a different type of space.

API Economist: So are you seeing Android tablet adoption?

Chia Hwu: We do see some. There are a lot of companies out there who are using different types of customized Android tablets, for example in restaurant ordering. There’s a restaurant in Palo Alto -- admittedly, this is ground zero for all of the new start‑ups that want to sell new hardware to particular verticals -- they’ve put Android tablets on the tables, and you don't have to interact with a waiter at all. You can order and pay entirely with the tablet. So Android tablets are a good choice if you're doing any kind of custom device, since you can freely modify the hardware or software stack. But as far as the consumer side goes, a lot of our clients don't ask for Android tablet apps at all.

API Economist:  I find myself rarely ever using a landscape orientation with auto rotation on my iPhone. Why is that?

Chia Hwu: On phones, games are often landscape, designed for two-handed operation, but utilities are one‑handed and tend to be in portrait. You don't really want those users to have to work their phone with two hands, because it's awkward to hold a phone even in landscape with one hand. If you hold your phone in portrait, you can actually use your thumb to do some of the gestures. But you can also just hold it in one hand and use your other hand to scroll or tap the screen, which is also a common behavior. I think that's the reason why most utilities are actually portrait.

API Economist: Mobile app design is clearly evolving. I am seeing the emergence of hidden side menus and “pull to refresh” on a number of popular social apps. What are you seeing?

Chia Hwu: Obviously, you mentioned some of the major conventions at the moment, such as the left menu, where the menu slides out and there's a lot more room to show the different features that you may have, instead of using the older five-tab bar where you can only have five choices. And the left menu can even be a longer, scrolling list. On the downside, we’re seeing a tendency to overload the left menu, and sometimes overloaded right menus as well, because people are using those spaces as an easy way to drop in a lot of information. And pull to refresh is definitely something that users have adopted enthusiastically.

There's also a trend towards minimalism right now. Designers of current mobile apps assume that users have matured, and that we don't necessarily need explicit 3D-styled buttons on the phone. Instead, the design surface has become a lot more flat and it looks less like things out in the real world. Obviously, the new iOS 7 system interface is a recent example of this trend.

It appears that designers are basically moving towards print design with mobile apps. This could be due to the high resolutions of today’s screens, and the print-like level of color and detail that you can now render.

API Economist: I think of Flipboard when it comes to print design. The images are so compelling.

Chia Hwu: They're definitely one of the early companies that really took advantage of high resolution, and the fact that they used bold colors and photos really sold the idea that you're flipping through a magazine, except that it’s on something rectangular and made of glass.

API Economist: What are your thoughts on the new iOS 7 design and the abandonment of skeuomorphism?

Chia Hwu: We'll see how consumers adapt to it; I'm personally a little bit skeptical. Part of what I see is that Apple has really succeeded with the general consumer market, and one reason it worked is they had all these familiar metaphors. The users would think, "I understand how this works. This is kind of like a button. I know how to use machines, and this is just like a little machine on my phone." While the technologically savvy understand a lot more about UI conventions, a lot of less technical consumers perhaps relied a little more on this similarity with other devices they had used.

A lot of Apple’s changes in iOS 7 seem aimed at looking more modern and more "designery" in the current sense. So I'm a little bit worried that the less technical consumers will not always understand what is a button and what is text. Once you remove the visual cues for buttons and replace them with words, unless you're really well versed in apps and technology, you often end up thinking, "Wait. Do I press that? Do I simply read that? What do I do with that?" That's one concern that I have.

Apple is also attempting to implement new things like a universal “swipe” gesture to navigate backwards in iOS 7 apps. We're not sure if developers will pick this up, or if consumers will learn it, because gestures are really hard to discover. For example, the method for deleting apps from the home screen was sufficiently undiscovered that Apple eventually had to put a popup message on new devices: "This is how you delete an app in wiggle mode," because people just didn't discover it.

API Economist: I think you bring up a good point. I guess my own example would be ‑‑ and you tell me if this is correct or not ‑‑ when Facebook added the little round popup on the iPhone when you're are using Facebook messaging. I didn't realize that by dragging it down, I could get rid of it. It was not intuitive to me but once I learned it, it sort of just became intuitive. Is that kind of what you're talking about?

Chia Hwu: I think that's true, but at the same time, I think you and I are fairly technologically savvy and will tend to discover these things. I'm actually thinking of the people who were somewhat older or less gadget-oriented and were handed an iPhone or an iPad, and they could immediately start using it, since they are a large part of the market. What will happen to those users ‑‑ will they get lost?

With the previous design, I felt like I could give my grandparents an iPad or an iPhone and they would be able to figure parts of it out – at least enough so that they could use it and do the basic things they wanted to. They probably wouldn’t understand everything, but they would discover things like, “This is how I check my email. This is how I see photos of my family. This is how I get messages. This is how I look for things on the Web.”

Eventually, they might have uncovered more as they went along. But right out of the gate, within a few minutes, they could understand, “I see how to use this thing. I see how this adds to my life.”

API Economist: How does Qubop address this when you're developing apps for your clients? How do you determine the kind of design you go with for the end user.

Chia Hwu: We think a lot about who is in the target market. If the market is mostly the general public, then we tend towards interfaces that are already well understood. A lot of what we draw from are the apps that we know everyone already uses. For example, pretty much everyone uses the Facebook app in the US, European, and certain Asian markets as well. Most people also use the email app. We look to these apps that people already use, and bring those elements into the apps that we're designing so that we can make sure that users understand our conventions.

If we're looking at a more technologically savvy market, if we're really aiming at the bleeding edge, the people who are early adopters, then we have a very different design approach that we can pursue. In that case, we'll give you some of the things that are still familiar and are timely, but we might throw in some interesting curveballs, like gestures – UI elements that you have to discover.  In these cases, you can still use the app if you're not a power user, but your experience is slightly better if you explore and get to the more interesting stuff.

API Economist: Windows Phone has definitely received some accolades from the design community. It seems to be very visually appealing. Why do you think you haven't seen the kind of adoption or growth with Windows Phone?

Chia Hwu: I think part of the problem with Windows Phone, and I've heard this anecdotally from people, is that when they give it to their mothers, they get confused. The reaction from novice users tends to be, “Wait, what's going on? These tiles are constantly changing. Is there something I'm supposed to do with that? Can I press on this, can I not press on that?”

From my own experience using Windows Phone, I will tell you that it's a beautiful platform. It looks great. But when I was traveling to the East Coast and I had to get to something really quickly on my Windows Phone for navigating, I actually had to sit there and figure it out: “Is that the icon that I want? Which of these three is relevant?”

There are often no obvious hints as to what I should press to get to what I'm trying to do. In this case, I was trying to navigate at the time; we had two people in the car, and I still had trouble figuring it out in a timely way, since I had to tell the driver where to exit the freeway.

As I said, it is a very interesting platform and very beautiful. It's very much based in icons and iconography. It's very artistic. But I think that some of that makes it slightly harder to use.

API Economist: How are you approaching mobile app design? Is it focused on use cases?

Chia Hwu: A lot of what we consider in UI and UX design is user roles, user testing, and whether or not we want to create multiple ways to do the same thing. When we're doing design, we often end up thinking about the people who are going to be using the app. How are they going to be using it? Are they going to be glancing at it as they're rushing from the taxi to the train, or are they going to be using it as they're sitting down and they have at least five minutes of undivided attention?

The other thing we are realizing is that cross‑platform design is getting more complicated every year. The iOS and Android system interfaces are not really converging very well, and are actually diverging over time. So a lot of what we end up working with is highly customized design that doesn’t heavily commit to the conventions of either platform, so that we can take things from one platform to the other and the users won’t have to relearn the interface for each one.

API Economist: I am dying to know: what are your favorite devices and favorite mobile apps?

The Path App (as seen on the iPhone 5) is highly regarded in the mobile app design community for it's cutting edge user interface.  

The Path App (as seen on the iPhone 5) is highly regarded in the mobile app design community for it's cutting edge user interface.

 

Chia Hwu: I still use an iPhone. I still really like it. I definitely still use the iPad. We obviously have a lot of devices here: we have the Kindle, the Kindle Fire, various BlackBerry, Android and Windows devices. While I like reading on the 7” Kindle a lot because it's a nice size, the device that I have by my side at all times is still the iPhone. And often, when I'm just sitting down and just wanting to relax with a device, it's inevitably the iPad. 

My favorite apps are not exactly the most design-oriented, but they are the ones that are the most useful to me. I really like Waze. I use it a lot. It gives you very good real-time traffic information, which is very helpful on the freeways of California.

Basically, I'm a functional girl. I don't really love all of the UI design in Waze, and it’s a little bit confusing. But the one feature I do really like is that I can see how fast someone else is going. How many minutes they are ahead of me on my route? Then I can reroute. So design aside, it's really useful for the things that it does well.

Another app that I use a lot is Twist. It's similar to Glympse, in that you can let people know you are on your way, and you can track how far away someone else is for a limited period of time. It's not like Find my Friends, where you can see them all the time, it’s just temporary tracking to coordinate with people.

API Economist: As a design guru, let me put you on the spot. Tell me an app you find inspiring from a design perspective.

Chia Hwu: We've always found Path to be pretty inspiring, through its various iterations. It was on the first apps that came out with a lot of highly designed custom elements, and they translated with few changes between iOS and Android. They've also done a lot of interesting experiments in UI and UX, and they have a very branded feel. We've often looked at them for interesting new ideas, to see how well they work in practice.

For example, they were the first ones to come out with the little floating “plus” button in the corner. When tapped, it reveals all your posting choices, and the icons unfurl with this great little animation. When the choices are opened, the little plus button then rotates to become a little "X," which signifies “close”. When you close it again, the cute little animation runs backwards, with a little bouncy physics simulation – and simulated physics has become another current trend in app interfaces.

They were also one of the first apps to experiment with a lot of inline content, in the feed, where you could expand and contract to view content without leaving the screen. It's been an interesting evolution. Path has tried a lot of different cutting-edge things, mostly with success, and we've been following their progress for a long time.

API Economist: Chia, thank you for your time!

Chia Hwu: It’s been a pleasure!