Sunday, 20 April 2014

iWatch, the quantified self and the worried well

(image from 9to5Mac)

It seems almost inevitable that Apple will launch an iWatch later this year, and most pundits agree that “the quantified self” will be the main theme of this new device. An emerging tech trend, the quantified self connects wearable devices with online services to provide continuous monitoring of a user's health and fitness.

This new category has seen some growth, with devices such as Nike’s Fuel Band, Jawbone’s Up and Fitbit generating plenty of press coverage and modest sales. But as with tablets and smart phones before, Apple’s entry into the nascent category could redefine its purpose and massively broaden its appeal.

I’ve been involved in health and fitness tech for many years, both as a user (tracking my runs on Nike+) and as a developer (I co-created Reps & Sets, the gym logging app for iPhone). So I know from personal experience the tremendous potential that exists for using technology to support people in their health and fitness goals. 

But there’s something about quantified self products that troubles me. We often lazily bundle “health and fitness” into a single phase, but they are in fact two distinct things. After all, you wouldn’t get medical advice from a personal trainer any more than you'd ask your doctor to help improve your bench press.

Quantified self products cross the line from fitness to health, and in so doing, they pander to the “worried well”: those whose only symptom of illness is their anxiety that they may be sick. Oddly, as medical science has improved our health, this anxiety has steadily risen.

Be careful what you measure

As any self help book will tell you, it’s best to focus on what you want, rather than on what you don’t want. Fitness tracking products focus on positive goals. The best ones highlight our achievements and progress, providing us with encouragement and motivation to continue.

Quantified self products, on the other hand, medicalise us, tracking metrics such as blood sugar and blood pressure. These kinds of data may provide insights to qualified medical professionals, but will offer little meaning to the average user. Instead, they encourage us to anxiously obsess over inconsequential fluctuations in our body’s normal functioning.

In other words, the quantified self encourages us to look for problems rather than to look for progress.

Looking for problems can create problems

There are two main problems with this. The first is false positives. Health screening can be a highly effective intervention, but it doesn’t always follow that we should screen for every possible kind of sickness. Some types of screening result in high levels of false positives - where a healthy patient may be told they are sick and undergo unnecessary, unpleasant and sometimes risky treatment. Ultimately, scientists must study the data to determine whether the benefits of the screening for a particular disease outweigh these risks. 

No such determination is made with quantified self products. Instead, healthy individuals are subjected to endless ongoing tests for no apparent purpose, and presented with results that they are not qualified to interpret.

The second problem is the vicious circle - the kind of negative feedback loop you can get into when you obsess about your health. The anxieties created by worrying about non-existant health problems can result to very real stress-related health problems. As a result, the worried well may over time become the worried unwell.

Track your fitness gains, not your health problems

As a former cancer patient, I know what it’s like to have every aspect of your health monitored. Chemotherapy is not fun. But fortunately for me it was effective. Now I choose to focus upon the benefits of successful treatment, by pushing my body as far as it can go in terms of my fitness. And that’s what I choose to measure: the progress of my fitness.

Of course, my health is more important to me than my split times on a marathon. That’s why I still go for regular checkups at my hospital, who do all kinds of tests. But I prefer to leave the quantification of my health to qualified medical professionals who I trust.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

iOS 7's new fat icon shape and possible changes to iPhone 5

One subtle change to iOS 7 that few have picked up on is that Apple appears to have slightly amended the shape of their icons. Something that Daring Fireball ruled out because that shape is printed on the home button of every iPhone ever manufactured.

The new icon shape is very similar - a square with rounded corners. But whereas before the corners were perfect quarter circles, they now have slight tapering (or bulging, depending on which way you look at it) on the sides as well.

Interestingly, if you look at the iOS 7 section of the Apple website, they appear to have redrawn the shape on the home buttons of the iPhones too - it's noticeable because they've drawn the shape with a graduated grey, rather than the solid grey - which gives the impression it's slightly indented into the button.

Which leaves me wondering if they're going to modify the actual home button design on the current iPhone as well, to match the iOS 7 icon shape. Personally I hope not - I think the new icon shape looks fat - and not in a good way.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

First hard evidence of flatness?

OK, so this is probably a minor detail, but iTunes Connect appears to have updated the default app icon to a new flatter look. I know, I know, probably nothing. Just saying ;)

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Why Jonathan Ive won't be removing skeuomorphism from iOS 7

In the echo chamber of the blogosphere, it has become accepted wisdom that Jonathan Ive will be stripping all the skeuomorphisms from iOS 7, in favor of a flat new design aesthetic reminiscent of Windows 8.

I don't believe a word of it, and I'll explain why. But first, let's take a look at how these rumors have arisen.

It all stared with a wince and the response "I'm not really connected with that" when Ive was asked about faux leather and stitching in an interview with The Telegraph. Subsequently, as the result of a management re-shuffled, Ive became responsible for user interface design as well as hardware design. That same reshuffle saw the departure of Scott Forstall - the brilliant but mercurial head of iOS development. Further rumors suggested that he was the driving force behind skeuomorphism, and didn't get on well with Ive.

And that's where this whole "Ive hates skeuomorphism" meme has arisen from. Forstall in the skeuo corner versus arch-rival Ive in the non-skeuo corner. And now Ive has delivered his knock-out blow, Forstall's cherished iOS will be stripped of all its skeuo goodness. It's a great story - ideal for a comic book, perhaps. But in reality, it's overly simplistic.

Upon closer inspection, this "evidence" looks shaky. The Telegraph interviewer's question was specifically about stitched leather, presumably a reference to Apple's Find my Friends app, which is in my opinion, one of the ugliest apps Apple has ever designed. It's enough to make anyone wince, and it's a leap to assume that someone who considers Find my Friends wince-worthy is likely to loath everything about the current iOS user interface.

The problem with Find my Friends is not that it employs skeuomorphism. As I'll go on to argue, skeuomorphism is not only an indispensable element of iOS - it's also a technique that can be found in plenty of Ive's own hardware designs. Rather, the problem with Find my Friends is that the skeuomorphism is not employed in a relevant way and as a result it distracts rather than aids the user. We don't use use cowboy-style leather saddles to locate our friends, and so the yee-haw western style stitched leather adds nothing to our understanding of this app.

There are, however, plenty of examples where iOS employs skeuomorphism very effectively. Like the buttons that look like real clickable buttons. The keyboard that looks like a physical keyboard. The shadows around a viewport that imply more scrollable area beneath. The clocks that look like the Swiss Railway Clock. Or the calculator that, well, looks like a calculator... The list is endless. Does anyone seriously imagine that Ive hates all these things and wants to get rid of them all?

One need only look at Ive's own work to see that he's not averse to using skeuomorphism himself from time to time. Take the iPod for example, where the click wheel was designed to evoke the cone of a speaker. Or the silver plastic keyboard of the old Macbook Pro, which was make it look like it was made out of the same material as the aluminium body.

Ultimately, all user interface design is based upon metaphor - that's how it works and there's no escaping it. We build metaphors that are easier for the user to grasp that what's actually happening at a hardware level. Computers do not contain files in folders. But rather, fragments of data often located in many non-contiguous physical locations on a drive. Metaphors like files and folders provide a far better user interface than an attempt to illustrate what's really going on under the hood.

And there lies the rub. Ive's entire career is based upon designing complex objects to make them look simple. The minimalist hardware designs of Apple gadgets belies the complexity of what lies beneath the enclosure, and in an sense, that is a kind of skeuomorphism.

iOS is certainly due for a user interface refresh, and Ive will doubtless want to give it one. But he's never been one to make changes for the sake of it. There is always a reason. And his thoughtful approach to design always starts with getting an understanding of how something works. As a result, I think we're far more likely to see evolutionary rather than revolutionary design ideas. And as with every Apple product announcement, this will initially result in the inevitable griping, and ill-informed journalists claim that iOS 7 doesn't look as different to iOS or as similar to Windows 8 as it supposedly needs to. And yet a few months down the line, as usual, everyone will have discovered the wisdom of Apple's design choices.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Steve Jobs Provides Leadership To Us All, Not Just To Apple

I originally wrote this piece for, but I thought MacPredictions readers may also be interested...

In Steve Jobs’ famous Stanford commencement address, he argued that in work, as in all aspects of life, “you’ve got to find what you love”. He went on to explain that he found what he loved early in life when he started Apple. His passion for what he does has been evident ever since.

In the past, each time he took a medical leave of absence, Jobs returned to do the work that he loved as soon as his health allowed. Far from limiting his potential, if anything the experience seemed to drive him on to even more remarkable achievements. The iPhone and iPad were both launched after his cancer diagnosis.

Once, in an e-mail to a customer who had recently experienced a bereavement, Jobs remarked that “life is fragile”. Cancer patients and survivors are painfully aware of this fact, while others are sometimes blissfully unaware of it. When your awareness is raised to the fragility of your own life, you tend to value it more, and perhaps make more of it as a consequence. That is surely what Steve Jobs has done. Just months after treatment, he’s been back doing his Stevenotes, announcing Apple’s latest magical invention. As I’ve argued in a previous post, he is a remarkable role model for all cancer survivors as a result.

Jobs’ example illustrates how, when we encounter profound adversity like cancer, we should get back to doing what we love as soon as we can. And with the insight that life is fragile, we should apply ourselves even more as a consequence, to truly make the most of our lives.

This week, Jobs wrote that he could “no longer meet [his] duties and expectations as CEO”. Given his evident passion for his work, he would have explored every avenue and option before reluctantly making this determination. That is why this is such a profoundly sad moment.

I don’t doubt that in his role as chairman, Jobs will continue to do as much as he can of the work that he loves. And his example will continue to inspire cancer patients and survivors everywhere, as it did for me, when I was in hospital, undergoing chemotherapy. Steve Jobs’ post-cancer accomplishments gave me hope at a time in my life when things seemed pretty bleak.

In this way, Steve Jobs is not just a leader for Apple, but for all of us. Let’s hope he carries on providing that leadership for many years to come.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Facebook-style apps for; iOS5 to eliminate the need for a Mac or PC

Click image above to view larger version

In an unprecedented move, last Tuesday Apple outlined what they would be announcing at next week’s WWDC keynote. This, in combination with plenty of plausible rumors floating round the blogosphere, leaves little left to speculate about. But I’m going to have a go anyway...

Currently in order to set up or to backup an iOS device, you have to hook it up to a Mac or PC with a USB cable. This may be acceptable for iPhones, but it is very limiting for iPads, which are increasingly used as a replacement for a regular computer. In order for the iPad to achieve its true potential, it must be freed from its USB umbilical cord to iTunes.

That is why I predict that the main theme of iOS5 will be to liberate your devices from iTunes syncing. And iCloud will perform a core component of this strategy…

iCloud Sync (Goodbye iTunes & USB)

The iCloud logo, revealed at the Moscone Center this week, has a circular brushed metal background that is reminiscent of the old iSync icon’s background – perhaps a clue to iCloud’s syncing role.

A basic free version of iCloud could be available to anyone owning an iOS device running iOS5, enabling you to setup and configure your iPhone/iPad via a web interface, sync it and perform backups via Wi-Fi to Apple’s cloud. This free version could include syncing/back-up of contacts, calendars, preferences, apps and files. I explored the possibility of an iCloud file system for iOS5 in a previous post. Since then, Apple has released an update to the iOS version of iWork, which introduces support for folders, making the idea of an iCloud file system even more likely.

Syncing apps could be very speedy because they could be auto-matched with the master copies on Apple’s servers, so they don’t need to be transferred.

iTunes for iCloud

For an extra fee, as rumored, you could use iTunes for iCloud to sync your music to the cloud, using the auto-matching method. Music synced to iTunes for iCloud could then be transferred to up to five authorized devices (and possibly unlimited iOS devices).

iCloud Apps (Think Facebook Apps)

The revamped version of could become a virtual version of iOS, with a new app-launcher home screen, and the ability to run web versions of iOS apps. One of the WWDC announcements could be an API to enable developers to produce versions of their apps that can run on (similar to Facebook Apps or Google App Engine). This will enable users to access data contained in their apps online, even when they don’t have their device to hand. Apps that store user data like passwords, accounting, fitness, dieting etc are all natural candidates for iCloud apps.

iPod and iWork for iCloud

While third party apps may be the big story for iCloud, Apple will likely get the ball rolling with some apps of its own. In addition to the apps that already come with, as rumored, they could add a new iPod app that enables users to listen to all their music streamed over the Internet, (providing they’ve subscribed to iTunes for iCloud).

iWork for iCloud will take the fight to Google, with the first serious competitor to Google Docs. The big advantage of iWork for iCloud over Google Docs is its tight integration with the iPhone, iPad and Mac versions, offering the best of both worlds (web and native apps), with access to your documents, whichever platform you are using, whether you’re online or offline.

iPhoto for iPad and iCloud

In order for iOS5 to fully liberate the iPad from syncing with a PC, it needs to enable users to do more than just view their photos. It needs to offer full iPhoto functionality so that you can organize your photos directly on your iPad. That’s why in iOS5, I anticipate the Photos app will be replaced with a fully fledged iPhoto app. Any while we’re at it, why not offer an iCloud version of the app, that could give sites such as Flickr and Picassa a run for their money?

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Could i0S 5 Reinvent iDisk as iCloud, With New iFS File System?

WWDC next month is likely to provide our first sneak preview of the fifth major release of the iPhone and iPad operating system: iOS 5. But with so many enhancements and additions over the years since its launch in 2007, what could Apple possibly add next? This week’s iCloud revelations suggest it might be file management.

With all the incredible power and versatility of iOS, it seems strange that you can’t add an attachment to an e-mail once you’ve started writing it. You can’t receive files and save them to edit in whichever app you like. And you can’t open a file directly from the home screen without first launching an app. On a Mac, these tasks are easily performed using the trusty Finder (plus the Open and Save dialogue boxes,) while on a PC, it’s the role of Windows Explorer.

iOS, however, is heading in a different direction. Apple appears to have rejected the concept of a user accessible file system in favor of associating data with the apps that handle them. With this in mind, how will Apple solve the file management issues above? The following is just speculation, but it does address this question, while also exploring some other issues that have been echoing around the blogosphere of late: what is Apple’s new data center for? How will Apple make use of NFC? And what are Apple’s plans for their newly acquired iCloud trademark?

1. Opening, copying and moving files from the home screen
The iOS Home Screen already features folders, but these are currently limited to grouping apps. In the mockup above, an app icon has been “opened” as if it was a folder, to reveal the files that are associated with the app. This could be invoked by double-tapping on the app icon, and naturally it would only work with apps that support this feature, such as Notes, Voice Memos, Pages, Numbers and Keynote.

In order to open a file associated with a different app, the user can browse into that app’s directory, so for example, an image file created in one app could then be edited in another app. An edit button allows the user to move files between sub-folders or to delete a file. Tapping on a file launches it, (obviously!)

2. Integrated iCloud remote storage with new iFS file system
Next to each file, an icon appears to indicate whether it is stored on Apple’s cloud storage, “iCloud,” and/or locally on the device. The file system works to make this seamless – all files are presented together. When a new file is created, it is initially saved locally and then synced to iCloud automatically (the user can specify for this to only happen when Wi-Fi is available, to save bandwidth). When a file is only stored on iCloud (for example, because it was created on a different device) the user taps the cloud icon to select for it to be cached locally for offline access. Tapping on a file will open it, regardless of whether it is stored on the iPhone or on the cloud.

iCloud services would also be available to other apps. So for example, the Photos app could browse photos stored locally and on the iCloud, and the app would seamlessly manage caching (eliminating the need for a separate MobileMe Gallery app). The same approach would work for the iPod app, enabling users to access their entire iTunes Library, which has been synced to iCloud, even if only a subset of it is stored locally on their iPhone. This would be similar to apps like Spotify, but working only with your own library.

While basic iCloud services are likely to be free, because they will be so integral to iOS5, music services will probably be paid-for to appease record labels, and may well be bundled with extra photo and video storage capacity in an upgraded version of MobileMe. As part of the new MobileMe, the existing apps on will likely be joined by a web-based iPod app, and an enhanced photos app, enabling the user to browse their entire photo collection, not just selected galleries.

3. My Files extends media browser to support all file types
At present, when you want to insert an image into an iWork app on your iPad, the only option is to browse photos from your iPhoto library. But a real strength of iWork for Mac is the many different media formats that it supports. Not just photos, but other image formats such as PDF vector graphics, transparent PNGs and layered Photoshop PSDs. With a growing number of great image and audio apps for iPad, its more than a little frustrating that you can’t bring the media files into iWork, (or indeed any other apps that could make good use of them).

With the introduction of iFS, Apple and 3rd party app developers could invoke a “My Files” browser within their app, to browse files created by any app on their device. Files could be seamlessly accessed from iCloud or locally. Finally, you’ll be able to add that pesky attachment to an e-mail that you’re halfway through writing. And as with Mac and Windows, app developers can filter this view to only show file formats that their app can handle.

4. Saving files
A really nice feature of iOS is that the user does not need to think about saving files. It just happens. With Lion, Apple will be introducing a similar feature to the Mac. But as great as this approach is, eliminating the Save dialogue box creates some problems. What if you want to specify where your file is created (for example, if you have lots of documents, the flat file structure in Pages My Documents is rather limited. Worse – what if you want to save an attachment from Mail? At present, your options for doing anything interesting with an attachment, like editing it, are extremely limited.

My Files, (described above), could be used within an app to solve this. By default, new files would continue to be auto-saved into the app’s home directory, but a Save As option would enable the user to change the file’s location. And attachments from Mail could be saved into a Downloads folder within the Mail app home directory, or directly into other app directories that support that file type.

5. FileDrop enables seamless filesharing using NFC
Most discussion about Near Field Communication (NFC) in iPhone 5 has focused on payment handling. With Apple boasting one of the worlds largest collection of credit card registered accounts, this certainly has interesting possibilities in the future, but currently, there are few (if any) real world retailers geared up to handle NFC transactions. Apple tends to adopt this kind of technology when it’s ready to go mainstream, and the truth is, NFC payments are very far from mainstream adoption at this stage.

However, there’s another application of NFC that potentially has far more interest to Apple: automated Bluetooth pairing. Apple is always swift to adopt technologies that make things less techie. Perhaps the reason why Apple has been reticent about implementing the full feature-set of Bluetooth in iPhone is because it is such a cumbersome platform, what with enabling discoverability, pairing, pin numbers, etc. NFC does for Bluetooth what DHCP did for the Internet. An invisible technology that makes it “just work”.

The FileDrop feature that Apple has already announced for Mac OS X Lion points the way to how this might work. From the home screen, select the file that you want to share. A list of devices and users in your proximity who can accept the file the pops up. The file is then transferred. Simple as that. This solution could work with 3rd party mobile phones that support Bluetooth File Transfer (such as, gulp, Android smartphones), and with Macs running Lion.