By Dr. Robert O’Toole
When I started my PhD in 2010 the bag that I carried around with me everywhere contained the following tools:
Apple iPad Mini 2
Stylus (for writing and drawing in the iPad)
Apple Bluetooth keyboard
Apple iPhone 4S
Canon Ixus compact digital camera
By the time that I finished my PhD in 2015 this had transformed into:
13” Apple MacBook Pro
Apple iPhone 7
It wasn’t that my choice of tools was somehow wrong in 2010. Rather, it was me that changed – my needs, practices, ambitions. When that happens, it’s useful to reflect on the transformation. There might be useful design knowledge to be uncovered about how tools, practices and people fit together differently over time. We might try, as Microsoft have done so, to use that design knowledge to create a device that is broad enough in functionality to the fuller range of needs, to fit in all possible cases. Or we might place more of an emphasis on optimising the fit of each device to a smaller niche. Apple are closer to this quality-first strategy. In any case, we (consumers and producers) need to drive our design decisions based upon an understanding of how tools, services, platforms and content:
- fits with the evolving capabilities, needs and ambitions of people;
- sticks with them over sufficient time to justify the cost and effort needed to choose and adopt new things;
- spread to other people and other contexts, so that more people are able to benefit from the advantages offered;
- grows our collective capability to reflect upon the designs that we use, improve them and change them where necessary.
Let’s think about my technology journey, and then think about yours and where it might go next. Back in 2010 I can remember doing a lot of creative thinking, which really means a lot of speculative exploration of ideas, information…all kinds of things, during the process of getting my research into shape. Kick-starting a PhD is in fact nothing like the deterministic process it is claimed to be – you rarely start with a research question fully formed and proceed in a linear fashion from there onwards. Some disciplines are more emergent than others – but even in science there’s great scope for things to change as research proceeds. For me, at the start, I had to capture inputs from many sources. I actually started with an iPad 2, with its bigger screen. The original iPad was of no use. It lacked a key feature without which it would never fit with me: a camera. To be able to photograph things, including pages from books, copy them onto a canvas alongside other images and content, and annotate – that was essential. Then I learned to take screenshots on the iPad. So, I could clip text from Kindle books, PDFs and web pages. Sound recordings, and even video, were occasionally added to the mix. The iPad, especially the Mini, was so convenient a digital canvas, so instantaneously accessible, that it dramatically accelerated the creative aspect of my research. It proved to be what designers call a “ubiquitous computing” device – everywhere, all the time, able to mediate between the digital and the analogue.
The addition of a Bluetooth keyboard to my iPad Mini added something even more powerful – the ability to swiftly move from creative, speculative, playful mode to a more concentrated and serious writing of texts. In her classic book Computer as Theatre, which is a seminal text for interface designers, Brenda Laurel shows how the computer may usefully contain these two modes, and provide conduits from playfulness to seriousness and back when writing (or designing) a document:
“Seriousness in human-computer activities is a thresholdy thing. “Serious” and “non-serious” or “playful” activities can occur within the same context and at different stages in the same basic activity. I fool around with the layout of a document, for instance, experimenting with different fonts and paragraph styles, the placement of illustrations, perhaps even the structural divisions of the paper. At the point at which I make a creative decision and wish to implement a certain feature of the design, I experience a “mode swing” (like a “mood swing”, only different) toward greater “seriousness”. I may then swing back to a “fooling around” mode as I evaluate the effects of a choice on the evolving document.” (Laurel, 2013)
The iPad Mini was a perfect fit when my work focussed more upon the creative side of this seriousness/playfulness dynamic. It fitted with me, my needs and my ambitions (to write an extremely original PhD) perfectly.
Another revolutionary aspect of Apple’s implementation of mobile computing proved to exploit Laurel’s design principle, with massive implications for how we now expect the world to work. The App Store, through which apps are found and installed onto iOS devices, was at the time astonishing. Every other similar mobile platform has now copied it, and transferred it to more sedentary types of computer. Before the App Store, software spread very, very, slowly. Just a few years back in time and we had to buy software by going down to a shop or ordering a CD from the Internet, or even a magazine. But that’s not the most interesting thing about the App Store. It makes innovation spread fast. Many times, I have learned about an app from someone I am talking to, sometimes even a complete stranger, and within seconds I have it on my device. I can explore it, evaluate it, and perhaps very quickly delete it. The App Store approach introduced the dynamic of playfulness and seriousness into the software (and technology-practice) retail business. Many times, I played with an app. A few times I found that it fitted perfectly, or even transformed my understanding of my own needs and ambitions. Stop-motion animation is a good example. I had no idea I would like doing it and actually find it useful, until I tried an app. And then I got serious about it. The iPad Mini proved to be a superb tool for growing my own design capabilities.
So, what happened? A thesis, that’s what. The “fit” between my needs, capabilities, ambitions shifted a little. The MacBook Pro is a little more suited to writing huge quantities of academic text quickly. The keyboard is especially good. The screen is a bit larger. And I can sweep between desktops instantly with a movement over the trackpad. This is especially useful when moving between source materials and a focus back onto the text. At the same time, I started to produce a lot of short videos for my work. There is a version of iMovie for the iPad, but the Mac version is faster and more fully featured. A few other things acted to nudge the balance, and by 2015 the iPad Mini had been donated to my son. The iPhone 7, especially with its superb camera, made up for some of the missing features. I often read and annotate Kindle books with it. I can take a photo on the iPhone, and using the cloud, get it into a canvas on the MacBook almost instantly. It’s good enough. I’ve also started using Keynote, Apple’s (much more stylish) equivalent of PowerPoint. I use it’s diagramming and image manipulation features to do playful designs that can easily become something to use seriously.
What of the future? I haven’t yet tried a Microsoft Surface device, which sits somewhere in between the MacBook and the iPad. Although the astonishing reliability of the MacBook is encouraging me to stick with it for now.