Five Questions With: Josh Clark

Global Moxie founder talks about iPhone apps and his latest book, 'Tapworthy.' More

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Five Questions With: Josh Clark

PHOTO COURTESY GLOBAL MOXIE
"THERE'S A whole class of books that are either disposable or that we wish didn't take up so much space – summer paperbacks and reference books, for example. I think these are naturals for e-books, because they don't have much value to us as objects," said Global Moxie founder Josh Clark.
Posted 11/3/10

Josh Clark, a Providence designer specializing in mobile design strategy and user experience, is a busy guy. In the last two years he has published two books, “Tapworthy: Designing Great iPhone Apps” through O’Reilly Media and “Best iPhone Apps: The Guide for Discriminating Downloaders,” in between trips to France, and winning over hearts at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival.

Before founding his company Global Moxie – or “getting swallowed up by the tech industry” as he puts it – Clark worked on a slew of national PBS programs at Boston’s WGBH-TV. In 1996, he created the popular Couch-to-5K running program, which has helped millions of skeptical would-be exercisers take up jogging. On Facebook, the program has more than 152,000 “likes.” (Clark says his motto for personal fitness is the same as it is for software user experience: “no pain, no pain.”)

So what apps make even an expert like Josh Clark happy? For work, he loves Instapaper to save and read online articles, Reeder, a news-reader, and Things, his “favorite to-do list app.”

When it comes to fun and games, The Incident, Plants vs. Zombies, and Osmos HD for iPad win over this designer’s inner child.

Providence Business News caught up with Josh Clark after he “schooled” the geeks at Providence Geeks on Oct. 20.

PBN: You recently published your latest book “Tapworthy: Designing Great iPhone Apps.” iPhone apps are hot, but also very transient right now. What were the challenges of writing a book – published in a paper version as well – that deals with such a time-sensitive topic?

CLARK: My goal is to help designers and developers “think mobile.” “Tapworthy” takes a very human – and, I hope, humane – view of the iPhone to explain how ergonomics, psychology and context affect design considerations. These are concepts with a long shelf life. Ten years ago, a wonderful book called “Don’t Make Me Think” distilled the principles of website usability, and it remains as relevant as ever. I’d like to think that “Tapworthy” has a similarly long view of what makes a great mobile app, from initial concept to polished pixel.

People tell me it’s a fun read, too, with lots of quirky lessons taken from industrial design. Swiss Army knives, 1980s TV shows, and vintage car radios have lots to teach app designers, believe it or not. “Tapworthy” is not a traditional tech book – there’s not a single line of code in the book – which means that it’s not (only) for geeks but for everyone in the design process: developers, designers, managers, marketers and clients.

The book’s goal is to establish a common vocabulary that helps geeks and civilians speak in the same tongue about the goals and mechanics of great mobile apps. This mission is simple enough: when everyone around the table understands the ingredients of tapworthy apps, more apps will be tapworthy.

PBN: At October’s Providence Geeks dinner, you declared that “buttons are a hack!” What did you mean by that?

CLARK: Buttons are a hack, an inelegant design solution, because they work from a distance. Flipping a switch over here to turn a light on over there isn’t a direct interaction with the object, the light, and that means it’s not immediately intuitive. It’s a behavior we have to learn. Over the last 25 years of visual computer culture, we’ve used buttons and other interface gizmos as a needed crutch to make software go. But we’ve had to learn it; it doesn’t come naturally.

The touchscreen makes that crutch unnecessary in many cases. We can actually touch content and work with it directly: flipping through photos, enlarging maps, turning the pages of a book. The illusion of manipulating content directly is a powerful one, and it tickles the brain in new ways. It creates an intimate experience with the content, with the software.

Designers should strive to embrace those direct interactions. We instinctively know how to flip through a book or move objects around a table. And sure, we know how to push a button, too, but pushing a button isn’t really a direct interaction with anything except the button. We should think instead about designing touchscreen interfaces that mimic the exploration of a physical space.

Our brains evolved over millennia to navigate a physical environment. The alternate-universe exploration of computer interfaces is, by contrast, incredibly new. We might have grown accustomed to windows, buttons and sliders over the last few decades, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to explore software. Designers should instead think how we can allow people to nudge, poke and slide content directly.

PBN: In your book, you focus on the user experience rather than the coding or marketing aspects of iPhones, and one of things that you have mentioned is that simplicity is key. Should we have our children giving us tips on these apps in order to avoid over-complicating things?

CLARK: Kids – especially very young kids – can remind us a lot about how we instinctively expect things to respond. Watch how toddlers use an iPad, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Watch the delight and ease with which they move elements around on the screen, and you’ll see what I mean about how direct interaction is more intuitive than buttons and other traditional software controls.

Simplicity and ease is key to any successful design, but it’s especially important for mobile apps. We often use apps when we’re distracted, on the go, with limited time. So it’s important for designers to have a sharply focused goal for the app and give users just enough features and controls to get that mission accomplished, so they can move through the app quickly. Pare it down to the basics.

For an app to be tapworthy, every element of the app has to be tapworthy. Designers have to be unsparing editors: “Is this feature really worth it? Does this extra tap somehow make my customer more awesome?”

That doesn’t mean apps should be dumbed down. I’m a big fan of complexity. Complex apps let us accomplish complex tasks, and that’s a good thing. The challenge for designers, especially on the small screen, is to help their audience manage complexity with ease: simple interfaces for complex content. We have to make complexity uncomplicated, in other words.

But even more important, designers have to ask ourselves, “What makes this app mobile? Why would someone use this on their phone, in a non-traditional computing environment?” By and large, we launch apps when we’re in one of three mindsets, and it’s useful exercise to plan features around one or more of these mindsets: I’m micro-tasking, I’m local, I’m bored.

PBN: Did you choose to have a paper version of your book? Do you think that paper media has a chance of survival in the digital age? Also, you talk about our “emotional attachment” to software such as the paper-turning feature on e-books. What other aspects of our physical lives should be taken into consideration for iPhone apps?

CLARK: Yes indeed, Tapworthy is available as a paper book; in fact, I designed the interior of the book myself (I’m kind of crazy that way). But of course, it’s also available as an e-book from oreilly.com or via Kindle from Amazon. It’s been quite popular in those formats, but it’s especially wonderful in print. It’s a very pretty book with high-quality paper, full-color illustrations, and lovingly prepared typography. It’s one of those books that’s really worth having on the shelf. The e-book just isn’t quite as good.

There’s a whole class of books that are either disposable or that we wish didn’t take up so much space – summer paperbacks and reference books, for example. I think these are naturals for e-books, because they don’t have much value to us as objects. They have neither sentimental attachment nor a noteworthy design. We won’t miss those books if they disappear from our bookshelves and into iPads and Kindles.

There are other books, though, that create a bonafide emotional attachment: novels that say something about who we are; beautifully designed books that decorate our homes; illustrated books that don’t easily make the leap to electronic form. I believe will always be demand and interest in having this kind of book in a physical format. And in fact, I think that as “disposable” books make their way to e-book format, there’s an opportunity for book designers to strut their stuff on the books that remain available in print.

At the same time, I also think that e-books will become more interesting. The promise of the iPad and other tablets is that we finally have a market large enough for publishers to experiment with natively digital books. To date, the trend has been to repurpose paper books, dumping them into the e-book format. Now we have the opportunity to craft narratives and designs specifically for a digital environment, and I think that in itself could be a provocative and creative direction for both writers and publishers.

PBN: Final question, how do you see the Providence tech scene? What are the benefits (and disadvantages) to working from a smaller metro area that doesn’t have an established tech scene like Silicon Valley?

CLARK: Like so many other aspects of life here, Providence has a way more happening tech scene than a city its size possibly deserves. I’ve been completely blown away by the smarts, creativity and experience of the designers, developers and entrepreneurs I’ve met here. I moved here a little over a year ago after a decade in Paris and several years in New York and Boston. Those cities have lots happening, but a far more fragmented community than what you’ll find here. The warmth and cohesion of Providence’s geeks is really unusual, as is its connection with both the arts and business worlds. There’s a spirit here that’s simply inspiring.

We regularly see 100 people come to the Providence Geeks or Pecha Kucha events, and it’s clear that this is a bright and lively community. Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley will always have certain advantages due to their size and gravity, but Providence has the talent to stake out a great industry here. The city has a long history of making and creating, and we have a creative powerhouse in RISD. I think we’re only just beginning to realize the city’s potential as a digital powerhouse, too.

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