Triangles in Your Pocket

Constant Contact creates technology products for a pretty specific audience, and the needs of that audience have taught us to use highly functional and highly familiar interface metaphors. Successful small businesses and nonprofits master a variety of skills – marketing, financial management, hiring, product pricing, customer support – but a mastery of the latest consumer technologies doesn’t usually make that list. Our customers have a business to run, and the usefulness of cool, new technologies to them is only measured in how well they help to grow their business.

It’s inevitable, then, that our web-based products have tended towards desktop-centric (and, really, Microsoft-Windows-centric) interface paradigms. It’s not quite “Microsoft Word in a web browser,” but the word processing UI has been a very successful way to introduce web-based WYSIWYG editing to nontechnical users. More succinctly, who doesn’t know Word?

What’s really interesting to me, though, is what happens when that argument collides with exploding adoption of touch-based devices. The Microsoft Office UI, with small icons, tooltips, overlapping non-modal windows, and pixel-precise mouse targeting, largely stops working when a user taps instead of clicks. After a few hours of trying to make that work, multipane WYSIWYG editing, along with Excel-style spreadsheet editing, starts to feel … cumbersome.

Editing single cells of numeric data or editing the number of rows and columns in a table by clicking plus and minus buttons in a dialog box, were appropriate interfaces in their time – but their time is rapidly passing. And with that passage comes an opportunity to find new approaches that exploit the surplus processing power we’re all sitting on today.

Which brings us to smartphones, where, incidentally, those of us with smartphones in our back pockets are ACTUALLY sitting on surplus processing power. (Might want to switch to the front pocket.)

The 2007 iPhone blew the consumer market away with the fluidity of its UI, fluidity made possible by new hardware capabilities. Pervasive GPU-accelerated 2d drawing surfaces made 60fps scrolling and other transforms possible on a phone, and Apple took full advantage of it. These animations were novel on a smartphone at the time, and the experiential benefit was huge.

But c’mon, that was five years ago. We can do so much more now – smartphones today have many, many times the power (fill rate, memory throughput, single-threaded performance) of the 2007 iPhone. Rendering a button? To be a bit reductive, that’s two triangles. How do we use the other 34,999,998 triangles these new devices can deliver each second to actually provide a better experience?

In Labs, Constant Contact’s technology research group, we’ve been thinking a bit about how to use this surplus of client-side processing power to provide additional benefit for customers. For example, the average Constant Contact customer has about 2,800 contacts. We present those contacts today through an Excel-inspired spreadsheet metaphor: columns and rows, paged 40 contacts at a time for speedy loading. This is a terrifically clear and easy-to-learn approach, especially for a nontechnical user. But there are other approaches now possible in 2012 that weren’t available to the mid-80s Excel developers, completely different approaches to information visualization and presentation that start to look more like games than data management. We’ve built an internal prototype that shows thousands of contacts simultaneously, and lets a user search, sort, segment, filter, and query visually, just by tapping. An interface focused on contacts at the macro level, where behavioral trends and multivariate filtering are easily accomplished with a tap, provides a completely different experience – one with many benefits to the small business owner trying to effectively reach interested customers and prospects.

It’s one idea, and it’s just a start. But it’s past time to rethink the UI metaphors of 25 years ago, to move away from colored rectangles with verbs stamped on them, and reconsider what we can help users do when the average smartphone owner is walking around with a pocketful of 35 million triangles. We’re thinking about it, and we know you are, too. Let’s make some great products.

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