It is time for mobile operating systems to recognize the way we work and the tasks we actually perform. It is time for a people centric view. It’s time for pins. Not widgets, events, notifications or alarms - pins. It’s not a perfect name, but let’s call it that for now, because ambient, semi-ubiquitous, transient widget/notification mixture, aimed at letting people be people is a bit of a mouthful.
Consider the following:
You go look up when your train or bus will leave and you see the time of arrival. Today, you can look at that time all you want, but this is where it ends and everything else you can do you have to arrange yourself.
But this is not reality, this is a fictional pocket universe, made for the purpose of illustration. So instead of setting a manual timer, creating an event in your calendar or attempting to remember it on your own, you can tap it and pin it.
Now, the time shows up on your home screen, and on your watch, and likely with your notifications in the appropriate form. It is about the same size as a widget, but it shows just this one thing. The app that created the pin is responsible for how it looks and feels - it is like you “tore off” a piece of UI from the app and get to take it to go. It counts down live and you can set an alarm, which the OS handles, but the pin fires at the appropriate time. And you can tap it to go back into the app, to where it’s shown in context.
The pin can include some smarts, like warning you if you’re not within n feet of the station a few minutes before. If you’re getting on a train, the pin can contain a ticket or know to bring up the right card in Wallet. It can also guide you to the destination with your favorite map app.
When the time has passed, you can dismiss the pin at any time, and see the past pins in an archive (which you can choose not to keep).
Imagine if there was an app, like contacts, but just for places. Let’s call it Places for now. You can set up the places you frequent, with help from your phone, which already knows this from keeping tabs on you. A place can be associated with some part of your life, like work or home, or some standard activities, like grocery shopping, hobbies or exercise.
Now, apps can create pins connected to a place, or a person (which already exist in the form of contacts). It can bring up a pin when you get to a certain place, or when you’re talking to someone. Buying milk when you’re near the grocery store is a good example, but how about getting a kitchen scale or a new pillow or sandpaper when you’re just passing by the speciality shop on the other side of town? And what about showing contextual information when you’re talking to or texting with a person.
Almost nothing about this is new. If you’ve got a case of the well-actuallies, you may have been itching to point out that some of this is possible. And it is. But it’s not dirt simple. It’s available in cumbersome corners of unrelated applications, or hidden behind comparatively tax-form-like incantations. You have to jump through hoops to do it, and that doesn’t encourage doing it. If you are determined, you may do it with one or two things, but not with everything.
We are limited by the shallowness of the current metaphors. Events and reminders are meant to belong in one point in time or in a list, and it only occurs to us to use them when planning or making lists. Widgets are meant to show only the most prominent, most important or most recent information and are limited in scope, but the idea of taking up space even when there’s no train to wait for is ridiculous.
Notifications are somewhat close to this, but meant mostly to deliver one message in an instant. But their meager capability and lack of customizability chops most of these things off at their knees. Apple TV’s nudge to use the keyboard and Wallet’s prompt to bring up the relevant ticket are both useful, but are annoying because they look and feel like notifications which are meant to be acted on or discarded. They feel off because they are off.
A pin is a widget for something you care about at that moment, or is associated with a place or a person, that you choose to put in there and that will be relevant to you. It is super focused on exactly one thing, and it will help you do it, achieve it, be on time for it or whatever else it’s for.
Any app can offer them, but you choose to activate them. They are transient, but they give you the feeling that the phone is actually helping you. The late Windows Phone platform was very keen on “saving you from your phone”, and its live tiles went part of the way, choosing to focus on showing more photos and cycling more information, and on letting you pin direct portals to friends instead of apps on the start screen.
iOS in particular lives and dies by people hopping in and out of apps. There’s no effort to further evolve this, except through talking to a personal assistant. Typing is now an option, and many show them things they guess that you want, which is fine and even worthwhile in itself.
But items like this should live within the OS, across apps and be under your direct control. They should be graphical and manipulable by touch, and they should flow from the interaction with your app. Just like tapping a date, phone number or email address offers to create a calendar event, call the number or send an email, so should nuggets of information associated with future actions be able to live on and be acted on.
- Pinning a stock quote, exchange rate or auction, seeing a live result and receiving an alert/notification when something’s happened.
- Pinning a tracked delivery, seeing the current estimate, and getting options to pre-sign when it’s time.
- Pinning a note to ask your boss or co-worker about something, and having it pop up when they call you.
- Pinning a note to that restaurant you go to twice a year to remind you what was so wrong with what you had last time, so that you can try something else this time, and seeing it when you go there.
- Pinning a reminder to when you leave work to quickly note what you did today, so it will be easier to log your time.
- Pinning an ongoing sports game, so that you can see the score and see when it changes.
- Pinning a reminder to a store you pass by every now and then to go in and get some item you never think about and which is not urgent but that you nevertheless may need.
- Pinning a worrisome heart rate reading, and having it warn you if it rises even more, or go away when it gets back in line.
- Pinning the delivery estimate from a order-out app and seeing the count down up front.
- Pinning the upcoming ride from a transit, taxi or ride-finding app, seeing when it arrives, and seeing topical information like expected travel time or fare when you’re onboard.
- Pinning the current weather event so that you can be alerted when it shifts, so you can get inside when it’s about to start raining or stay inside until it clears up.
A notification is too small. It is one message, one status update, one annoying “your friends miss you!” emotional marketing turd from that pool game you haven’t touched in two years. You drown in them, they all look the same, you just want to get rid of them and they can’t do much.
A widget is static. Its content is dynamic, its shape is static. There’s only one of it, and it only shows so much. Good for avoiding information overload, but bad if you want to know everything there is to know about a few things important to you now.
Make it a mini app, make it widget-like, and make it okay for you to have as may or as few as you want, which will be okay, because they will act on just this one thing, and it’ll be over quickly, and if it won’t be over quickly because it’s a latent thing related to people or places, you have geofences or apps triggering their use.
The watch face is maybe the best use for this. Being able to look down and see the thing you’re doing right now at a glance makes many tasks suddenly have a dedicated device and screen, just like time and date. But at least on Apple Watch, the staticness gets in the way. You pick a few things and they’d better be the only things you ever care about. Or you’d better love manually swapping between watch faces, and not require a mix of things. Where you’d need the most context sensitivity, you get the least, unless you give it up for all context sensitivity, and trust Siri completely to know everything with the Siri watch face.
The final step is to have apps that you trust to maintain pins for you, because you asked, and based on your instructions. A transit app that knows where you work and which lines you like to take, and can show you the best option for your next stop, popping it up when you leave home on a weekday morning. That reminder being a live countdown to the next connecting bus, updating as you finish your journey. The same reminder being live on your home screen and your watch, using all this technology to make the deduction that your bus will be leaving two minutes too soon, but that another one is coming at another nearby stop, and you can still make that one.
We have the technology to do all of this. We don’t, apparently, have the will to design this, or we are so hypnotized by apps and notifications being the only things that matter that we can’t even picture it. Personal assistants and machine learning almost attack this, but turn it into a rebus, a game of personal convenience Battleship, where you gotta ask for it just right, or hope that the continuous game of mind reading overlaps with what you had in mind.
Let’s try this instead. Let’s try empowering the concepts that already live within all of us, in how we go about our days, live our lives and where we already use our pocket rectangle to do some fact-finding or researching.
When everything’s an app, everything becomes about navigating within the app. Nearly everything that’s happened for the past few years has been about continuously refining the graphical experience. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it shouldn’t be all there is. What things like the Siri API shows is that being able to capture activities and intent is powerful.
Let’s say that you don’t feel any sort of attraction to anything mentioned here - a small evolution in this model, and suddenly, instead of popping these things up on your screen, you could queue them up in a rich list of things you want to check out, like Safari’s Reading List or Instapaper but for actions. This may not be a perfect fit for all of them (especially not time-sensitive ones), but for those it fits, it sure beats manually making to-do lists with instructions. It’s an idea that’s been almost impossible to think before, when actions have just been buttons you push and not things in their own right.
It’s been many years and we’ve got the app down pat. It’s time to start looking for other tools that can complete the picture and put us back in control. And it’s time to stop putting all our wishes in the form of a question to a personal assistant.