How data helped me learn to love the small screen

The world of touch and mobile presents us with this cruel paradox: the devices and screens are becoming ever smaller, yet the targets on the screens need to be bigger to accommodate input from our fingers.

Something has to give.

How do we make simple-to-use apps that work with just our fingers, without resorting to making “simple” apps, which severely limit what we can do, or see. We have complex needs that could use smart mobile solutions: Where’s the best coffee in this neighborhood?; Is it going to rain in the next hour? What’s the best route to my destination and how long will it take?

Developers and designers didn’t have to face this paradox on the Web.  They could (and did!) jam more links onto a page, or rely on that trusty search box to bail them out of tricky design problems. Witness the evolution of the Yahoo! home page from the mid-1990s to 2000. It was absolutely emblematic of what people did for a decade with interactive design on the web — make pages denser, and more full of links to click.

But now our fat fingers and our smaller screens make that approach impossible with mobile and tablet apps. Designers and developers now have to make do with just a few tappable targets on the screen. You can include search on these apps, but it often feels more cumbersome and annoying on a phone or tablet than on the desktop.

The answer is in the data

Some of the most interesting design work I’ve seen in a long time is attempting to address this central paradox of touch. A new and inspiring breed of mobile and touch apps are incredibly easy to use, yet enable us to do complex things and answer complicated questions. These apps don’t just win with elegant design (almost all of them have that) they combine beautiful design with a sophisticated use of data that allows them to shine.

Take one of my favorite apps recently: Dark Sky. It’s a deceptively simple looking app that tells you if it’s going to rain in an hour. It’s beautiful, informative, and easy to use. But it’s not a “simple” app. One can make an app like Dark Sky only when you have access to lots of data, and have sophisticated ways to make use of that data as the Dark Sky team has explained on their blog.

Other apps are solving similarly challenging problems with this combination of elegant, easy-to-use touch interfaces and deep data. Foursquare makes use of all that check-in data so it’s easier to explore your neighborhood. Prismatic scans Twitter – all of it – and uses that data to give you a personalized news feed. Flipboard, Zite, Netflix, and Showyou (the app made by my company) all depend on large amounts of data to power simple-to-use touch-driven apps.

With Showyou for example, we’re trying to help answer this broad, open-ended question of “What to watch?” With 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube alone each minute, hundreds of millions (and maybe billions) of clips to watch, where do you start? We parse through tens of millions of social signals every day, and nearly a billions signals in total, to figure out what to show you. A lot of people comment on the elegance and beauty of our interface, but I always tell them it wouldn’t really matter without the data.

So what’s the answer to our paradox? How do you design for smaller screens that we manipulate with our fingers? You use data. Lots of it, parsed with sophistication and nuance.

Which brings us to Google. It was Google that famously broke through the cluttered, dense, link-riddled web with a single search box that was followed by a results page with ten light blue links. They did this with lots and lots of data and Page Rank.  With Google Now and Google voice search we may be seeing similar efforts for our mobile age.

Is it possible that Google, with its exabytes of data, is even better positioned for the mobile than it was for the web? Or will innovative startups out maneuver the search giant?

We’ll be discussing these issues and more at our RoadMap event on Monday November 5th in San Francisco. Get one of the remaining tickets here.

Mark Hall is the co-founder and CEO of Showyou, an award-winning and leading video app for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. He started making digital media products almost twenty years ago, back when the CD-ROM was going to be the next great thing.