Neal Goldstein

Zero Degrees of Separation

July 25th, 2010

What users are after — and what devices like the iPhone enable — is when the separation between them and

  • Other people
  • Tools and information
  • The application itself

is reduced to almost nothing.

These are the three dimensions of what I call “zero degrees of separation.”

We (at least most of us) are social animals, and we feel a need to stay connected with friends, family, and yes, even business associates. What’s truly amazing about the iPhone is that its feature set – its hardware and applications – enables this connectivity seamlessly, ranging from the phone itself to SMS to FaceTime (the iPhone’s new video chat feature) to the built in camera. Add to that the social networking applications available for your iPhone and your separation from other people reduces even further.

Although one could argue that our present ability to always connect could mean that we have too much of a good thing (especially when it comes to business associates), I’d say that the annoyance factor is a result of the lack of maturity in how we’re using technology. If you think about it, the technology hasn’t really been around all that long, and like most teenagers, it will mature over the next few years.

Many of the applications I’ve just mentioned have long been available on the desktop; what a device like the iPhone does is add mobility to the party. Not only can you connect from anywhere, but so can all the people you want to connect to.

This ability to run applications on your phone wherever you are makes it possible to have the information you need (as well as the tools you’d like to use) constantly available. But it’s not just about the fact that the application you need is ready-to-run right there on your phone; it’s (as importantly) about how the application is designed and implemented. It needs to “work right,” requiring as little as possible from you in terms of effort when it comes to delivering to you what you need.

So, having the app is one thing, but having an optimally designed app is another. These first two dimensions are about what I call content – what an application actually does. Another aspect here, of course, is that the potential pool of stuff a user wants to be closer to depends on the context in which he’s using the application – where she is and what is going on around a user. In that respect, I like to think of the here-and-nowness or contextual relevance of the application and information. In plain terms, this means that you want to do a specific task with the help of up-to-date information, which the iPhone can easily access over the Internet through a cell network or Wi-Fi connection. You may even want the information or tasks tailored to where you are, which the iPhone can determine with its location hardware. To use a concrete example, a guidebook application may have a great user interface, for example, but it may not give me the most up-to-date information, or let me know a tour of Parliament is leaving in five minutes from the main entrance. Without those added touches, I’m just not willing to consider an app compelling.

The final dimension is the application itself, or more precisely, how the user interacts with the application. The Multi-Touch user experience sets it up so that the user is naturally more connected to the device – there is no mouse or keyboard acting as an intermediary – and what’s more, Apple promotes the use of gestures as much as possible rather than the use of controls. If you want to move a map annotation, don’t show arrow or direction controls or force the user type in a new address (although sometimes that may be the way to go) – let the user drag it to where she wants it to be, and provide feedback along the way.

The iPhone allows an immediacy and intimacy as it blends mobility and the power of the desktop to create a new kind of freedom. I like to use the term user experience because it implies more than a pretty user interface and nice graphics. A compelling user experience enables users to do what they need to do with a minimum of fuss and bother. But more than that, it forces you to think past a clean interface and even beyond basic convenience (such as not having to scroll through menus to do something simple).