Donna, Designed for Use, Closes

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , ,

The impending closing of Donna has bumped a couple of thoughts to blog to the front of the queue.

First off, Donna is an iOS calendaring app that focusses on one’s agenda for that day and upcoming days with a targetted focus on the transportation timing and how that impacts your day. If your life has children that need transporting between activities or work that is out and about bouncing to meetings or work sites Donna is utterly indespensable. Donna puts a focus on the getting between places, so calculates the travel time to let you know when you really should leave, as it monitors traffic and weather conditions. The app offers four different modes of transportation and the related times for those: Driving, public transit, biking, and walking.

One of the best parts of Donna, which many other applications also do, is it reads your native calendar on iOS and augments it. It isn’t a separate calendar to lose things in if you forget. Content you may modify to help plan in Donna, like search to find the exact location for a meeting, is added to the calendar object and can be used in other calendar apps. I will focus a bit more on this in the following section on “Small Apps Loosely Joined”.

Not only will Donna give you a warning when it is approching time to leave, but it can send those you are meeting with notification that you are on your way and / or you are running late. Donna also monitors the weather and can advise on transportation changes should you be walking or biking. One other really helpful element is having the option to use Uber, if you are in a city that has it (Donna knows) and the event is that day (this was incredibly helpful this week).

One of the wonderful things is the evening of the day prior Donna provides a notification of how many meetings you have the next day, but if you don’t have any in your calendar(s) it tells you to enjoy your day, which is a wonderful little touch.

Designing for Use

The thing that stands out with Donna is not just its really good interaction design and really well designed information structures for easy to scan appointments, but it is designed to solve a pain point. Most specifically it is designed for use. The design is focussed on solving a problem and to be an easy to use solution for that problem, which is: I have meetings and activities in my day that take me out and around and sorting out the timing so I can optimize my day for my interests (get more time by driving, more health and environmentally focusse using bike or walking, etc.). Letting others knwo when you are late or on your way is really helpful and directly tied to the mobility of getting to meetings and activities. Having an app that pulls all the needed information around that task set is fantastic.

Donna isn’t designed to be a full replacement for a calendar, but is there to augment it and the use needs around the activities of getting between places.

Donna also understands what is needed as well as not needed. Allowing for modifying settings for alerts and notifications is really helpful. Understanding when alarms are not going to be helpful, understanding helpful user preferences when you are running late (auto send notes, how far ahead, or not to send at all automatically). Donna was built with the idea of a really helpful human assistant who looks after your schedule and is a step ahead of you. This framing of use and a helpful model really shines through in the app.

Small Apps Loosely Joined

Donna and many other calendar apps that are on mobile devices are not aimed at fully augmenting your native calendar service, but to integrate and augment that service. The model that is increasingly familiar is along the idea of small apps loosely joined model. This model puts a focus on using standard data structures, common object types, and a central app or service as a hub to provide a foundation for other apps and services to use the core object and augment it, often with data that fits the model type, and exends use.

With Donna the object is a standard calendar entry that has day, time, timezone, location, who are meeting with, notes, etc. But, the app can improve the data in the object, such as location. But, most of the apps not only improve the information within itself, but improve the core data so all other apps that use that object as well. The apps are often offering agency to do a task, or set of tasks, around the object. Donna puts the use focus on the use needs for getting there and communicating with others around that activity.

With calendaring, many using Mac or iOS opt for Fantastical to imput new calendar items as its native language parsing into a calendar data structure is incredibly good. Some people really like the interface from Fantastical and use it to view their day and upcoming events. There are an incredible amount of viewing your calendar / schedule options out there. Another smart agent for the calendar is Tempo app, which works to aggregate everything around a calendar item and pull it into easy reach (very much in the Come to Me Web model). Tempo pulls all the contact information for all participants in a meeting, all related email, all related files, weather, etc. all within easy reach as part of its view of the calendar entry. Tempo is as indespensable as Donna is for me personally (and I heavily rely on Fantastical for easy input, on my mobile I talk the calendar entry info into Fantastical and let it do its thing).

Who is Living the Small Apps Loosely Joined Life?

So who is working this way? Not so surprisingly, if one has been paying attention to how people actually are using devices and services, the user survey’s the past year or so have been asking about using more than one app for task types (calendaring, notes, reminders, text, etc.) and finding that 60% to upper 70% of those surveyed are using multiple apps for task types. Those surveyed have often been well outside of the geek and nerd camps that have worked this way for years, but regular folks who are not deeply adept technically. The focus on apps that do a task or set of tasks insanely well and easily trump a large app that does many things somewhat well. That one size fits all and category winner thinking has been dead for quite a while and is far from helpful model for thinking about much of anything.

The last few years, either in conferasions or listening to them, with people talking about their apps and how they do things on the devices (often mobile and tablet) it is increasingly common to hear, “I use a few apps to do…” what follows is calendaring, text documents, notes, mapping, driving directions, reminders, etc. and two or more apps stated and the specific tasks and user flow they have for each app. These were often non-geeks, but having surveys targeted at mainstream users and their habits and use patterns really brought home how mainstream this actually is.

Good Bye Donna

As Harry McCracken pointed out in Yahoo to Donna Users: We’re Dispensing With Your Indispensable App Donna has become indispensable for me. The great folks at Incredible Labs (that includes bud Kevin Cheng) did a fantastic job with Donna. Keeping Donna going was likely going to be a struggle as the computing to suss out location and needs as well as the and licensing the transportation times they used was not going to live a long time as an ongoing free app. The competition with other apps starting to incorporate similar time for transit models (yet clearly not designed from a perspective of use, but as a feature to add) likely was going to make things tougher as well as Apple adding transporation times and notifications based on that in Mac’s Mavericks version (adding it to desktop OS and not the mobile OS really was an odd move that is very un-Apple as it was not designed from a use in mind perspective).

It has been a while that I have been worried about the long run for Donna. A chat with Kevin about running a start-up in this space somewhat gave legs to that concern. Many start-ups have an exit in mind from the start and with any luck and perseverence it is a positive exit (not just shutting it and going bankrupt). I am really happy for Kevin and the other Incredible Labs folks as they got a positive exit for them and I wish them well at Yahoo (for all that are making that transition). Incredible proved they could nail a service that is designed for use, which leads to it becoming a really valueable part of people’s lives. Thank your for bringing us Donna as an agent to greatly improve our lives.

Stikkit Is a Nice Example of a Personal InfoCloud Tool

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , ,

I have been using the newly launched Stikkit for the last day and rather enjoying it.  Stikkit, is a web-based postit with super powers of a notepad with bookmark, calendar, lite address book for people, tagging, to do, and reminders to SMS (in the U.S.) and/or e-mail.

Stikkit is the product of values of n start-up that is the founded by Rael Dornfest, formerly of O'Reilly.

This summer I was in Portland and got a preview of Stikkit and was really impressed.  It was a slightly different application at that point, but it had the great bones to be a really nice application for one's own Personal InfoCloud.  Much of the really good intuitive scripting that turns dates in text into calendar entries, text to do lists into ones that can be checked-off, and other text to real functionality is in the current version and just sings.

When I used the Stikkit bookmarklet it captured pertinent information from a page that I wanted to track, which had date related information that is essential to something I have interest in, it made a calendar entry.  The focus of the Personal InfoCloud is to have applications and devices that let people hold on to information that they have interest in and move it across devices, as well as add their own context.  Stikkit, really is a wonderful step in making a rather friction free approach to the Personal InfoCloud. It puts the focus on the person and their wants and needs for the use of the information in a page.  Stikkit can free the information from the confines of the web page and alert the person to important dates.  Stikkit also allows the person to share what they find easily.

I think the key to Stikkit is the term "easily", which is the underpinning of the whole application.  The only thing I would love to see is <

The Come To Me Web

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , , , , ,

Until May of 2005 I had trouble with one element in my work around the Model of Attraction and Personal InfoCloud (including the Local and Global InfoClouds as well) to build a framework for cross-platform design and development of information and media systems and services. This problem was lack of an easy of explaination of what changes have taken place in the last few years on the web and other means of accessing digital information. In preparing for a presentation I realized this change is manifest in how people get and interact with the digital information and media.

This change is easily framed as the "Come to Me" web. The "Come to Me" web, which is not interchangeable with the push/pull ideas and terms used in the late 90s (I will get to this distinction shortly). It is a little closer to the idea of the current, "beyond the page" examinations, which most of us that were working with digital information pre-web have always had in mind in our metaphors and ideologies, like the Model of Attraction and InfoClouds.

The I Go Get Web

Before we look at the "Come to Me" web we should look at what preceded it. The "I Go Get" metaphor for the web was the precursor. In this incarnation we sought their information. The focus was on the providers of the content and the people consuming the information (or users) were targeted and lured in, in the extreme people were drawn in regardless of a person's interest in the information or topic covered. The content was that of the the organization or site that provided that information.

This incarnation focussed on people accessing the information on one device, usually the desktop computer. Early on the information was developed for proprietary formats. Each browser variant had their own proprietary way of doing things, based around a few central markup tags. People had to put up with the "best view with on X browser" messages. Information was also distributed in various other proprietary formats that required software on the device just so the person could get the information.

The focus providing information was to serve one goal (or use) reading. Some of this was driven by software limitations. But it was also an extension of information distribution in the analog physical space (as opposed to the digital space). In the physical space the written word was distributed on paper and it was consumed by reading (reuse of it meant copying it for reading) and it took physical effort to reconstruct those words to repurpose that information (quoting sources, showing examples, etc.).

The focus was on information creation and the struggle was making it findable. On the web there were only limited central resources used to find information, as many of the search engines were not robust enough, did not have friendly interfaces. Findability was a huge undertaking, either to get people what they desired/needed or to "get eyeballs".

Just as the use of the information was an extension of the physical realm that predated the digital information environment, the dominant metaphor in the "I Go Get" web was based in the physical realm. We all designed and developed for findability around the navigation/wayfinding metaphor. This directly correlates to going somewhere. Cues we use to get us to information were patterned and developed from practices in the physical world.

Physical? Digital? Does it Matter?

You ask, "So what we used ideas from the physical world to develop our metaphors and methodologies for web design and development?" We know that metaphors guide our practices. This is a very good thing. But, metaphors also constrain our practices and can limit our exploration for solutions to those that fit within the boundaries of that metaphor. In the physical realm we have many constraints that do not exist in the digital realm. Objects are not constrained by the resources they are made from (other than the energy to drive digital realm - no power no digital realm). Once an object exists in the digital realm replicating them is relatively insignificant (just copy it).

Paths and connections between information and objects is not constrained by much, other than humans choosing to block its free flow (firewalls, filtering, limiting access to devices, etc.). Much like Peter Merholz desire lines where people wear the path between two places in a manner that works best for them (the shortest distance between two points is a straight line). Now, don't think of the physical limitation between two points, I need to go from my classroom on the fourth floor of building "X" to across campus, up the hill to the sixth floor office of my professor. Draw a straight line and walk directly. This does not work in physical space because of gravity and physical impediments.

Now we are ready to understand what really happens on the web. We go from the classroom to our professors office, but we don't move. The connection brings what we desire to us and our screen. In this case we may just chat (text or video - it does not matter) with the professor from our seat in the classroom (if we even need to be in the classroom). Connections draw objects to our screens through the manifestation of links. As differently as people's minds work to connect ideas together, there can be as many paths between two objects. Use of physical space is limited by limitations outlined in physics, but the limitations are vastly different in digital space, use of the same information and media has vastly different limitations also.

It is through breaking the constraints of old metaphors and letting the digital realm exist that we get to a new understanding of digital information on the networks of the digital realm, which include the web.

The Come to Me Web

The improved understanding of the digital realm and its possibilities beyond our metaphors of the physical environment allows us to focus on a "Come to Me" web. What many people are doing today with current technologies is quite different than was done four or five years ago. This is today for some and will be the future for many.

When you talk to people about information and media today they frame it is terms of, "my information", "my media", and "my collection". This label is applied to not only information they created, but information they have found and read/used. The information is with them in their mind and more often than not it is on one or more of their devices drives, either explicitly saved or in cache.

Many of us as designers and developers have embraced "user-centered" or "user experience" design as part of our practice. These mantras place the focus on the people using our tools and information as we have moved to making what we produce "usable". The "use" in "usable" goes beyond the person just reading the information and to meeting peoples desires and needs for reusing information. Microformats and Structured Blogging are two recent projects (among many) that focus on and provide for reuse of information. People can not only read the information, but can easily drop the information into their appropriate application (date related information gets put in the person's calendar, names and contact information are easily dropped into the address book, etc.). These tools also ease the finding and aggregating of the content types.

As people get more accustom to reusing information and media as they want and need, they find they are not focussed on just one device (the desktop/laptop), but many devices across their life. They have devices at work, at home, mobile, in their living space and they want to have the information that they desire to remain attracted to them no matter where they are. We see the proliferation of web-based bookmarking sites providing people access their bookmarks/favorites from any web browser on any capable device. We see people working to sync their address books and calendars between devices and using web-based tools to help ensure the information is on the devices near them. People send e-mail and other text/media messages to their various devices and services so information and files are near them. We are seeing people using their web-based or web-connected calendars to program settings on their personal digital video recorders in their living room (or wherever it is located).

Keeping information attracted to one's self or within easy reach, not only requires the information and media be available across devices, but to be in common or open formats. We have moved away from a world where all of our information and media distribution required developing for a proprietary format to one where standards and open formats prevail. Even most current proprietary formats have non-proprietary means of accessing the content or creating the content. We can do this because application protocols interfaces (APIs) are made available for developers or tools based on the APIs can be used to quickly and easily create, recreate, or consume the information or media.

People have moved from finding information and media as being their biggest hurdle, to refinding things in "my collection" being the biggest problem. Managing what people come across and have access to (or had access to) again when they want it and need it is a large problem. In the "come to me" web there is a lot of filtering of information, as we have more avenues to receive information and media.

The metaphor and model in the "I go get" web was navigation and wayfinding. In the "come to me" web a model based on attraction. This is not the push and pull metaphor from the late 1990s (as that was mostly focussed on single devices and applications). Today's usage is truly focussed on the person and how they set their personal information workflow for digital information. The focus is slightly different. Push and pull focussed on technology, today the focus is on person and technology is just the conduit, which could (and should) fade into the background. The conduits can be used to filter information that is not desired so what is of interest is more easily identified.

It is Getting Personal

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , ,

One of the main concepts around the Personal InfoCloud is access to our information when we need it.  It has become relatively easy to find digital information on the internet these days, but keeping track of information for ourselves is a huge problem.  Not only do we have the problem of tracking our information on one device, but across our devices (our laptop and desktop at work, our mobile, our PDA, our desktop at home) it become nightmare.  We have gone from the scent of information (Xerox Parc term), to the current stench of information, and we are trying to get to the sweet smell of information.

One of the tools that has helped many manage some of the information they find on the web is is a social bookmarking tool that give the person the means to save the bookmark in a web-based tool and add tags (keywords) to the link that are of their choosing for their own bookmark retrieval.  The tool really caught on as people can easily refind that information they stored because it is saved using their own vocabulary.  Other people can find the same object (it is a shared "social" tool) if they use the same vocabulary to describe the same object.

It is time we all start to focus on the person and how they use and reuse the information.  How do people  combine disparate information in what have been separate applications and separate devices?  Our design and development has to get personal.

It is these solutions an focus that are lacking from many approaches to web and application development today.  Yes, it is still lacking, but it may not be for much longer.

What has changed the environment?  Personalization has triggered much of this change.  No, not the giant portal personalization that the content management overloads want to sell for mega-bucks and still provide mini-returns.  This is personalization that allows the person to decide what information or information source is important to follow.  People and vendors (be it information or products) have a desire to strengthen their connection.  Vendors need to make it easy on the person who has an interest in the vendor and one or many of their products.

One of the tools that has caught on in the mainstream is RSS/Atom feeds.  This allows a person to subscribe to the information that most interests them.  This information can be news feeds that are targeted to specific genres or it can be a listing of products newly available, as Apple is doing with its new additions to iTunes each week and Amazon is doing for it product categories. In the past e-mail has been one of the few avenues that has been available to provide a personal connection.

So if it is getting easier to have the information from vendors easily subscribed to, how difficult should it be to  subscribe to our own information?  This is one of the solutions, well it seems to be targeted to others subscribing to our shared bookmarks, but we can easily subscribe to an RSS feed of our own bookmarks  or even our own specific tagged bookmarks, should we wish to.

With calendaring we have similar subscription options if we use the iCal standard.  There are even RSS event capabilities that can be incorporated (RSS with Dublin Core attributes as Upcoming does, or event module attributes).  Subscribing is one solution, but often I need to add calendar events into my mobile device (Treo 600 or Nokia Series 60 phone) with out having to rekey everything.  There are open standards for calendaring, why don't mobile device calendar applications just incorporate accepting these standard file types?  Using standard solutions to keep all of the facets of our life, or at least our calendar related facets, seems to be a wise and relatively easy solution.