How big an issue is the nausea problem for Virtual Reality products?

On Quora, helmet mounted displays expert Steve Baker talks about the issue of nausea in VR. It’s an excellent post that should cause lots of people within the industry to sit up and take notice. The short of it is VR confuses the brain, contradicting what we feel and see, to the point some people’s automatic response is that they’re hallucinating, and therefore must eject whatever they just ate that poisoned them. In other words, VR makes them sick.

I’m not optimistic much will change. Vestibular conditions through to basic nausea are not very well understood in the tech industry. Engineers and designers are broadly ignorant of any such issues, and companies don’t appear that concerned about taking steps to rectify them. That might sound like hyperbole, but the evidence is everywhere you see an interface that moves. Our Samsung TV’s ‘smart’ screens spin around; my iMac’s full-screen mode slides before my eyes; and countless web pages hurl content about with merry abandon.

Apple seems to have precisely zero interest in addressing motion issues, and yet it is strong on accessibility elsewhere: vision, hearing, motor. And if even Apple doesn’t care enough (bar when there’s bad press, which made the company take notice in iOS 7), how likely is it anyone else will deal with such problems?

At least with VR, you know you’re placing yourself in a situation where you might get sick. You put on a headset. You can prepare yourself. What concerns me more is that extreme motion is becoming ubiquitous, pervading all interfaces, and hardly anyone seems bothered about addressing this. It’s one thing when you can escape, but another when the problem is all around you.

May 23, 2016. Read more in: Design, Technology

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Instagram’s new logo: about fitting in, not thinking different

The Guardian reports on Instagram’s new logo. I’m not going to comment on the specifics of the design — there are far more qualified writers for doing that kind of thing. What disappoints me, though, is any sense of individuality has been eroded from the icon, in a desire to ‘fit in’.


instagram logo


I recently wrote a piece about inspiring icon design (yet to be published), and praised Instagram:

Thumbing its nose to Jony Ive, Instagram’s icon remains resolutely old-school (as far as an app icon can be), suiting its retro nature. Even if it sticks out a bit, the icon may stand the test of time better than minimal rivals.

As of now, this is no longer the case. Instagram’s icon is yet another slice of flat design. It doesn’t look distinct, now resembling dozens of other camera app icons.

Two blog posts outline the reasoning for the changes. The new logo apparently intends to reflect the evolution of the service and “how vibrant and diverse your storytelling has become”, while “staying true to Instagram’s heritage and spirit”. Notably, the company argues that it wanted to

create a look that would represent the community’s full range of expression — past, present, and future.

It certainly succeeds on the present, in that Instagram’s logo now looks much like any other app logo in this era of flat design with occasional gradient use. But it’s largely jettisoned Instagram’s past (suggesting the gradient recalls the old logo’s rainbow is a stretch). As for the future, I suspect Instagram will find itself redesigning again once the next interface design evolution takes hold.

May 12, 2016. Read more in: Design

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Ratings screens in children’s apps need to die — and they’re not the only thing

Mini-G has been faffing about with an iPod touch and — whenever possible — her parents’ iPhones for some months now. If ever you need a reminder about your generation’s looming obsolescence, stick a toddler in front of a high-tech device and see them master it before they’ve even figured out how to talk. Anyway, since we’re at the point where mini-G can use apps alone (albeit supervised), I’ve made some observations.

First, I’m broadly positive about the whole screens thing. I don’t believe a kid should be glued to any kind of screen for long periods of the day, but mini-G learned how to attempt to say ‘mouth’ from Metamorphabet, and has apps that have boosted aspects of empathy and dexterity. After a session has gone on for perhaps 20 minutes, an iPhone is — typically without prompting — turned to sleep mode and returned to the relevant parent. (Elsewhere, books are read, Lego is played with, puzzles are completed, telly is watched, and wheeled walkers are driven around the kitchen as if it’s the Indy 500. So: balance.)

Secondly, however, it’s clear some developers of apps for children either haven’t tested them all that much on actual children using them on their own, or fundamentally don’t care about the user experience as it relates to said children. Here are some things developers should avoid when making apps for kids:


Ratings screens.
These aren’t exactly loved in apps for adults, but it’s reasonable to include them — reviews and ratings can be important for an app’s success. But throwing up a screen along these lines on an app being used by a 20-month-old child? At best, a parent will be there and grumpily turn off the app. If not, the child will get frustrated and bounce out to the App Store. (And developers who reason very young kids do not remember their favourite apps — as in, apps that don’t annoy them — let me tell you: you are wrong.)


Long launch animations.
 Yes, we know you’re probably very proud of that lengthy animation you had commissioned, your company logo bouncing around like a cartoon character hopped up on sugar. But here’s the thing: no kid cares a jot. In fact, mini-G exits apps with remarkable speed if they don’t ‘do’ anything interactive. You’ve probably got two or three seconds. By all means include your intro, but make it immediately skippable with a single tap. Otherwise, you’re just this tech generation’s DVD producer.


Visible IAP.
 I’m not against IAP in general, not even in apps for children. Developers just need to ensure apps aren’t exploitative. However, in apps designed for children, the IAP needs to be hidden behind some kind of settings screen. I’ve seen too many apps now where you get the first bit for free, and then a kid taps on something that flings up an IAP window. Sure, they’re not going to purchase anything at that moment (well, unless they’re very tech savvy and you are asleep); but the child will get frustrated at not being able to easily exit that screen and get back to the fun parts, or when they inevitably end up back on that screen on a fairly regular basis.


Fiddly navigation.
 It takes time for the dexterity of young children to improve, and yet children’s apps are full of fiddly navigation elements. So make interfaces chunky. Ensure that if a kid accidentally exits to the main screen, they can continue by tapping a suitably massive button (it turns out a big Play symbol is a good one to use). If you don’t, you may find kids simply exit the app and don’t go back.

April 7, 2016. Read more in: Apps, Design, Opinions, Technology

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When Flipboard flipped its accessibility switch to none

Faruk Ateş was one of several designers to tear into the new Flipboard website, which throws accessibility under the bus, in order to offer a more fluid app-like experience online. On Daring Fireball, John Gruber essentially defended the move:

I’ve been a proponent of accessibility for as long as I can remember. It does not follow, however, that what Flipboard chose to do is wrong.

It is true that Flipboard’s engineering decisions prioritize animation and scrolling performance above accessibility. That’s no secret — the title of their how-we-build-this post was “60 FPS on the Mobile Web”. It does not mean they don’t care about accessibility. My understanding is that accessibility is coming — they’re working on it, but it isn’t ready yet.

John’s a smart guy, but I think he’s got this wrong. Accessibility shouldn’t be something a company ‘works on’, trying to figure out how to retro-fit it to a flashy new solution. It should just exist from day one. It’s absurd that Flipboard, a tool for reading, is now no more accessible to blind people than a Flash website would have once been. That’s not progress — that’s regression.

February 18, 2015. Read more in: Design, Opinions, Technology

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Apple, motion sickness triggers and OS X Yosemite — Why Apple should bring Reduce Motion ‘back to the Mac’

I’m not a developer, but I know enough about development to realise what a big deal WWDC 2014 was. Apple outlined the future of its two operating systems, with some major upgrades that will ensure iOS and OS X both mature and seamlessly integrate. There were also some ‘Back to the Mac’ moments, notably in terms of interface: although OS X isn’t yet as flat as iOS, Yosemite is simpler and cleaner than Mavericks.

Although all the new technology and interfaces are exciting, I’m hoping that it will be fourth time lucky regarding motion sickness and balance accessibility. I’ve been writing for over two years now about such issues as relating to Apple’s operating systems, including an open letter to Apple on this site, and then articles for Stuff magazine and The Guardian, specifically about iOS 7, which had become unusable to me and many others.

Apple listened. Within a month, major animations could be switched for a subtle cross-fade; as of iOS 7.1, the vast majority of other issues were dealt with too, as I reported on in a follow-up piece for The Guardian. Individual third-party apps are now the most common triggers (through developers getting a bit animation-happy), and those can be avoided.

I was truly thrilled at Apple’s response to the iOS 7 problems, and it meant I could use my iPad again, without fear of accidentally triggering the app-switcher and having to take a 15-minute break while trying not to throw up. (And I’m fortunate: many people with similar issues can be knocked out for days after being triggered.) But I’m also disappointed that Apple has fundamentally ignored this issue in three major versions of its desktop-based operating system.

With OS X Lion, perhaps, this is forgivable. Motion/balance accessibility is not well known, and Apple to its credit offers a huge range of accessibility controls and add-ons for people that require assistance for vision, hearing or motor. But then Mountain Lion arrived, followed a year later by Mavericks. Still the full-screen animation remained; still you transitioned between apps with a full-screen slide; still certain apps persisted in utilising similar animations.

As per iOS 7, I’m not hoping for any change in default behaviour. Apple’s existing animations provide a sense of space and location for people using them, and that’s great. What I am hoping for is that Apple brings one more thing ‘Back to the Mac’ for OS X Yosemite: Reduce Motion. Put a checkbox in accessibility that switches out these animations for something less jarring. Better: add more granular controls, and place them in context, rather than hiding them away. Given that TotalSpaces2 can override the app transition animation in full screen, offering six alternatives and an off switch, there’s no reason Apple can’t do the same. More to the point, Apple should do the same, unless it’s a company that believes, for some reason, there’s a cut-off point when it comes to accessibility and user inclusivity on the desktop.

June 9, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Design

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