The Age of The Micro-UI

In this article from the Wall Street Journal, author Christopher Mims quotes mobile analytics company Flurry’s data that 86% of our time on mobile devices are spent in apps, and just 14% is spent on the web. While Christopher’s article laments that this is the “death of the web”, I’d like to put a different spin on this. We are now entering the age of what I call the “micro-UI”.

The micro-UI represents a shift toward very targeted user experiences focused on a much smaller set of capabilities. A phrase I’ve used is that we are now bringing the work to the user, rather than bringing the user to the work. It used to be that you only had access to a screen when you were in the den of your house with the desk with the built-in cabinet for your “tower” (why do they still sell those?) with a wired connection to your dialup modem, or your computer on your desk at work. Clearly, that’s no longer the case with smart phones, tablets, appliances, your car, and many more things with the capability to dynamically interact with you. I just saw rumors today about the screen resolution of the new Apple Watch, and I think it has higher resolution than my original Palm Pilot back in the late 90’s. On top of that, there are plenty of additional devices that can indirectly interact through low power bluetooth or other tethering techniques.

In this new era, the focus will be on efficiency. Why do I use an app on my phone instead of going to the mobile web site? Because it’s more efficient. Why do notifications now allow primitive actions without having to launch the app? Because it’s more efficient. It wouldn’t surprise me to even see notifications without the app in the future.

For example, how many of you have come home to the post-it on your door saying “FedEx was unable to deliver your package because a signature is required.” Wouldn’t it be great to get a notification on your phone instead that asks for approval before the driver leaves with your package in tow? But do you really want to have to install a FedEx app that you probably will never open? Why can’t we embed a lightweight UI in the notification message itself?

In the enterprise, there are more hurdles to overcome, but that should be no surprise. First, the enterprise is still filled with silos. If it were up to me, I would ban the use of the term “application” for anything other than referring to a user interface. Unfortunately, we’ve spent 30+ years buying “applications,” building silos around them, and dealing with the challenges it creates. If you haven’t already, you need to just put that aside and build everything from here on out with the expectation that it will participate in a highly connected, highly integrated world where trying to draw boundaries around them is a fruitless exercise. This means service-based architectures and context-launchable UIs (i.e. bring the user to the exact point in the user interface to accomplish the task at hand). Secondly, we need to find the right balance between corporate security and convenience. All of this era of connected devices rely on the open internet, but that doesn’t work very well with the closed intranet. Fortunately, I’m an optimist, so I’m confident that we’ll find a way through this. There are simply too many productivity gains possible for it not to happen.

I believe all of this is a good thing. I think this will lead to new and better user experiences, which is really what’s most important. Unlike Christopher’s article, I don’t see this as the death of the web, as without the web as the backing store for all of this information, none of this would be possible. It is a reduction in the use of a browser-based UI, and he’s correct that there are some good things about the web (e.g. linking) that need to be adapted (app linking and switching) to the mobile ecosystem. On the other hand, however, this increased connectivity present opportunities for higher productivity. Apple (e.g. Continuity), Google, Microsoft, and others are all over this.

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This blog represents my own personal views, and not those of my employer or any third party. Any use of the material in articles, whitepapers, blogs, etc. must be attributed to me alone without any reference to my employer. Use of my employers name is NOT authorized.