by Erik Loehfelm,

Well, the Mayan’s were wrong. Or at least, our interpretation of the end of their calendar was a bit sideways. Personally, I always thought they just ran out of tablets to scratch on and were bored with keeping the calendar going… but, I digress! We’re still here and going strong, so let’s look to 2013 and where some interesting design topics may be moving.

1. Contextual Design
We have apps. We have powerful pocket hardware. We’re starting to collect legitimate big data on people. Where it goes from here is up to the imagination of designers and technologists! There’s an incredible opportunity to leverage the intersection of these resources that is just beginning to be realized. The time of ‘smart’ applications that leverage social, mobility and location data to react and present intelligent, contextually relevant, content is here. Contextual Design will be the next ‘secret sauce’ in successful digital experiences.

For those of you new to the term Contextual Design, imagine this scenario: You’re walking into BestBuy to shop for a new camera. You have your iPhone with you and location services are turned on. You’re phone ‘knows’ you’re at BestBuy. You find a few cameras that seem like the perfect fit for your needs, but you’d like to see some reviews to be sure. You ask Siri on your iPhone for information on the new Nikon you’re holding in your hand. She returns data in the form of public reviews, reviews from your trusted friends on Facebook, information served from BestBuy on accessories and product details, and pricing from BestBuy, Amazon and a local camera shop. You browse the information and confirm that this is the camera for you. You could order the camera on Amazon because it’s 5-10% less expensive than in the store, but because you are in BestBuy, and have accessed the data served to you through Siri from BestBuy, BestBuy decides to sweeten the deal buy sending you a ‘live’ promotion in the form of a 15% discount on accessories for the camera if you purchase it from them while in the store today. Sold! You grab the gear, and make your purchase in store using your BestBuy Rewards app to apply the offer and collect your reward points.

Possible? Absolutely! Everything mentioned in this scenario is absolutely doable with today’s technology, but it hasn’t been designed or executed yet. The opportunity to supply users with contextually relevant content on the go is huge! What you do for your customers requires you to understand them and cater to them… which you should already be doing, right?

2. The Internet of Things
We’ve already spoken of Contextual Design (CD). Combine CD with intelligent, web connected, ‘stuff’ that exists around us, and we’ve got an even more powerful source of data to wrap and bind us with. Enter products like Twine ( – pun-intended!

Twine is a highly successful Kickstarter project. It’s a simple, internet connected sensor device that can be easily programmed through the web to collect data and send messages. By using Twine to monitor a simple thing like the moisture level in your basement, you could be notified via text or email that your sump-pump isn’t functioning properly. Combine this with a simple iPhone app and you could have an emergency preparedness system to protect your home while away.

Nest ( is more highly-developed consumer product example of a web-connected device. Nest is a learning thermostat that helps to control the temperature of your home and save you money on your energy bills. It is beautiful and simple and powerful. By using Nest in their homes, consumers are saving some serious money today!

As we open our lives to these new connected devices, the internet of things relevant to each of us becomes more diverse. Data in our day-to-day functions as human beings is captured. How that data is leveraged and utilized is up to us as designers and technologists. There are wonderful opportunities for this information to enhance our lives if we aren’t intimidated by devices watching and learning about how we live.

3. Responsive Web
This is an obvious one, but still merits mention. Responsive Web techniques will move from experimental to mainstream in 2013. A mobile-first approach with Responsive Web techniques will allow your consumers to access content in a contextually relevant way on their terms. For the enterprise, a Responsive approach will allow for a more centralized management of content and help to mitigate desktop only or mobile only approaches to content delivery.

In your Responsive approach it’s important to consider a system that is based on content first. It’s easy to get caught up in the graphical solution of your designs prior to considering the contextual relevancy of the content you are designing for. Therefore, design your experiences from the inside out. Work out the relevant content only, for a mobile user, a tablet user, and a desktop user. Leverage a consistent grid-system of your choice. Then, layer on the graphical solution. You’ll find that by taking this approach, you’ll have a flexible system that is serving content contextually important to your audience while still maintaining your brand experience.

4. Second Screen Experiences
Many are trying, but few have found great success on the second screen. The opportunity however, is too great to ignore. In 2013, the secrets of the Second Screen Experience will be unlocked!

Content distributers and advertisers are constantly looking to differentiate their products. The challenge for a second screen option is in the focus of the viewer. Simply having content that enhances the experience on the big screen is interesting but has proven a challenge.

When watching a game on TV, I’m only interested in statistics during a break in the action. While watching a movie, I’m not interested in the depth of the character that I can look up on my iPad… I’m watching the movie! So how do content providers introduce the extraordinary amount of supplemental content to people in a way that doesn’t interfere with the primary viewing experience? Universal Mind is working closely with some exceptional content providers on this very thing! Stay tuned this year to see some exciting headway in this space.

5. A Return to Simplicity
The shifts at the executive ranks in Apple this fall may have an interesting effect on the design community in 2013. Skeuomorphism has been the preferred flavor of UI design for Apple and many others for some time now, but there had always been a disconnect between the simple elegance of the hardware and the stylized UI metaphors of the OS and software. With Jony Ive at the design helm on all things Apple (hardware and software), we’re likely see some shifts in the UI appearance of the Mac OS, iOS, and Apple created applications. These shifts, as they have done in the past, will drive a design trend towards Apple’s new UI design aesthetic.

Simple, clean, UI design will make a strong presence this year. You can already see the influence of Microsoft’s Metro UI on applications both for Windows and other platforms. The focus of “content over chrome” is an approach that fits very well within the concepts of Contextual Design, mobile first, and Responsive Web.

2013 will be an exciting year to be a designer! We’ll be involved in the tight personalization of services across a connected web of content and devices. We’ll help to streamline the distribution of content in contextually relevant ways for our users. We’ll be simplifying our experiences so that they communicate more effectively. This is not to say that all user interfaces will become text only experiences. The challenge for designers will be the same as it has been in any other medium. We must design experiences that inform, communicate and delight! Happy New Year and hug a Mayan :)

by Erik Loehfelm,

I posted this on another blog a few years ago, but they are still relevant! We use these printable sketch templates for brainstorming. Combine these freebies with a stencil kit from UI Stencils ( and you’ve got all the tools for the next Angry Birds in your hands :) Enjoy!

Omnigraffle iPhone sketch-board
PDF iPhone sketch-board
Photoshop iPhone sketch-board
EPS iPhone sketch-board
PNG iPhone sketch-board

by Erik Loehfelm,

In the final consideration of your Application Definition Statement, it’s time to revisit the list of features and tasks and apply them to your previously defined user. Many of your features that were considered for the initial idea, no longer seem as practical as they once did when brainstorming the concept. Your application’s focus begins to take shape. A good example of an Application Definition Statement for the sample zoo app could be:

“A tool for children visiting the zoo, to discover facts about the animals, and play interactive games.”

By clearly stating your application’s target audience and main features in this way, you will have a guiding principle to build your application upon. When considering functionality as you move forward, always ask yourself the question ‘does this new concept answer to my Application Definition Statement?’ If it does, you should feel confident including it. If it doesn’t, you may want to consider this new functionality for another application. Stay focused!

by Erik Loehfelm,

In the creation of your Application Definition Statement, you’ll want to spend time considering your users. What are the distinguishing features of your intended audience? What is most important to them? How will they use your application in a physical context? In the zoo example we may ask whether our users:

  • are children exploring the zoo with a class
  • are parents guiding their children through the experience at the zoo
  • intend to use features of the application at home or prior to arriving at the zoo
  • have children with them on a zoo visit
  • love to learn about and see animals

Focus on the user of your application is critical to its success and forms the cornerstone of user-centered design theory.

by Erik Loehfelm,

Start creating your Application Definition Statement by listing all of the main functions or activities that are key to your idea. Consider how these activities can be broken into specific tasks or features of your application. For example, let’s imagine the idea is an application that allows people to explore the animals and habitats of your local zoo. With this concept in mind, consider some of the tasks a person would enjoy with this mobile experience, such as:

  • finding their way around the zoo
  • learning about the animals
  • learning about the animals’ habitats
  • playing interactive games
  • learning about zoo memberships
  • purchasing merchandise
  • taking and sharing photos and videos
  • best paths to follow in the zoo to see the animals
  • feeding time schedules
  • show schedules
by Erik Loehfelm,

The term ‘elevator pitch’ is used to describe a brief and focused conversation about a business idea; one which could take place in the short time it takes to ride in an elevator. The strength of an elevator pitch is in it’s focus to communicate the idea. For our app designs, we typically create something similar.

In Apple’s iOS Human Interface Guidelines, they describe a simple, but important tool in the design of iOS apps; an application definition statement.

“An application definition statement is a concise, concrete declaration of an app’s main purpose and its intended audience.” 1

Begin your design process by asking yourself questions such as this:

Who will use this application? Why will they want to use it? How will they use it? In what physical context will they use it in? What aspect of this application will delight and engage the user? What are the main features or functions of this experience?

1 – Apple, iOS Human Interface Guidelines, Feb 2012

by Erik Loehfelm,

An interesting exercise in User-Centered Design (UCD) is to place yourself as a target for an application that you would use. Identify a want or need that you would consider valuable that is not currently met by apps that you own. Capture your ideas but stay focused on one need. For example: I need to study the sounds of bird songs for a biology exam. This simple idea should start to trigger interesting visuals in your mind. Do you see yourself studying while walking? Are you sitting in the library? Can you include others in the study effort? Do I see a visual of the bird along with the audio of the bird’s song? Can I answer audibly? Do I have to choose from a list of choices?

By putting yourself in the role of a user with a topic that interests you, you will begin to understand the process involved in building empathy for a user’s situation and the potential solutions.

by Erik Loehfelm,

Digital publishing grew tremendously in 2011. With the unveiling of new technologies such as the iPad 2, the iPhone 4S and Amazon’s Kindle Fire, we’ve dramatically changed the way companies will disseminate information for years to come.

But we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible in this space. While many industries have dipped a tentative toe in the water, most have yet to take full advantage of all the capabilities of mobile technology, and make the move from paper to digital, from passive to interactive.

We predict that 2012 will see a wave of new digital publishing apps across a wide range of industries. Here are five new types of “digi-pubs” to watch for in 2012.

1. Movie Tie-Ins

There are already apps and games that build on the characters and storyline of films; however, a huge amount of film content has yet to be tapped by a mobile framework. But this is just around the corner.

For example, books based on children’s films essentially contain stills of the movie. With a relatively small effort, studios may start to turn children’s films into interactive picture books enhanced with games and clips from the films.

And considering the amount of work that goes into creating the bonus materials for a DVD, can the “making of” digi-pub for every major film be far behind? Unlike a book or a DVD, this content can also be made interactive and social. For example, an app could enable you to see all the actors’ tweets or to follow them on Facebook.

2. Music Appumentaries

Several musicians and labels have really started to embrace mobile technology to tell a deeper story and share directly with fans, and we’ve seen the early emergence of what some are calling the “appumentary.”

For example, the Jimi Hendrix – The Complete Experience app showcases pivotal moments in Jimi’s life and career, streams his music and offers an interactive approach to storytelling. The This Day in Pink Floyd app contains thousands of music facts, a guide to every one of the 167 studio tracks the band officially released, as well as Pink Floyd images, quiz questions, video footage and more. The Sting 25 app offers access to Sting’s seminal performances, rare photos and personal stories over the past 25 years of his music career.

I anticipate that as more artists and labels embrace this new medium, we’ll see an increase in digital music downloads and an explosion in new types of artist content, maybe even a new fan club paradigm with advanced and/or exclusive access to media or artist-driven content.

3. Medical Exam Apps

How many times have you been to the doctor and had them bring a laptop into the exam room? Probably not very many. While some medical practices have begun introducing some of these basic tools into their patient interactions, there’s still a shocking lack of mobile technology usage in the medical industry.

In 2012, the medical industry will have the opportunity to create a new paradigm for doctor/patient interaction using tablet technology. With the presentation of digital publications and apps that can distill complex medical theories and procedures into consumable bites, our understanding of conditions and treatment options will expand.

Imagine your doctor sitting with you to go over some test results. With a digital records application, she could display your results on an interactive comparative chart that displays the averages of people in your area by age, race, gender, occupation or lifestyle. It could contain embedded videos of procedure descriptions. Your doctor could share access with you, enabling you to request other opinions from physicians across the world. You could tie in social experiences on community boards with people that have undergone similar procedures. All of this could be presented in an interactive and personal publication that embodies your entire medical history.

4. The Digital Textbook

In some ways, the foundational paradigms of education are in transition. There are opportunities in the education market that are huge and potentially transformative.

Should students be carrying four or five textbooks to school each day? Could students purchase only certain chapters of books? Could books include text that is updated by authors in real-time? Could the concept of a “textbook” be a compilation of Wikipedia entries, content queried from Wolfram|Alpha, a professor’s thoughts and musings and social network contributions?

Not only is the content of today’s textbooks ready to be challenged; the way this content is consumed is already in a state of transition. The introduction of e-text and Amazon’s early versions of the Kindle changed how we read. No longer do we need to consume “printed” text in one form. Kindle devices and Kindle applications allow today’s readers to enjoy published works in their choice of context – Kindle device, desktop, mobile app – and seamlessly switch between them. With Amazon’s latest Kindle Fire tablet, consumers are now empowered with the Kindle experience on top of a mature Android platform. This platform of power and functionality will allow for new types of content presentation: interactive charts and graphs, embedded media, embedded discussions, sharing and borrowing, live discussions, etc.

5. Interactive Retail Catalogs

Using mobile technology in retail is practically a no-brainer, since investing in tech to reach consumers can pay off quickly. Brands like IKEA and Lands’ End have already begun to embrace the functionality of interacting with consumers on their mobile devices. In fact, many big-box and online retailers have begun to offer catalog apps that allow you to browse content on your iPad. However, most have simply taken their existing materials and published them in a similar form to their print counterparts.

In 2012, there is a huge opportunity for retailers to bring their catalog experiences to life on the iPad. For example, shoppers should be able to build avatars and virtually try on clothes, making mobile shopping an interactive, enjoyable and functional experience. Homeowners should be able to take pictures of their living rooms and upload them to the catalog app, then “decorate” rooms with the items from the catalog. And forget paint swatches – soon you will be able to take a picture of a room, choose and try different paint colors on the walls, click to buy, and have it ready to pick up at a nearby store in 15 minutes.

What are some digital publishing applications you’d like to see this year?

(This blog post was originally published as an article in Mashable on January 14, 2012)