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Tag : Design

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Beautiful Rooms & Why Smartphones Are Too Dumb

Some time in the future, the age of the smartphone will draw to a close and experiences will become more in-tune with the way humans actually live. We need to be thinking about this new wave of interactions at a time when our customer’s attention is a premium. We need to be augmenting their worlds, not trying to replace them…

I’m Craig Pugsley – a Principal UX Designer in Product Research. Our team’s job is to bring JUST EAT’s world-leading food ordering experience to the places our consumers will be spending their future, using technology that won’t be mainstream for twelve to eighteen months.

It’s a great job – I get to scratch my tech-geek itch every day. Exploring this future-facing tech makes me realise how old the systems and platforms we’re using right now actually are. Sometimes it feels like we’ve become their slaves, contorting the way we want to get something done to match the limitations of their platforms and the narrow worldview of the experiences we’ve designed for them. I think it’s time for change. I think smartphones are dumb… I feel like we’ve been led to believe that ever more capable cameras or better-than-the-eye-can-tell displays make our phones more useful. For the most part, this is marketing nonsense. For the last few years, major smartphone hardware has stagnated – the occasional speed bump here, the odd fingerprint sensor there… But nothing that genuinely makes our phones any smarter. It’s probably fair to say that we’ve reached peak phone hardware.

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What we need is a sea-change. Something that gives us real value. Something that recognises we’re probably done with pushing hardware towards ever-more incremental improvements and focuses on something else. Now is the time to get radical with the software.

I was watching some old Steve Jobs presentation videos recently (best not to ask) and came across the seminal launch of the first iPhone. At tech presentation school, this Keynote will be shown in class 101. Apart from general ambient levels of epicness, the one thing that struck me was how Steve referred to the iPhone’s screen as being infinitely malleable to the need – we’re entirely oblivious to it now, but at that time phones came with hardware keyboards. Rows of little buttons with fixed locations and fixed functions. If you shipped the phone but thought of an amazing idea six months down the line, you were screwed.

In his unveiling of the second generation of iPhone, Jobs sells it as being the most malleable phone ever made. “Look!” (he says), “We’ve got all the room on this screen to put whatever buttons you want! Every app can show the buttons that make sense to what you want to do!”. Steve describes a world where we can essentially morph the functionality of a device purely through software.

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But we’ve not been doing that. Our software platforms have stagnated like our hardware has. Arguably, Android has basic usability issues that it’s still struggling with; only recently have the worse Bloatware offenders stopped totally crippling devices out-the-box. iOS’s icon-based interface hasn’t changed since it came out. Sure, more stuff has been added, but we’re tinkering with the edges – just like we’ve been doing with the hardware. We need something radically different.

One of the biggest problems I find with our current mobile operating systems is that they’re ignorant of the ecosystem they live within. With our apps, we’ve created these odd little spaces, completely oblivious to each other. We force you to come out of one and go in the front door of the next. We force you to think first not about what you want to do, but about the tool you want to use to do it. We’ve created beautiful rooms.

Turning on a smartphone forces you to confront the rows and rows of shiny front doors. “Isn’t our little room lovely” (they cry!) “Look, we’ve decorated everything to look like our brand. Our tables and chairs are lovely and soft. Please come this way, take a seat and press these buttons. Behold our content! I think you’ll find you can’t get this anywhere else… Hey! Don’t leave! Come back!”

“Hello madame. It’s great to see you, come right this way. Banking, you say? You’re in safe hands with us. Please take a seat and use this little pen on a string…”

With a recent iOS update, you’re now allowed you to take a piece of content from one room and push it through a little tube into the room next door.

Crippled by the paralysis of not alienating their existing customers, Android and iOS have stagnated. Interestingly, other vendors have made tantalizing movements away from this beautiful-room paradigm into something far more interesting. One of my favorite operating systems of all time, WebOS, was shipped with the first Palm Pre.

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There was so much to love about both the hardware and software for this phone. It’s one of the tragedies of modern mobile computing that Palm weren’t able to make more of this platform. At the core, the operating system did one central thing really, really well – your services were integrated at a system level. Email, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Skype, contacts – all managed by the system in one place. This meant you could use Facebook photos in an email. Make a phone call using Skype to one of your contacts on Yahoo. You still had to think about what beautiful room you needed to go into to find the tools you needed, but now the rooms were more like department stores – clusters of functionality that essentially lived in the same space.

Microsoft took this idea even further with Windows Phone. The start screen on a Windows Phone is a thing of beauty – entirely personal to you, surfacing relevant information, aware of both context and utility. Email not as important to you as Snapchat? No worries, just make the email tile smaller and it’ll report just the number of emails you haven’t seen. Live and die by Twitter? Make the tile huge and it’ll surface messages or retweets directly in the tile itself. Ambient. Aware. Useful.

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Sadly, both these operating systems have tiny market shares.

But the one concept they both share is a unification of content. A deliberate, systematic and well executed breaking down of the beautiful room syndrome. They didn’t, however, go quite far enough. For example, in the case of Windows Phone, if I want to contact someone I still need to think about how I’m going to do it. Going into the ‘People Hub’ shows me people (rather than the tools to contact them), but is integrated only with the phone, SMS and email. What happens when the next trendy new communication app comes along and the People Hub isn’t updated to support the new app? Tantalizingly close, but still no cigar.

What we need is a truly open platform. Agnostic of vendors and representing services by their fundamentally useful components. We need a way to easily swap out service providers at any time. In fact, the user shouldn’t know or care. Expose them to the things they want to do (be reminded of an event, send a picture to mum, look up a country’s flag, order tonight’s dinner) and figure out how that’s done automatically. That’s the way around it should be. That’s the way we should be thinking when designing the experiences of the future.

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Consider Microsoft’s Hololens, which was recently released to developers outside of Microsoft. We can anticipate an explosion of inventiveness in the experiences created – the Hololens being a unique device leapfrogging the problem of beautiful rooms to augment your existing real-world beautiful rooms with the virtual.

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Holographic interface creators will be forced to take into account the ergonomics of your physical world and work harmoniously, contextually, thoughtfully and sparingly within it. Many digital experience designers working today should admit to the fact that they rarely take into account what their users were doing just before or just after their app. This forces users to break their flow and adapt their behavior to match the expectations of the app. As users, we’ve become pretty good at rapid task switching, but doing so takes attention and energy away from what’s really important – the real world and the problems we want to solve.

Microsoft may be one of the first to market with Hololens, but VR and AR hardware is coming fast from the likes of HTC, Steam, Facebook and Sony. Two-dimensional interfaces are on the path to extinction, a singular event that can’t come quick enough.

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Designing at JUST EAT

A while back I joined the JUST EAT UX design department to work in the Strategic Projects team. Working at the world’s leading digital marketplace for takeaway, with 11 million active users, and generates around £1 billion for the restaurant industry, is definitely a huge responsibility and it comes with a lot of challenges.

We design experiences to shape the future of food and technology. Our main focus is empowering consumers to love their takeaway experience, and everything we do is revolved around this idea. Working here means that you have to be frank, innovative, hard-working, and most of all, passionate.

Now let me give you some more insights.

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The design process

Here at JUST EAT we don’t do design just for the sake of design. Our job is to understand the user’s problem, propose a hypothesis, research and validate, establish a testing approach and deliver a solution. All these can fit into three simple questions — what, who and how?

  1. What problem are we solving?— Being a designer means that we have to solve user problems while generating real business value. In terms of JUST EAT, that means improving the experience, building new features or identifying new opportunities that are easy to scale.
  2. Who are we addressing? — Creating personas based on qualitative and quantitative research. This is helping us figure out how our ideas are gonna fit into the real world, and will make it easier to validate those, or prioritise features. (Such as helping time sensitive customers get their food faster.)
  3. How are we solving it? — The third step is figuring out a way to solve the problem. This means doing research, validating ideas, prototype, design, test, and deliver. We’re not just sitting in front of a computer, we’re ‘getting our hands dirty’ by analysing data, having focus groups, doing usability testing, and so on. Most of the times we have to take small steps — like releasing a quick fix for a much bigger problem, until we can actually gather enough data to solve it properly.

We’re not alone on this though. Some of the best product managers, researchers, developers and other UX colleagues are gonna have your back. After all, one of our four values is ‘team’.

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Teams

JUST EAT is growing fast. In 2015 we hired actively on all fronts, with 156 new employees. The UX team is now formed of 11 designers working between London and Bristol.

Before showing how we nailed this collaboration, let me give you some insights on how we work:

  • Cross-platform — Every designer that’s part of our team knows how to work for web, iOS and Android. We try to embrace the platform, using the native behaviour as a starting point (based on the human interface/material design guidelines). Once in awhile we get overly excited and get involved in different small projects, like designing for Xbox or tvOS.
  • Vertical teams — We’re split between autonomous teams, focusing on different objectives (Customer Acquisition, Retention, Strategic Projects, and so on). Most of the teams are formed of a Technology Manager, Product Manager, Business Intelligence, UX and Development — all working together to achieve the team’s OKRs.
  • Agile — The same as most big companies, we’re guided by agile methodologies in order to allow incremental, iterative work between self organising, cross-functional teams.

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Collaboration

Focusing on various objectives between two different cities makes it tricky to collaborate. There is no proper recipe on ‘how it should be done’ but along the way we realised it’s a mix of transparency, communication, and honest feedback.

  • UX sync — Every week we have a general sync with all the design teams at JUST EAT. Everyone has to share ‘what they worked on’, ‘what they learned from it’ and ‘what’s the next step’. This way we make sure there are no overlapping projects and that we can get feedback before sending things to production.
  • HipChat Room — We have a dedicated room for design conversations where we ask for feedback, share opinions, or post random gifs.
  • Short catch-ups — Whenever we feel like we need to get a better understanding of something, we have a short hang-out. These are regular things at JUST EAT and it helps smoother transition between two projects built by different teams.
  • UX guidelines— A short while ago we created our first JUST EAT guidelines (still a work in progress). Working across 15 countries on different features, and in separate teams, makes it hard to be consistent. These guidelines are helping us achieve that consistency — leading to a unified product.

 

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All work and all play

JUST EAT has a reputation for being an fun and exciting place to work. Having a proper work-life balance is what helps us create a healthy environment, so finishing work at 4.30pm on Fridays, playing ping-pong, FIFA, or fussball are just regular activities here. And apart from the odd free takeaway, everyone brings cookies when they come back from holiday.

I hope this article gave you a bit of an understanding on what happens under the design curtain here at JUST EAT. And just so you know — we’re still on the look for great UX designers.