App as silo

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A little while ago I wrote about the lack of details in reports of iPad/eBook use for education; I am happy to point to an article that gets it right. Joel Mathis surveyed some recent efforts by universities to use the iPad to replace some more traditional educational materials. He reported on some specific apps that one university was considering using (although the textbook app by ScrollMotion appears to be in development, as I wasn’t able to find any details on this app other than the Februrary 2010 announcements. According to another article, the tool would integrate multimedia textbooks with note-taking and other features. Does that mean that the notes would be attached to the textbook app, or could they be exported and integrated with notes on other materials?

This is a specific instance of a more general pattern of data use on the iPad: with each app holding on to its own data, it’s difficult to see how to manage notes and annotations across several applications that are required for one’s studies or work.

While app switching per se is not a difficult operation, it can impose a certain amount of cognitive overhead, and prevents the data trapped in various apps from being integrated. Copy-and-paste is a possible work-around, this will take the notes out of the context in which they were created, thereby diminishing their value. The reasoning behind siloed apps is sound from a platform stability standpoint, but from the HCI perspective, this separation can cause usability problems. When people’s tasks don’t map onto a single app but require multiple tools, the lack of data flow among the apps can create roadblocks for learning and productivity.

A more open platform such as Windows 7 or Android might avoid the segregation problem, but the lack of a coherent interface design standards will likely result in a system with poor overall usability as well.

This is an interesting tension between functionality and usability, between micro- and macro-level functionality, between artistic control of the platform designer and artistic freedom of the application designer. Unfortunately, the problems are sufficiently complex that they are unlikely to be resolved in this generation of devices and operating systems. We need more collective design experience to understand how to do it right.

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