He may have shared his three words of Russian with Mikhail Gorbachev, strolled around Ronald Reagan Ranch with Nancy and written trivia questions for a primetime game show, but these days entrepreneur Josh Clark is all about mobile. Josh is a designer specializing in multi-device design, strategy, and user experience. He's author of four books, including the recently released Designing for Touch (A Book Apart, 2015). As he says on his agency's website "the internet is a mighty big medium. And it's getting bigger, spreading not only across platforms and screens but into the physical world. As everyday objects become connected, the entire world becomes a digital interface. Anything can be a UI." That's a mighty big, rather exciting (and slightly frightening) new digital world.

When he's not in Brooklyn thinking about the how and many ways mobile is transforming our lives, Josh seems to be on a plane flying somewhere to share his vision of the magical possibilities of truly connected world. I caught up with this very mobile entrepreneur on a recent layover.

We're not just reading information on mobile, we're dragging, flicking, swiping and stretching it. What behaviors on mobile intrigue and inspire you?

Designing a touch interface goes way beyond making buttons bigger for fat fingers. You're literally holding information in your hands, and that introduces new ergonomic considerations to digital design. In the same way that real-world objects disappoint when they are physically awkward, touchscreen interfaces fail if they're uncomfortable in the hand. This interplay of digits with digital is the crux of designing for touch: it's not just how your pixels look, it's about how they feel.

So the best touch interfaces design for an economy of motion and effort, but they also go a step further and reinforce the illusion that the information itself has physicality. All user interface is illusion--this thin layer of magic we stretch over a churn of ones and zeroes to help our brains make sense of the incomprehensible machine beneath. With touch, though, we have the opportunity to create the illusion that there is no illusion, that we're actually touching information itself. We squeeze screens closed; we throw photos aside; we cross out information to delete it. We've developed a new physics for data that parallels--but doesn't strictly mimic--the physical world.

You're said that the phone is the first magic wand for everyone. What do you mean by that (other than retailers being magically able to find their customers anywhere at anytime)?

The smartphone is this amazing bridge between the physical and digital worlds.

Because I have a phone in my hand, I can instantly recognize the music playing in the room. I can point my phone's camera at text in one language and see it transform into another. Mobile devices bring smarts to dumb and immobile objects, blessing them with magical powers. This means we're starting to see lots of innovation in traditionally low-tech gizmos like lightbulbs and door knobs. It's about to get much more interesting than that.

Just as our digital interfaces are becoming more physical, the physical world is becoming more digital. Everyday objects, places, and people suddenly have a digital presence. Part of this is the internet-of-things effort to embed processors and sensors everywhere. But an even bigger piece is explained by the simple proximity of a smartphone. Our phones are packed with sensors, these superpowers that let them understand and interact with the world around them. Sometimes I refer to smartphones as magic wands; other times I call them the first internet-of-things devices to go supernova. They are mundane objects (telephones) that have been made magic by the addition of connectivity, processor, and sensors--the very definition of IoT.

Digital is becoming physical, and physical is becoming digital, and mobile is at the center of it. These worlds are tunneling in from both directions and taking us to an exciting and uncertain nexus that combines the two. We're just beginning to uncover what's possible, along with the behaviors--good and bad--that this will unlock.

How do we create a better user experience on mobile? What's the goal when creating mobile products?

Mobile is so powerful because it's available at the point of inspiration. You can get information or service at the very moment of demand; mobile devices are convenience machines. The best mobile products optimize for speed and ease: how can I move from inspiration/intention to action/result as quickly as possible? From a tactical point of view, the best mobile products reduce the amount of interaction an app or website requires. Sometimes that means streamlining interfaces down to one or two buttons (Uber, Hotel Tonight). Other times it means using sensors to provide input so I don't have to (Shazam, Google Translate). Or you use available data to create predictive interfaces, so I can get information before I even know I need it (Google Now).

Why does it even matter when let's admit it, we're addicted to the mobile super computers we carry around 24/7?

This is something that's actually broken about the mobile experience. The makers of mobile products--heck, all digital products--have put "engagement" above all else. Too many companies have built their business models upon attention theft. The best mobile products don't try to trap you, don't foster addiction. Instead, they encourage you to get what you need and then return to your life.

If availability at the point of inspiration is mobile's superpower, it's also the Achilles' heel. Because the phone is available at the point of inspiration, it also carries us away from the very thing that inspired us. The more connected we are, the more disconnected we become from the world around us. We spend over three hours per day--20 percent of our waking lives--staring at the screen. And no doubt about it, we get lots of benefits from that time. Screens will always be with us, but perhaps they can merely caption our lives instead of frame them.

What are the connectivity and mobility innovations which are inspiring you?

The things that excite me most are the digital interventions that bridge physical and digital in ways that go beyond marketing or novelty to make really profound changes in people's lives.

  1. The Propeller Health sensor that goes on inhalers to help people better control their asthma
  2. The Wayfindr app that helps blind people find their way in the London Underground
  3. GlowCap medicine bottles that help people to remember their medicine, or the smart pill from Proteus Digital Health that reports when it's been taken
  4. The LookTel app that lets the blind identify the currency in their hand

All of these things bridge the gap between physical and digital in ways that go beyond marketing or novelty to make really profound changes in people's lives. In an era where we're drowning in data, how can we create oases of calm where that data provides real insight, joy, or empowerment?

What should people keep in mind when designing for the mobile consumer?

  • Design for convenience: move people as quickly as possible from inspiration to action.
  • Embrace the physicality of touch: consider handheld ergonomics, and imagine data objects as physical objects.
  • Sometimes the best touch UI is no touch at all: use sensors and data to move interaction off the screen entirely.
  • Is "engagement" really a worthwhile goal? Consider how a light-touch experience might actually make people's lives better.
  • Design for the physical-digital border: make the most of the magic in phones that let them cross back and forth between those worlds.


It's clear to me from speaking with Josh, that even with the very latest mobile device in our back pocket, we're dappling on the fringe of digital possibility. Oh, and I'll end this interview with one more fun fact about Josh: in 1996, he created the uberpopular "Couch-to-5K" (C25K) running program.


Published on: Nov 10, 2015
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