In the cloud there is freedom to live just in time, on the edge, and be mobile without ever being too far away from the information that matters. As people begin to develop a more continuous and less tangible relationship with their content, user experience design will be responsible for keeping cloud-based experiences down to earth and downright usable.
Services like Gmail and Facebook introduced people to the cloud years ago. Yet it didn’t take long for their association with the cloud to all but evaporate — the services just worked, and that was enough for consumers. Since then, there’s been a renewed conversation about the cloud, partly because it's an effective marketing message, but also because it is attempting to do more than ever before.
Here, we take a look at an increasingly robust world without hard containers or files, and how effective design paradigms can help a new generation of cloud services become a natural, invisible part of people's lives.
1// Be invisible.
Clouds are best when they go unnoticed. In a way, invisibility is the metric on which a cloud service's success will be measured — not associating a service with being up in the sky, but rather having it feel familiar and expected is paramount. The best way to make the cloud invisible is to build a service that does less, and does it exceptionally well. Start with simple, baseline services rather than advanced, complicated offerings. Use them to move users further down the spectrum of acceptance of the cloud. Dropbox, unlike its competitors, cut back on more robust features, and instead, created one fixed location that synced predictably and didn't require much explanation. Today, they're the leader of file-syncing in the cloud. Single-function services make a name for themselves, and go a long way toward earning users’ trust, appealing to a wide range of consumers, and establishing a relationship that can support long-term innovative solutions.
2 // Guarantee continuous, intuitive access.
Underlying the promise of mobility is the idea that there are no interruptions. Cloud computing offers the possibility for living on the edge because it keeps on-the-go experiences stitched together. Virtual distances should feel no different from local ones. As infrastructure grows in complexity, the user should only feel closer and more in control of their experience. At the end of the day, things that live remotely have to retain the simplicity of basic computing: access that’s always immediate and an experience that’s always available. When a connection is disrupted, a seamless user experience must go on.
3 // Balance security with access.
Security is as much a state of perception as it is a technological requirement. Our research indicates users want and expect stringent requirements when engaging in highly personal activities like mobile commerce and identity management. For less secure tasks, they want access as quickly as possible. Above all, they demand uncompromised ownership over their content on their terms. Security should never get in the way of access — balance the two and be only as secure as a service needs to be. Be transparent and open, so users feel empowered by the service. There’s an inverse relationship between control and trust — the more of one you give away, the more of the other you expect back in return.
4 // Use social inputs where they make sense.
Often social features are the reason people were driven to the cloud in the first place. Services like Google Calendar and Google Docs go beyond non-cloud competitors because they allow their users to collaborate, either by sharing awareness, or by sharing a workspace and adding value to a common project. Furthermore, layers of social information can transform the meaning of vast banks of data stored in the cloud. Users might call on the collective to aide in the discovery of new features and content, or narrow in on qualified sources to create meaningful and personalized chunks of information. Across the range of social interactions, cloud environments should be attuned to the dynamics that drive people to align or not to align, and balance the need to juggle public, personal and professional personas in a way that supports both the social and personal world.
5 // Design for distribution, not duplication.
Cloud services allow people to centrally maintain and ubiquitously access data and services across multiple device touchpoints. With that in mind, good design should consider what is appropriate and most valuable for a given context. Focus not on being consistent across devices but on being continuous. Each experience within the cloud must be tailored to its context. To that end, user experience frameworks are invaluable tools in adapting to changing user needs — across screen sizes, viewing distances and interface controls — while extending the experience beyond the boundaries of device.
Punchcut works with top-tier manufacturers and carriers to strategize and design integrated cloud services that transcend apps. Our approach add layers of meaning to data that is created and distributed by the cloud. We help companies create a differentiated offering, identifying the tired desktop metaphors that can be retired in exchange a clear point of view and, as a result, give users a real reason to engage.
Images: Peyri Herrera, "Cloud City" December 17, 2006 via Flickr; Lynda Lye, "A Figure Of Speech" September 28, 2010 via Etsy; Alejandro Ramos, "Clouded" May 24, 2009 via Flickr; Petra Larsson, "Sail Away Bird" December 10, 2010 via Etsy, Creative Commons Attribution.