When they’re designed right and with a user-centered mindset, mobile apps can make our lives better. For example, some apps can take a stressful moment and making it easier to deal with, or help annoying errands or tasks get done more efficiently. Other apps can just put a smile on our faces during an icky day.
Luckily for us, we had the chance to interview a product designer with a truly “people-focused” approach, plus a passion for “public-good” projects, and experience creating apps for a wide range of users: Adam Fisher-Cox, Product Designer at Talent Inc.
Adam got his start in product design in the early days of the Apple App Store, and has been making apps awesome ever since, such as the Philadelphia transit app SEPTA, an iOS Workout Tracker, and a gesture-based timer app called “hands”. He has helped create mobile experiences that try to make some of our most stressful moments better. In his spare time, Adam frequently writes about product design and publishes redesigns, such as the MTA’s website, CitiBike’s logos, and the MealPal app.
Take a look at what he had to say about upcoming changes in mobile UX, advice for newcomers to the industry, his personal mobile UX pet peeves, and more.
How did you get started as a product designer, and what led you to your current role?
I started in product design about a decade ago, in the early days of the iPhone App Store. Along with developers Josh Holat and Joel Levin, I created a to-do list app for Mac and iPhone called “SimpleTask.” It was built entirely out of a personal frustration with the current options, which luckily some other people shared. It was very much a seat-of-the-pants operation, but got a small but engaged user base and our three-person team continued developing it until Apple put out the very similar Reminders app as a standard part of iOS. After a few years of freelance and agency work in marketing and web design, I joined the Talent Inc. product team. While I liked the fresh challenges of a revolving door of client projects that freelance and agency work provides, I wanted to focus on a single brand’s product offerings longer-term and dig into larger problems.
Describe some of your responsibilities as part of the product team at Talent Inc. What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Through its portfolio of brands, Talent Inc. provides tools, expertise and support to help professionals navigate their next career move. Working on something that can materially improve people’s lives is a great motivator. A good product is always the best marketing tool, so I enjoy the challenge of building free products that can serve to build a relationship with a potential customer, selling them on the value of our career services, but also provide concrete and valuable information about their resume and job search even if they choose not to purchase.
Do you have any approaches or “hacks” that you swear by for product design challenges?
I’m always a little wary of applying process or techniques too prescriptively. The “hack” that I find works best is just to avoid getting siloed: put stakeholders and creatives in the same room early and often, and check back in as the project evolves.
What would you say are the biggest changes or trends mobile UX will experience in the near future?
With all our devices tracking our locations, health, habits, interests, and more, I hope that the next big “change” will be a maturation in how we use this information. Apple, for example, has been doing a nice job with contextual alerts and suggestions, but so far it’s been a piecemeal effort. Siri might offer you the travel time to work at the typical time you leave in the morning, or suggest a contact to call based on the time of day you normally speak with them. It’s all marginally useful, but I’ll believe in the transformative value of it when it’s not just giving me shortcuts to things I would do anyway, but suggesting things that I hadn’t planned on doing, but would be helpful, beneficial, or enjoyable. There’s a fine line in getting this right and not just flooding me with suggestion notifications.
What’s your mobile UX pet peeve? Something you encounter often in mobile apps and really don’t like?
I can’t stand loading animations on apps. Designers: if you have made the choice to delay my use of your app for even a second while your logo animates or a little movie plays, you have made the wrong choice. Looking at you, Twitter, Mint, and Gmail!
We love your redesigns of various mobile apps. How did you get starting doing app redesigns?
I had some pet peeves with some apps I use and designs I’d seen in public and wanted to see if I could solve them for myself – “put up or shut up,” if you will. I also wanted to get into the habit of writing more about design thinking, as half the job of a designer is communicating design choices, so those goals fit together very well.
You’ve worked on multiple transportation apps and written extensively about designing for transit. What are some unique challenges of creating transportation apps today? Any tips for how to tackle them?
The biggest challenge is gaining a holistic understanding of who you’re designing for. Especially in a large transit system like in New York City, there are just so many different ways people get around, things people want to know about their train or bus, different commuting patterns, etc. And that’s before you’ve gotten to any of the edge cases. A huge part of “design” work is time spent in spreadsheets, whiteboards, notepads, just listing out all the use cases and figuring out a model of how they all fit together in a way that’s not a huge list of every possible option at once.
You’ve worked on apps that deal with some of the more stressful times in our days/lives: public transit and job-hunting. How do you think apps are making users’ lives better today?
Much has been written about the downsides of being so connected to other people and information at the tap of a button, but the upsides are huge as well. It’s amazing to live in a world where I can pull a screen out of my pocket to see where my train is in real time, hail a cab if it’s not going to be here soon enough, then let my friends know I might be late, all in under a minute. For those that have access to them, apps and the connected world are like a cheat code to certain life situations. There is a danger, though, in designing the world for the people who have that access, leaving others behind in the process.
Name a few apps that you think are really perfect, and get every aspect of mobile UX right.
I don’t know that perfect is possible, and it certainly gets harder the broader or more feature-packed an app is. Camera apps and games tend to have pretty great experiences, perhaps because they are so single-purpose and can afford to redefine some of the visual language and interactions we’re used to. In those categories, I love Halide, a great manual camera app for iPhone, and Mini Metro, a transit-based puzzle game (yep, I have a train problem).
What’s your “dream app” that you would love to design, but haven’t gotten to yet?
I like the idea of a really polished app to support tourists’ experiences in other cities. Gathering landmarks, walking and transit directions, places to eat, tips and tricks, and cultural information into one app that’s contextually aware and helpful rather than a dense encyclopedia would be an immensely difficult but cool project.
What are your favorite blogs, communities, influencers to follow?
I’m currently reading and watching anything from Jen Simmons and Rachel Andrew – they’re great educators and evangelists for all the new great things that CSS can do, which really broadens the canvas for feasible product designs on the web.
Any key points of advice for product designers who are just starting out or trying to break into the field?
Find small freelance projects or side projects of your own making to put together a portfolio – use the opportunities where you’re your own boss to practice the whole design and testing process, even if it’s overkill. Give yourself the opportunity to gain new experience. But no spec work! Never spec work.
Top item on your bucket list: 3,2,1, go!
I’d like to road trip across the US, hitting as many National Parks as I can along the way.
Thanks for chatting with us, Adam!