A Model for Innovation in Emerging Markets

Mobile connectivity is creating and enabling new approaches to markets which have traditionally been hard to crack.  For emerging economies, connectivity can improve everyday life for the poorest if companies find a sustainable model for reaching new consumers and understand the complex canvas of emerging markets.

Visa, a payments company, recently partnered with frog to complete a three-month long project in Rwanda to uncover how technology can advance financial inclusion. Teams immersed themselves fully into their local Rwandan surroundings, living alongside the people who would ultimately benefit from financial inclusion to understand their everyday lives more completely.

Join Visa and frog at Singapore's historic Arts House on the evening of May 7, where we will present details of this design research activity plus an innovative model for understanding consumers and building market share in the developing world and beyond.

Conversations of People and Things

frog developed the Connected\Projected program to explore potential for emergent, integrated product solutions by blending  key trends in technology and user experience design.

Using wireless product-to- product and product-to-user features as well as sensors and laser projection, we created a series of first level “Superprotoypes”. Our prototyping process and the prototypes themselves have triggered an avalanche of new use cases, ecosystems, and product concepts that have all grown out of the seeds of that first idea.

Unraveling HTML5 vs. Native

I am discussing mobile application development with the IT manager of a provider of online content and services to millions of users, when the conversation touches on HTML5. He tells me:

“On September 11, 2012, Mark Zuckerberg stated that the biggest mistake made by Facebook was betting too much on HTML5 as opposed to native. The very next day I got a call from my boss asking me if I was sure our company was not making the same mistake.”

Since that day, I've heard similar stories over and over again as the “Facebook dumps HTML5” headline spread through the web and reached even a non-technical audience. Many IT directors and software architects that had been pushing HTML5 as the future of mobile within their organization began to see their strategy questioned by upper management.

“We provide customers with native applications for iPhone, iPad, and Android to access our online content and services. Each application was launched at a different time and outsourced to a different supplier. Eventually the apps became misaligned to the point that managing updates and adding new features has become a painful process. HTML5 looked like the ideal solution to overcome that, but now I am no longer sure.”

Indeed, HTML5 was hyped as the ultimate write-once-run-anywhere solution for mobile, solving all the problems of cross platform development and device fragmentation. This has been proven to be plainly wrong. Not surprisingly, the old saying “no silver bullet” also applies to mobile applications. On the other hand, HTML5 remains a powerful technology for mobile development, a fact that is demonstrated by well-crafted executions like LinkedIn's original app. When it comes to choosing HTML5 over native or vice versa there is, of course, no universal answer. There are, however, key decision criteria.

Let's Take A Step Back 

The first question to ask is, do you actually need a mobile application? No matter the selected technology platform, development and maintenance of a mobile application can be costly, and a mobile website might be preferable. By leveraging responsive design techniques, the browser can be instructed on how to best render the web page content depending on device display and input capabilities, such screen size and orientation, as well as touch-based interactions (a well-known example is the Boston Globe website.)

From the user perspective, this solution provides a traditional client-server web experience, with page-to-page navigation implying page reloads and redraws (completed in a possibly short but unavoidably noticeable time.) Also on the downside, network connectivity is always required (no offline modality), no device features are available, and discovery and monetization cannot happen in the native platform application store.

The browser is also an app.

From Web to Native: The Steps In Between 

After a business case for a mobile app has been established, the question arises as to which platform to support. Unless the app is targeting a niche vertical or geographical market, chances are that it should support multiple platforms, namely iOS and Android (and its fragmented device base) to say the least. Viable approaches span web and pure native technology, with various intermediate degrees—single page applications, hybrid applications, cross-compiling frameworks and multiple native apps.

A web app is implemented with modern web technologies and unlike a mobile site it is constructed as a single, self-modifying web page (such as Google Gmail), with application and presentation logic moved to client-side. HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript provide plenty of opportunities to deliver advanced user interfaces that convey the feeling of an application. Bleeding-edge browser APIs, such as user media, geo-localization and local storage (on their way to standardization), can be leveraged, depending on the level of support by the mobile browser. A single page application can be typically added to the device home screen as web app, which is essentially a bookmark that launches the browser. Updates are transparent to the user, as they happen server-side. A notable example of this approach is the Financial Times app (seen at the top of this post), which leverages the distribution in the open web as opposed to proprietary application stores.

The hybrid approach is based on software frameworks that package HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript code into a container that embeds a webview (leveraging the native HTML rendering engine) and an integration layer to the mobile operating system. The webview is used to display a single page application. Thusly wrapped, the application is seen by the mobile operating system as truly native. Discovery, purchase, installation and updates happen via the application store. A popular framework of this kind is Adobe Phonegap (based on the Apache Cordova project), which powers the Wikipedia mobile app. Its integration layer enables JavaScript code to access software and hardware features such as contacts, notifications, local storage, as well as GPS, compass and camera.

The hybrid approach is taken a step further by cross-compiling SDKs such as Appcelerator Titanium, which provide a complete mobile OS abstraction platform, and translate JavaScript source code into actual native code (as opposed to rendering it in a web view). Such cross-compiled applications are not really web applications, as the JavaScript-based API is in fact used to create native UI components, with no HTML and CSS. Even more, other SDKs exist that adopt different languages as source code (e.g. MoSync also allows C and C++).

And finally we have native apps, built on the specific APIs of the target mobile operating system. Unfortunately each platform requires its own development language and tools (e.g. Objective-C on iOS, and Java on Android) and corresponding developers skills. As code reuse across different platforms is not possible, an app has to be developed for each individual system, at the cost of increased effort and harder manageability.

Understanding decision criteria 

When facing choices for multiplatform mobile development you should not decide which is the best technology per se, as there is no general answer to that. Focus instead on understanding the peculiarities of your app and establish a mobile development strategy that satisfies multiple criteria in terms of functionality, business model and context. Which device software and hardware capabilities does your app need to access? What are the non-functional requirements (performance in particular)? How often do you plan to release updates? What is the monetization model (free, ads-supported, one-time-purchase, subscription etc.) and does it require the app to be in the app store? Also consider the context of your organization: what are your mobile development team skills? Are you willing to outsource development in case you cannot manage it internally? Answering those questions (and several more) will lead you to the selection of the most appropriate technology options for your needs.
Native apps maintain the edge as far as functionality and sheer power are concerned. They offer the fastest performance, familiar look and feel, full integration with the platform ecosystem, complete access to device software, and hardware features. Especially when it comes to highly interactive and animated user interfaces, they deliver a more effective user experience. HTML5 apps on the other hand are more limited in terms of functionality but they are a more cost effective approach to multiple platforms. Also, HTML5 yields higher flexibility when it comes to distribution and monetization. Want to be in the official application store? Then package your app with the hybrid approach. Want to escape the official application store (and its rules and barriers and due royalties) instead? Then go for your own application provision strategy in the open web.
When going for multiplatform solutions bear in mind that while the idea of a common codebase is desirable the “write-once-run-anywhere” paradigm is ultimately an illusion, as your app will still need platform-dependent tweaks, and a broad QA effort. This is a design as well technical matter: each mobile OS comes with its peculiar interaction model (e.g. think of how the “back” action is presented differently in iOS and Android), and your application should be consistent with that in order to meet users’ expectations, unless its brand is so powerful as to allow the superimposition of a completely custom interaction model.
Last but not least, consider the time horizon. Native platforms come and go with turbulences in the mobile device market, whereas HTML (an open, vendor-independent technology) has been there for over 20 years and is here to stay for another long while. HTML5 is now enjoying widespread support on desktop, mobile and smart TV platforms; its specification is expected to reach W3C recommendation level by 2014, yielding even broader stability and interoperability. A new generation of mobile devices will come with increased computational and graphical power: Faster and more compatible mobile browsers will thus reduce the performance gap with native and provide stronger support to HTML5. And strong support will come from the software engineers community too, as HTML5 has enabled a whole generation of web developers to transfer their skills into the mobile world. 
Alex Conconi is a software architect at frog's Milan studio. You can find him on Twitter @aconconi.


You Lookin’ at Me? Reflections on Google Glass.

There is but one remedy for the Glass wearer - a bucket of iced water in the face whenever you suspect he has taken you unawares


With the public beta launch of Google Glass there has been a lot of discussion on why it will or won’t fail. The ultimate benchmark for success is high: After someone has tried Glass can they imagine life without it?

It’s the wrong question.

Glass is Google’s unintentional public service announcement on the future of privacy. Our traditional bogeyman for privacy was Big Brother and its physical manifestation (closed-circuit TV) but the reality today is closer to what I call Little Sister, and she is socially active, curious, sufficiently tech-savvy, growing up in the land of “free,” getting on with life and creating a digital exhaust that is there for the taking. The sustained conversation around Glass will be sufficient to lead to a societal shift in how we think about the ownership of data, and to extrapolate a bit, the kind of cities we want to live in. For me, the argument that Glass is somehow inherently nefarious misses a more interesting point: It is a physical and obvious manifestation of things that already exist and are widely deployed today, whose lack of physical, obvious presence has limited a mainstream critical discourse.

As a product that is both on-your-face and in-your-face, Glass is set to become lightning rod for a wider discussion around what constitutes acceptable behaviour in public and private spaces. The Glass debate has already started but these are early days; each new iteration of hardware and functionality will trigger fresh convulsions. In the short term Glass will trigger anger, name-calling, ridicule and the occasional bucket of thrown water (whether it’s iced water I don’t know). In the medium term as societal interaction with the product broadens, signs will appear in public spaces guiding mis/use1 and lawsuits will fly, while over the longer term, legislation will create boundaries that reflect some form of im/balance between individual, corporate and societal wants, needs and concerns.

The Crowd As DJ: The Results


Crowdsourcing Gives Everyone a Voice

The overall response to the Crowd Sourced DJ was overwhelmingly positive. It was described as "novel" and people loved that it allowed them to participate in the music selection. When we probed further about what made it attractive, party-goers were enthusiastic about the philosophy of crowdsourcing, noting that it is a vehicle that gives everyone a voice. We were struck by the passionate tone and language of the participants. Some of the comments included:

- "It's for the community by the community,"
- "It's democratic,"
- "You have a chance to have a say"

However, while people embraced the spirit of crowdsourcing, many openly acknowledged that it compromised the quality of the output. We heard comments like:

- "The masses have bad taste"
- "I don't trust the public"

And yet those interviewed did not perceive the conflict between crowd selections and individual taste as an inherent negative. One music-savvy partygoer intimated that while the music being played did not align with his preferences, it still "fell within his range of acceptability." In the context of a large social experience, like a party, the spirit of empowering the crowd reigns supreme. Many people acknowledged the party context and noted that there's a time and place for everything. So while crowdsourcing is okay in one moment and social environment, it may not be appropriate for every situation.


Patrick Whitney on Reframing Design Thinking -- and Beyond

Patrick Whitney is dean of Chicago’s Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology a graduate school focusing on researching and teaching design methods.  He is a luminary in the ever-growing field of design strategy. His work focuses on design’s role in transforming not only products and services, but also companies and markets. And he is researching how companies and designers can better manage design strategy with effective methodologies. I recently spoke with Patrick as he was gearing up for the annual IIT Institute of Design Strategy Conference, which will take place from May 14-15 in Chicago. He shared not only some sneak peeks at the line up, but also his wise and witty observations on how design and business can improve how they intersect.

RJ: "Reframing" seems to be a theme at the conference and also in the innovation landscape in general. Why is this concept so important when looking at design as an innovation strategy? 

Patrick Whitney: The conference is a strategy conference. We think of strategy in the context of Roger Martin’s term -- deciding where to play and how to win. For the last 30 years, companies focused on Six Sigma, total quality management, and other efficiency programs. It was clear they could make profits and grow financially by doing a better job at what they already knew how to do. Now that companies have succeeded at decreasing costs, they see innovation as the path to profits.



The Crowd As DJ: The Methodology

 Music shapes our experience of the world—it sets a mood, represents who we are (or who we want to be), captures memories, and defines a moment. The decision to embrace crowdsourcing as the DJ concept for the frog party was a risk in many ways. Who knew what the crowd might choose? What vibe would be created? Would it bring people together or further highlight our separate identities and divergent tastes? It was a meaningful social experiment—not only in music curation but also in social dynamics.

In order to fully embrace the experiment, frog dispatched 11 researchers to collect data at the party about music, crowdsourcing, and social dynamics. This article will both share the findings and reflect on the process that we used to take advantage of this research opportunity most efficiently and meaningfully.

The Crowd As DJ: The Concept


At frog, we often find ourselves conducting research in surprising places all over the world. Those of you familiar with our recent trip to Afghanistanwill know that we conduct field research everywhere from private homes and businesses, to civic and social institutions, to very public spaces. When we're in the field, we like to create "pop-up" studios to facilitate rapid synthesis, ideation, and prototyping. Last month in Austin, we created a unique pop-up studio very close to home, at the frog SXSW Interactive Opening Party.

Designing the Future at Salone del Mobile


Milan’s Salone del Mobile began in the 1961 to promote Italian furniture for the export market. In the fifty-two years since, it has grown into one of the world’s premiere design events, drawing enthusiasts and attention from across the globe.

“From Tuesday to Sunday, the city comes alive with all sorts of madness,” says Executive Creative Director Fabio Sergio, based in frog’s Milan studio. “It’s not just about the furniture showcase but what is happening informally in showrooms across the city as companies and designers showcase what is happening within design.”

frog will be joining in the citywide design festival, hosting two events over the course of the week. On April 9, the studio will be opening its doors for an informal showcase of its work along with music and drinks. While the open studio is a Salone del Mobile tradition, this year’s event will serve as a housewarming for the studio’s new space.