Her computer, a Microsoft Surface, was the least colourful thing about her. She wore blue jeans, a bright turquoise sweater, luminous pink plastic wrist band and a deep purple neck warmer. I’d say she was 24 years old.
Sitting at the narrow wooden counter of the coffee house, she’d positioned herself at a slight angle, so that her legs swung free of the bar stool and she could face out towards the window.
I couldn’t tell for sure which model of the Surface she was using, but it was too thick to be one of the newer models – perhaps a Pro 2? It was equipped with the Microsoft keyboard case, all in a matching dark grey.
Her things were laid out on the small space afforded by the counter: a bright red pen, a multi-coloured notebook – worn and tatty – with a spiral ring binding. She had a purple, neoprene zip case for the Surface. There was also a set of white headphones which suggested an iPhone was lurking somewhere about her person and she was not fully bought into the Microsoft ecosystem.
She was already there when I arrived and, for the first few minutes, she stared at the screen of the Surface, occasionally reaching out to swipe at the touchscreen. The device was propped up in its case like a laptop, but she used it like a tablet. She typed on the keys very infrequently, almost half-heartedly, like she couldn’t quite decide what she was supposed to be writing.
After a few minutes of this, she reached into her pocket and took out her phone. I was right – it was an iPhone – a white 4S. In contrast to her cautious interactions with the Surface, now her input flowed.
She typed rapidly on the tiny touchscreen keyboard, not looking up, engrossed in whatever message or email she was creating. She was so focused – for ten minutes or more – that she didn’t notice her friend coming through the door and only spotted her when she was standing alongside. They kissed on the cheek, twice, and launched into conversation in French.
I’d presumed her British or perhaps American, but it was clear from their animated discussion that French was her native language.
She collected her things – this had just been a meeting point for her and her friend – and disappeared out of the door, saying a friendly goodbye to the cafe staff with a familiarity which suggested she might be a regular. Her English was good, to the extent she may well be one of the many French citizens who now make their home in London.
The Eurostar trains, which run through the Channel Tunnel from London to Paris and Brussels, mean that it is quicker to commute from France to the UK than it is to reach the British capital from many of the English counties. North of Oxford Street, where the Eurostar station at St Pancras is within easy walking distance, it is a common occurrence to hear French on the street.
Two things struck me about this user of the Microsoft Surface:
Firstly, Microsoft’s flagship mobile computer is still so rare in the wild as to seem extraordinary. This was only the second I’d ever seen, even in an advanced market like London.
The dull colours of her device did not reflect her eclectic fashion sense, but if we accept her outlandish outfit was indicative of an independent spirit, we could also see her purchase of the Surface as a similar expression of a counter-culture attitude. Imagine that…Microsoft, by virtue of how far behind it has fallen in mobile devices, may now be the counter-culture choice? Every other laptop in that coffee shop bore the familiar stamp of a glowing white Apple.
Nokia’s wildly bright and diverse colour palette might find an expanded role as Microsoft completes the integration of its Finnish acquisition if it chooses to play in this alternative market segment.
Secondly, and this was the most pronounced feeling, observing this user made a nonsense of the idea we can conveniently align modes of usage to categories of device. Traditional wisdom would dictate that in this scenario, where a user has access to both a keyboard-based tablet and smartphone, they would do most of their content creation on the larger device.
In this instance, the opposite was true. She typed more and was far more focused when using the smartphone.
This is why the concept of user modes – something we’ve been examining for some time at MEX – is so important.
This user’s expectation of her digital experience changed according to her mode of engagement – the transition from a state of casual exploration and browsing – to one of creation and communication. Instead of her shaping her behaviour according to her device type, she projected her mood and expectations onto whichever device she had to hand.
When we think about the best source for design requirements, it is understanding these user modes which provide the most reliable insights – far more so than the simplistic reliance on creating one design pattern for a tablet, one for a PC or one for a phone.