James McQuarrie is a UK based Senior Product Manager who helps teams design, build and deliver digital products and services that delight their users.

Category Archive: Future of technology

  1. Who’s governing the tech industry?

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    I went to a Tech For Good meet-up earlier this week at Impact Hub Westminster called “OMG 2050“. The topic of discussion was predicting how the World will look in 2050 based on our understanding of technology today and where we think it will go.

    It was one of the most thought provoking meet-ups I’ve been to, and one that I’m still thinking about now days later.

    The presentations and subsequent panel discussion raised more questions than there were answers, but a clear theme emerged that I think we, as an industry, need to pay more attention to:

    Technology, specifically digital technology, as an industry IS now an industry and should be subject to the same cheques and balances that are applied to other World-affecting industries.

    When I first started my career in the mid-2000’s digital was something that was reasonably specialist. The BBC News website still had an “E-commerce” section that was distinct from Business and Technology. People viewed “digital” as being pretty much limited to websites and online business. Social media wasn’t yet a thing. Smart devices that fit in your pocket didn’t exist. Cheap, low powered sensors weren’t built into many consumer products. In fact, a good proportion of the UK had only recently had access to broadband.

    Letting “digital” companies have free-reign to evolve and develop as they wished, and to chase every opportunity they uncovered with little governance was good. Good for the economy. Good for consumers. Good for technology. There are many, many positive advancements that have resulted from the explosive growth and influence of digital tech.

    But, it’s also resulted in a World where there is a growing divide between those who “get it” and those who don’t.

    Not just in the traditional sense of a “digital divide” where some have access to technology and others don’t, but also in terms of levels of understanding about how technology influences our lives.

    How many people outside of the tech industry really understand how a filter bubble works? Or how their increasing digital media consumption exaggerates it?

    How many people truly know how their personal data is used and their privacy is effected when they say “Yes” to a service’s Terms & Conditions?

    Is it right that private companies have access to huge volumes of consumer data that governments don’t?

    It is right that the people and corporations who will benefit in the future from the advantages that technology can bring are only those who have the capital, understanding and access to do so now?

    How do we ensure that we stop building cultural (conscious or unconscious) biases into AI and other emerging technologies?

    How do we educate children at a pace that keeps up with the technology around them, when our education systems and teachers struggle to do so themselves?

    How do we help the population at large continue to learn and understand the technology around them as it evolves even after they leave formal education?

    I’m sure smarter people than me have been debating and considering these questions for a long time. The meet-up really made me think about them seriously for the first time in my career. And, I think, that’s the real challenge;

    How do we get the, now huge, tech industry to consider these things seriously and as a whole?

    It’s rare in my experience for teams working on new projects to spent much, if any, time thinking about the consequences of what they’re working on.

    If our industry is to continue enjoying the freedoms of fairly unregulated, self-governing expansion that we’ve seen to date, it’s probably time we collectively focus a bit more on thinking about the long term effects of our actions.

  2. My first call with a DAD Home Repair Expert

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    Although I’ve been working with, and now for, the team at DAD since April last year, I’d not had a call as a customer with one of our DAD Experts until recently.

    I wish I’d not waited so long!

    If you’re not familiar with what we’re doing at DAD here’s a quick primer;

    At DAD we are building a service that helps you look after your home. Our first product to support that is an iOS app that allows our customers to talk face to face via a video call with one of our home repair Experts. Our DAD Experts are vetern tradesmen and woman who have been vetted by us to ensure that they are experienced in all aspects of home repair and maintenance, qualified in one or more specialities (plumbing / gas / electric / etc) and are friendly and customer focused.

    When you call one of our Experts they will help you diagnose what’s wrong in your home, help you make it safe, stop it from getting any worse and then advise on how best to fix it. Some fixes can be done on the call. Some need you to go away and get replacement parts / tools and try fixing it later. Some fixes can only be done by professionals (gas related problems, for example) and we can help arrange that if you’d like.

    So far in our early invite trials we’ve helped fix; leaky taps, leaky toilets, broken boilers, broken door handles, a faulty smart thermostat, cold radiators, and even advised on a problematic chimmey. The list goes on.

    Back to my call.

    We’ve been running the early invite program for a couple of months now and I’ve been watching each video call to learn how our service can get better. Then a few weeks ago I realised that I had a home repair issue that I wasn’t sure how to fix, so I got myself added to the test call list and had a call with one of our new Experts so I could experience a call for myself.

    It was amazing. And I’m not just saying that.

    Our test App at the time was as clunky as hell, and nothing to be proud of, but the ability to (virtually) invite an expert into my home, and show them my issue and get their direct feedback on it all in a matter of minutes was truely amazing.

    My home repair issue is a leaky shower screen that I have in my bathroom. It doesn’t leak every time anyone showers, but it leaks enough to be a minor worry. I have very limited DIY skills, so I wanted to know if the screen could be repaired or if it needed replacing. And, how to replace it if that was the best course of action.

    Richard (our Expert) answered all my questions quickly and easily.

    Watch the recording of the video below. (Note that Richard wasn’t aware before or during the call that I work for DAD – this was his first call, and I’d not been introduced to him deliberately so he thought I was a normal customer.)

    (NB: If you’re watching with headphones in, I should warn you about the off screen cameo made by Richard’s dogs towards the end of the video; they whine and bark, and it’s a bit louder than the rest of the call!)

    More about DAD

    If you’d like to give DAD a try yourself, you can download our latest iOS app by following the link from the DAD website at Or you can keep up to date with all the latest developments from DAD on twitter @dad.

    I’d love to hear what you think about DAD and what we’re trying to do, so if you have any questions or feedback ping me @jmcquarrie.

  3. Imagine if your watch knew what you were holding – Disney Research shows you how

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    This is an extraordinary video demoing how a smartwatch can be made aware of what you’re currently holding / touching and be programmed to respond accordingly.

    My favourite thing about this demo device is it’s use of audio feedback. I think audio UI is a massively underused and under explored area of design at the moment. Too many of our devices and products allow us to talk to them, but aren’t capable of talking back to us. There are many cases where a speaking device would be inconvenient, invasive and potentially, useless. But, I think there are a growing number of uses for audio feedback. Especially when so many people have headphones plugged in while at work, or commuting, etc.

    For example, if I get a phone call while I’m listening to music / podcasts / etc with headphones on my iPhone, I’d love it to say the name of the caller as well as ring. Pausing what I’m listening to and ringing in my ears is good, and gets my attention, but I still need to look at my phone or my watch in order to know who’s calling and make a decision about whether or not to answer it. If I’m already listening to something, and the headphones are in, and the phone already knows to pause audio, and play the ringtone, why not also get Siri to say; “XXX is calling”. If I don’t want to take the call all I have to do is ignore it, or dismiss it with either the headphone controls or my Apple watch, etc.

    I’m sure this is coming. Siri, and her fellow assistants on other platforms are getting more integrated into our devices everyday. And are becoming more capable. I’m looking forward to the day when they are more like the device in this video and can talk to us a little more in the context of what we’re doing.

  4. Will today mark the beginning of the end for the iPhone?

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    As you probably know today Apple will hold their special September event.

    Rumour has it that Tim Cook and Co will unveil their latest iPhone, probably named the iPhone 6. Possibly it will come in two sizes.

    Rumours are also circling that Apple’s long fabled iWatch (or iBand, or iBracelet, or maybe iWear?) will also be shown to the World for the first time.

    What this wrist-worn device will do and which features it has are the subject of much debate and prediction.

    As we eagerly await the live stream to find out for sure, I thought I’d throw in a prediction of my own, just for fun :)

    I think there’s a very good chance that we will look back on today’s announcements in years to come and see that today marked the beginning of the end for the iPhone.

    It may not be immediately obvious; announcing two new versions of the famous device is not exactly ringing the death knell, but let me explain…

    I think today could be the beginning of the end for the iPhone in the same way the announcement of the first iPhone was the beginning of the (very drawn out) end for the iPod. For two reasons:

    The future is about the ecosystem, not devices

    Firstly having helped take smartphones mainstream with the launch of the original iPhone, Apple has paved the way for getting more connected devices and web (or cloud) based services into the hands of many, many people. The iPhone was their gateway drug used to get customers hooked on being connected and to the ecosystem of apps, media and services that always-on connectivity allows.

    Services like homekit and healthkit are signs they are preparing to make the device you use a less important part of the the Apple ecosystem mix. Subscribe to the services and use any of the different devices; iPads, iPods, iPhones, iWatches, Apple TVs, etc you might have to access and use them. You don’t need an Apple computer any more to use and benefit from all of Apple’s offerings. I’d bet that over the next few years you won’t need an iPhone either. As long as you have at least one device, and are a customer, Apple won’t care which device you have. (Though, by subscribing the more devices you have, the more you benefit from the overall service…)

    We’ve reached peak phone

    Secondly if you follow the tech press at all you’ll have seen that pretty much every review you read of any new offering in the phone market reads like every other review you’ve read about every other phone. One is much the same as the next. Some have better cameras than others. Some have longer lasting batteries, some higher resolution screens, some more memory, or better processors, but ultimately there’s little to differentiate one from the next. It’s getting harder and harder for Apple to make the iPhone stand out from the crowd, so I’d argue it makes sense to start cannibalising its sales by introducing a new product line or service that can replace it.

    Admittedly, it might also make more sense to make the iPhone an important component of their future product / service mix, so that in order to fully benefit from their ecosystem of apps, media, services, etc you must have an iPhone, thus differentiating by association rather than by hardware or features.

    Either way, I think what Apple have planned is bigger than an iPhone, and bigger than one product line.

  5. What if there were no screens?

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    We look at them every day. For many of us, we look at them for most of the day.

    Wrist screens. Phone screens. Phablet screens. Tablet screens. Laptop screens. Desktop screens. TV screens. Cinema screens. Billboard screens.

    Often we have multiple screens in front of us at once.

    As web and app designers, we spend all our time thinking about designing for these screens. Designing how to present information on screens, designing how to navigate that information on screens, designing how to receive input and display feedback on screens.

    But what if there were no screens? What if screens go the way keyboards are heading on phones and disappear? What if we liberated our content from screens and could present it to people by other means?

    How would that change how we design?

    Google Glass is still a screen based device, but its heading in the screen-less direction.

    The iPod Shuffle was screen-less.

    The Misfit Shine is screen-less (and often criticised for being so).

    But how would we work differently if more devices were screen-less?

    Researchers have already produced working versions of a device that projects it’s content onto your hand or arm (see Skinput turns your arm into a touchscreen).

    Augmented Reality devices and apps are showing us glimpses of how screen-less worlds might look, of how we might design for a time when information is overlaid on the physical world around us instead of being stuck on a screen.

    The explosive growth of smartphones forced many designers to think about screen size for the first time. Design became about being adaptive and responsive to the capabilities and sizes of the devices that content is being displayed on.

    How would we adapt to no screen at all?

  6. Introducing Wello – a health monitoring iPhone case

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    The Wello from azoi is a smartphone case that allows you to take medical grade measurements of your vital signs; blood pressure, heart rate, lung capacity, blood oxygen levels and temperature.

    I love how the smartphone revolution is putting what would have once been incredibly expensive and complex hardware in the hands of more and more people.

  7. A New Car UI: How touch screen controls in cars should work

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    This is a really interesting concept. I like that someone is thinking about how to improve what can be very hard to use in-car controls.

    I like the idea of a more loose design, where the controls can appear and fit to wherever you place your fingers on the screen. There are some very nice touches with the resolution of the controls too; small increments for volume up / down and bigger, easier to hit increments for music sources, etc.

    But, there are three issues that this design hasn’t been able to overcome:

    1. firstly there’s no affordance in the design. While the concept allows for up to eight different finger combinations to trigger eight different controls, there’s no indication in the design of what these eight combinations may be. How a driver would discover what the options are and then remember them all is not clear.
    2. secondly the interface is limited to the number of features it can offer by the number of finger combinations you can create with one hand. This may not be a problem if car manufacturers could limit themselves to only using this interface for eight or less controls, but I’d imagine there would be more they’d like to use it for.
    3. finally, assuming that all eight combinations of finger gestures were used for this interface, anyone who is missing one or more fingers would be unable to access all of the controls.

    I think this idea is really interesting though, and addresses a real problem with many current design solutions. I’d be interested to see if the limitations I’ve listed could be overcome.

  8. Could your next car come with a companion drone? Renault think so

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    The Renault Kwid concept car comes with its very own companion drone that can be piloted while driving (!) or sent on an auto-pilot flight accompanying your car.

    Renault claim it could be useful for checking for traffic or obstacles up ahead, or for taking photos of landscapes and scenery as you drive along.

    If this became a reality, how long would it be before the drone was programmed to automatically shadow your car at just the right height and distance behind to allow you to make Grand Theft Auto (think any driving simulation game) style videos of your real world driving?

    From there its only a small step to being able to make your entire windshield a video display showing your own driving as viewed from the drone, making real world driving essentially look the same as a simulated game.

  9. My first week with the Misfit Shine physical activity tracker

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    Misfit Shine Figure 1 The Misfit Shine

    Update: 25 June 2014

    This blog post still gets quite a bit of traffic, but is now over six months old. Updates to the Misfit App have changed how some of the things listed below now work. Full details are in the Updated list at the end of this post.

    The short review:

    The Misfit Shine is a good physical activity tracker, accurately keeping tabs on my walking and running with no problems. It’s also a good sleep tracker, that’s mostly easy to use, nice to look at and simple to understand. The accompanying iPhone app is well made, has a minimalist UI and a pleasingly unique syncing process.

    The device’s touch controls are a little hit and miss, sometimes not registering taps and sometimes registering inaccurately. But overall I’m happy with it and think it makes a very good version one device and accompanying app that provides a great platform for Misfit Wearables to build upon.

    The long review:

    For some time now I’ve been using various bits of technology to help track, monitor and record my efforts at getting fitter and healthier.

    Every morning I stand on a Withings WIFI scale that measures and wirelessly records my weight and body fat percentage.

    Four mornings a week I strap a Wahoo heart-rate monitor to my chest, open up the Runkeeper app on my iPhone, plug in some earphones and run (read: jog & splutter) my way around a 5km circuit of Regents Park.

    Four evenings a week I use another iOS app Gym Hero to record workouts that involve push-ups, sit-ups and kettle-bell exercises of various kinds.

    Every day I use an old school spreadsheet to keep record of everything that I eat and drink.

    All this data logging and monitoring has really helped me improve my fitness.

    I’m now about 10kgs lighter than I was at the beginning of the year. My body fat percentage is down and my 5km run has, when I’m on form, been known to take under 25 minutes. A significant improvement over the >30 minute times I was running in January.

    For a while I’ve been flirting with the idea of adding to my data tracking abilities by investing in some form of activity tracker. Maybe a Fitbit device, the Jawbone Up or a Nike FuelBand.

    At times I’ve come close to buying all of those. But something always made me hold off.

    Then I saw the Misfit Shine and I bought it. Three things stood out about this new device:

    • it’s design
    • it’s ability to track sleep as well as movement
    • it’s battery.
    Misfit Shine sports band Figure 2 The Misfit Shine in it’s supplied rubber sports band

    The Shine’s design

    One of the things that put me off some of the other devices was their physical design. The wrist band devices like the Nike Fuelband are fairly chunky. As someone who doesn’t wear a watch to work anymore because it gets in the way of typing comfortably, I’m not looking to strap something to my wrist that is too big.

    The ability to wear the Shine either on your wrist using the supplied rubber sports band (see Figure 2) or, thanks to the also supplied magnetic clasp (see Figure 3), attached to your clothing was appealing.

    If I’m honest, the simplicity of the aesthetic of the Shine’s design was also appealing: it doesn’t look like some sort of sports kit or weird bit of overly techie technology. Its look shouldn’t have been a deciding factor in my decision, but it helped…

    Its ability to track sleep as well as movement

    If you ask people what they need to do to get fitter most will say “exercise more”. Many will mention eating more healthily. Few will say “get more sleep”. But all three elements are important. Moving more and eating less (or just better) are key. But to really get the benefits from doing both of those things you need to make sure you get enough sleep too.

    I have been moving more and eating better, but I had no way of knowing about my sleep other than recording when I go to bed and get up. When I saw that the Shine could track my sleep and its quality it ticked a box for me.

    Mitfit Shine magnetic clasp Figure 3 The Misfit Shine in it’s supplied magnetic clasp

    The Shine’s battery

    The Shine uses a watch battery that Misfit claim will last up to four months at a time.

    One of the biggest problems I had with the other devices on the market was their need to be charged up. For me the purpose of an activity / sleep tracking device is to be always on and always tracking. Having to take it off and leave it somewhere plugged in to charge seems counterintuitive.

    I remember to charge my iPhone every day because I plug it in when I go to bed at night. I rarely remember to charge any of my other devices. My iPad and Kindle are regularly dead when I come to want to use them. The other phones and tablets that I have for testing are almost always dead and need to be plugged in and charged over night before a day of testing can begin.

    When would I charge a device that is meant to be worn all day and all night? I don’t want to miss logging something because the device is plugged in at home charging.

    One week of use

    After one week of using the Shine I’m impressed. It does what it says on the tin: you wear it, it tracks your movement and sleep and reports back on both once synced with the iPhone app.

    I’m not blown away by it, but then it’s only really a very well dressed motion sensor that talks to your phone. Not that long ago saying I owned a motion sensor that talked to my phone would have been amazing. How fast we except technology’s rapid advancement.

    Its physical design is very well thought through. It feels and appears well made. Robust enough to stand up to the knocks and bumps that life strapped to someone’s wrist will throw at it. Its finish seems (so far) scratch resistant and subtle enough to not draw too much attention to itself. Its small size really helps in both cases.

    I’ve worn it on my wrist all week using the supplied rubber sports band, and at no point have I felt in danger of it falling off or coming loose. I’ve not used the magnetic clasp in anger, so can’t comment on how secure it feels wearing that way.

    Tracking my activity

    Functionally it works well. Accurately tracking my morning runs, my commute to and from work and any other instances when I move about. Being able to track my running and my commute is not all that exciting (I already knew I moved at those times). I think being able to track the exact timings of those events historically may be mildly interesting once there is more data to compare. However, being able to track times of inactivity could be the Shine’s killer application for me.

    Just one week’s worth of data really drives home how little I move while at work. The iPhone app shows daily movement as a graph with peaks at times of activity. The troughs are revealing.

    Tracking my sleep

    Sleep tracking also works pretty well. Tapping the device three times tells it (once set up to do so via the iPhone app) when you’re going to sleep. It then tracks how much you move through the night to workout how much deep sleep you managed to get (less movement = deeper sleep). When you get up in the morning it works out how long you slept in total. If you’re one for waking up, but not getting up straight away in the morning I’m not sure how accurate this feature would be for you. It needs you to physically get up in the morning to stop tracking you as asleep.

    Based on only one week’s worth of data I’m not sure how I’ll use this sleep record over time, but I’ve already noticed a correlation between how rested I feel in the morning and how many hours of “deep sleep” were recorded (more deep sleep = more rested). Now I just need to workout what leads to more deep sleep…

    Updates through the day and telling the time

    Once you’ve set your daily point target and synced the Shine with your phone, you can double tap the Shine at any time during the day and it will light up to show you your progress so far. It will also show you the time. If you already wear a watch the time telling feature is a pretty pointless gimmick that can be turned off via the app. If you don’t wear a watch it’s still a bit gimmicky, but serves a purpose on occasion.

    Delightful syncing

    My favourite bit of using the Shine is syncing it with the iPhone app (see the embedded video). To do this you need to open the app, hit sync and place the Shine on your iPhone screen in the position highlighted on screen.

    It’s a clever bit of design. Not the most seamless way of transferring data, but a very hands on, visually pleasing method of making you physically connect with the process. The on screen animation and accompanying light display on the Shine itself provide a smile inducing experience. Total theatre to distract from the fact that the Shine’s bluetooth radio is too weak to transmit through its metal casing and sync with your phone from a more practical distance, but a beautiful solution to the problem.

    If you’re not as easily pleased as I am, having to remove the Shine and place it on screen to sync may grow tiresome.

    My only complaint

    So far the only complaint I have with the over all experience is that the tap control of the Shine is not always accurate. Double tap to view progress and the time. Triple tap to activate sleep tracking. Sometimes I’ve found myself double tapping three or four times before managing to get a response. On occasion I’ve managed to trigger a triple tap response when I meant to tap twice and vice versa.

    Summing up

    Overall I’m happy with my decision to finally cave in and buy a dedicated tracking device. I can’t compare it with any of the others on the market, but it works for me. Misfit say they’re working on another “highly wearable” device to be released next year. Based on their approach to the Shine, I’m interested to see what they come up with next.

    Update: 25 June 2014

    The Shine and its accompanying Misfit iPhone App have had a few updates since I wrote the above review, and some of the details in the post are no longer accurate:

    • The sleep tracking is now automatic. You no longer need to trigger it at night. It just logs when it thinks you’re asleep and when it thinks you’ve woken up. You can still set it up (via the App) to manually track sleep if you prefer.
    • The syncing function has been updated so you no longer need to place the Shine on your iPhone screen to sync with the Misfit App. Which is a shame, because that really was a nice way of syncing the device. Syncing is now automatic, but can still be triggered in the App (with the animation) if you want to.
  10. As predicted 6 years ago rooftop advertising is go

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    Six years ago I wrote a blog post entitled: With the advent of Google Earth and Google Maps, a new dawn in advertising was quietly ushered in.

    In the post I argued that usage of these online mapping services would slowly replace that of paper maps and that as advertisers realised that we the consumer were now navigating the World via bird’s eye view satellite photos they would start to place logos and marketing materials on their building’s rooftops. Yesterday I saw this tweet from @mbrit:

    And so it has begun (there’s a screenshot of the map he linked to below).

    Tesco store on Google Maps Figure 1 – Ariel view over a Tesco store on Google Maps