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The challenge of defining what people want

I think John Gruber has issued a somewhat oversimplified argument when he says:

…people want more different native apps than ever before.  via daring fireball

I think any designer needs to be careful to not conflate the mechanism used to achieve a desired result with the result itself. Gruber’s assertion here is that users want native applications. I believe that what he is really saying is that users want responsive applications, that work while disconnected from centralized services, and that show up on their home screen. Those are not web apps as they are available to us today, but as in anything in the software world that is a flexible assumption.

My point here is a relatively minor one, but one that can be a common roadblock for creative problem solvers. If we don’t question the assumptions of the underlying mechanisms we will unnecessarily limit the potential solutions available to us. Sometimes the most obvious and straight-forward solution to a problem is found by questioning the underlying assumptions. Technology problems are sometimes solved by changing the personnel around them, or personnel problems can be solved by augmenting the situation with technology. Emotional problems can be solved with exercise, and your exercise limits can be overcome by understanding that your current limitations are psychologically imposed.

If we assume that the solution to responsive disconnected applications can be nothing other than compiled Objective C delivered through a curated app store we cut ourselves off from a wealth of potential solutions to the problem. Only in redefining and clarifying our users unarticulated needs are we able to break through creative barriers and deliver truly ground-breaking technological innovation. Granted I love native applications and “want more different native apps than ever before”. I think John’s statement is true for today, but that it’s an assumption that should constantly be challenged and revisited. We can’t simply condense the current failure of web apps to deliver on users needs to be a condemnation of the entire pursuit.

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