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Mobile Community Design
Research and design information for mobile community developers.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Re-thinking the Notepad

Often designers (and perhaps society in general) focuses too much on what we have figured out how to build, and incremental improvements, instead of noticing big glaring holes in what we have built or not built. I could digress about automatic language translation and teleportation devices, but instead I'll focus on something we haven't built that is currently feasible - an electronic notepad.

Some tools such as the paper notepad are custom-suited for assisting our ability to communicate complex ideas to other people and to be creative. These tools are particularly helpful when the concepts are still being formed or are inherently complex in nature. Extending and innovating how these creativity-enhancing devices could operate has a high potential for dramatically changing and improving society and work. Thus I think it qualifies as an interesting problem worthy of further thought.

The electronic notepad is the negative space in the collaborative and creative tools technology market. It doesn't receive the attention it deserves, probably because it doesn't exist yet. So this is a rumination on what we should build.

The notepad below is A5 size. It has no lines and a great deal of storage space. It doesn't require charging. I can show it to several people around a table and draw ideas while talking to illustrate concepts. I can enter text and graphics very rapidly in it. It is cheap. But it also can't be exported into my e-mail well. I can't enter text into it as fast as I can on a laptop. It doesn't have a built-in dictionary. It does run out of space about once a month. Perhaps most critically, I can't rapidly run a search for a concept within it or the larger collection of notepads. I also can't easily take content from it, and get it into another notepad for someone else to use.

It may be useful to investigate how we currently use paper notepads to guide the design of a digital version. As it happens, I am currently working on a book chapter. While sitting in a coffee shop I did a little brainstorming for the content, argument structure and purpose of the article in the above notebook. We have no electronic tools that support this type of creative activity well currently. How would society be different if every academic, business person, student and designer had an efficient mobile tool to brainstorm and collaborate with?


Based on this example, such a device needs to be able to support:
  • rapid positioning of text
  • rapid creation of imperfect graphics, including arrows
  • separation of some regions from other regions
  • bolding and highlighting of key concepts
  • formatting of concepts into lists
  • ability to remind oneself about relationships and importance for later use
Preferably it does all this in the same unstructured-entry based paradigm as the original notepad, and adds more functionality without hindering the primary goals of the device. It can be simple and unsophisticated in many ways. It could be monochrome only. It would benefit from a non-backlit screen with a rougher texture similar to paper. It only stores low resolution images and text so it doesn't need much storage. It might not need wireless; SD cards could handle data distribution at first. However a Bluetooth link to your phone for rapidly e-mailing notes would be useful. This is a low-tech device with a huge potential. Obviously a simple usable design is critical since unnecessary complexity will make it harder to use than the original paper version. A usability requirement is that it must be at least as fast and effective for key tasks as the original paper version.

So what does the new device look like? With a nod to the slim and pleasing design of the iPhone, I give you the ImagiPad.





This future device is primarily an information appliance. It is designed for note taking and collaborative thinking. It is not a desktop computer shrunk into a tablet. It isn't primarily built to play games, read e-mail or surf web sites. It is built to effectively and usably allow entry and communication of ideas, reformulation of those concepts in real-time, and later storage and distribution of those ideas. Thus it is fundamentally different from tablet computers currently on the market and closer to some of the e-book concepts.

Anybody interested in creating this very cool and world-changing device?

* The content of the mockup shows that the device could actually be used to design the next version of itself, which demonstrates that it would truly be a useful tool (and it's a fun recursive exercise).

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