Tablets impact app designWhen a new medium emerges, eventually services change. TV initially aped radio before it found its own format and distinctive voice. The effect of the tablet on service delivery is only now becoming clearer.

Tablets are interesting territory, as they’re somewhere in between the traditional categories of desktop and mobile. This means they also subvert the “lean forward vs. lean back” model for thinking about how people use different platforms.

Tablets satisfy media consumption in ways that a typical smartphone screen just can’t compete with. They are comfortably used in many different contexts: for business use, for browsing while lying on the couch, and for reading and watching movies while traveling. They also have broad demographic appeal, children and older generations alike are fans of the tablet and such a wide reaching appeal makes business sense.

The combination of this ease of use and its demographic appeal is transformative. So with this “in between” device pulling us in new, interesting directions, what impact will that have on digital design?

Playful approaches
As the tablet has become an object in many homes, one of the exciting developments has been how designers have used the physicality of the object, and its place in the physical world, to create new kinds of experiences.

Toca Boca, a Swedish “play studio,” makes digital toys for kids. One of its games, Toca Tea Party, turns the iPad into a table that becomes the setting for a tea party. The player then sets the table, with one place on each of the four sides of the tablet. They can then sit with their dolls, bears, or friends around the “table” and enjoy the tea and cake while a radio plays old-time music. It’s a delightful experience that brings together the child’s treasured objects with a new digital setting, blurring the boundaries of physical and digital.

Design will always need to be visually stunning for any new service to succeed. Yet more than this, any experience that is designed for the tablet must have a decidedly post-PC feel.

Liquid experiences
Now that smartphones are ubiquitous and tablets more and more commonplace, users want services that move fluidly between platforms. For many people, the Kindle app has significantly increased the number of books they’re able to read, because now your book is always with you on your phone, wherever you go. At home or on longer trips, the switch to tablet often happens, as the larger screen enables a better reading experience. It is a far more comfortable and civilized experience to read a tablet in bed than to haul the laptop in there. These liquid experiences, provided best by services such as the Kindle and Instapaper, ask the device itself to get out of the way and become as light and convenient as paper. The service is the dominant thing, allowing us to use it wherever we are, in whichever way is most convenient to us at the time. The insight for design is to think not so much about the tablet itself, but what the service could be if it could permeate our lives, wherever we are.

Responsive design
In line with the idea of paying attention to new devices in order to ignore them, is the growing use of responsive design for web services. Responsive design involves designing for the Web so that the interface adapts to work for whichever screen size a user views the site on. The most oft-cited example of responsive design done correctly is the Boston Globe site, but many smaller sites use the technique, and we’ll see it increasingly in the corporate market. This “designing for the tablet along with every other device” will become even more necessary as the number of new devices and screen sizes continues to grow.

Native gestures
Multi-touch devices have been on the market for a while, and we are now starting to see new approaches to design using touch interfaces. For example, the Clear app is a to-do list app that doesn’t use buttons at all in its interface. Rather, it uses gestures and taps to create a smooth and delightful experience.

Market segmentation
On a market level, we can expect to see tablet size segmentation, ranging from small, to medium (iPad) and large – catering for all budgets, age groups, and usage requirements. Dual-screen clamshell designs will come to market as the screen size drops on some models.  Moreover, the way we use a tablet will change. It will become the new hard disk and ultimately the container of all our personal content, in a similar way to the DVR today.

Finally, we’ll see tighter integration between tablets and other devices such as smartphones, PCs, and the TV. In the living room for example, the tablet has a natural role as a screen that can be used in conjunction with the TV, while acting as a control screen.

These transitions will create a new dimension of experience beyond just the screen that will change the way the user interacts with the tablet. The form factor of the tablet allows new kinds of integration into our environment. We’ve already begun to see this trend emerging in retail with companies like Sephora and its in-store iPad displays (pictured) that create a personalized experience for shoppers.

Yet, on a far grander scale, the tablet will impact not only digital design but also every facet of society, from the provision of services to the way we work. It will be one of the most pivotal technological changes we have seen to date.

Mark Curtis is chief client officer and founder of service design consultancy Fjord. He will be giving the opening fireside chat at VentureBeat’s MobileBeat conference next week (July 10-11) as well as moderating a breakout session titled “Tabula Rasa: The Tablet Reset”.

MobileBeat 2012Design is determining the winners in everything mobile. The most successful players are focusing on one thing: How to make products, services, and devices as compelling and delightful as possible – visually, and experientially. MobileBeat 2012, July 10-11 in San Francisco , is assembling the most elite minds to debate how UI/UX is transforming every aspect of the mobile economy, and where the opportunities lie. Register here.

[Top image credit: Tyler Olson/Shutterstock]