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Former CBC app designer shares how UX best practices can inform design for emerging platforms

“Keep the user in mind from start to finish.”

That’s the key piece of advice Jason Mendoza shared with us, when chatting about how he approaches making standout apps and emerging tech user experiences. The advice is straightforward and may seem obvious, but is often easier said than done.

And Mendoza knows what he’s talking about — he spent eight years designing flagship apps for CBC, working on the Apple Watch and Alexa voice platform, and has recently kicked off a new role as a senior product designer at Telus.

Some of the most innovative user-centric work Mendoza has done is create ‘sticky’ products that people continue to engage with as part of CBC’s Native Apps & Emerging Platforms team, where he tackled both iOS and Android projects.

From the Hockey Night in Canada/CBC Sports app, to the first CBC News app, as well as the organization’s app for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, he helped create a broad suite of pioneering products for the public broadcaster.

Mendoza shared some of his best practices for inspiring user engagement and loyalty — which also inform his approach to designing for emerging technologies.

  1. To make your product sticky, it’s critical to serve up timely, personalized, and contextually-relevant content to users along with push notifications and in-app alerts. These components incentivize people to keep coming back.
  2. Some users are hard of hearing, have impaired vision, or are color blind so you have to think about the different types of users who will engage. Keep accessibility and usability in mind.
  3. Don’t deviate from guidelines set out by Apple or Google. “A lot of designers tend to create their own iconography for their app, but users aren’t used to that.” A share icon for iOS is different from Android’s share icon, and you can completely lose a user if they don’t see buttons they are familiar with.

When designing for voice and wearable devices, play to their strengths

Mendoza approaches emerging technologies, like voice and wearable platforms, with many of the same user-centric fundamentals he shared above — while playing up the strengths and addressing the limitations of the tech in question.

For voice platforms, Mendoza says you need to make an experience dead simple, remembering his early experience when he began testing Amazon’s Alexa voice platform.

“There was no visual interface — it’s just a voice platform, so the end user isn’t going to see anything,” he says. “I was used to designing for an interface, and then here comes this new digital product where users can’t see anything.”

Mendoza says you have to really think about user flow and different entry points into an audio experience with voice. Challenges emerge because the user doesn’t always know where they are in the experience as they would when they navigate the web or click through an app. To overcome this, audio prompts or music need to be delivered in order to remind a user where they are in a sequence, or what options they have to move ahead.

Even the language around designing for voice is new for first-timers and can be totally unfamiliar territory.

For instance, with Alexa, apps or sequences of things you can do on the voice platform are called skills. When designing a skill, you need a set of words or calls to action that will “invoke those skills.” These sets of words are called “utterances.”

Mendoza recalls having to think through all this when designing for the CBC.

“You would say ‘Alexa, start CBC’ which would open the CBC Alexa app,” he says. “Then from there, there’s different utterances to start new options. You can play the latest news, listen to podcasts, stream music, or listen to the radio.”

In addition to giving options, Mendoza says it’s important to think about handling errors from the get-go.

“Try to think of what a user would say, and what happens if they don’t say it correctly,” he advises. “Is there some sort of fallback plan to get them engaged and not frustrated with the product?”

As for wearables like the Apple Watch, not surprisingly much of the design is centered around having a much smaller viewport than other devices, Mendoza says.

And like voice, wearables also have their own terminology. The interface on an Apple Watch, for example, includes “complications”. While likely not obvious to a first-time wearable designer, complications are bits of information from apps that appear on the watch face.

The size of the screen requires a planned design approach for complications.

“It’s a tiny screen on your wrist. So, you don’t want to bombard [users] with too many things. With a custom Apple Watch app, you just want one focus. So, let’s say a user got a breaking news notification. You only want one or two buttons — one to read the story and one to cancel. And that’s it. Simple, simple, simple.”

Mendoza says the Nike Run app is another example of a simple UI that just works.

“It shows the time. If you tap it shows the distance traveled. It’s very, very minimal. I think that is key. You have the user’s brief attention.”

What’s next for digital design and emerging tech?

As someone who’s been at the forefront of app and emerging technology design, Mendoza is always keeping his eye on the horizon for what’s coming next.

“I’m interested in all of it. In vehicles, I like how more and more car companies are building user interfaces into their vehicles,” he says, talking about the rise of human-machine interfaces and how the in-car experience changes when you can interact with more functionality in your vehicle and connected peripherals.

Another area of interest for Mendoza is a behavior change caused by the pandemic.

“With COVID, non-touchable interfaces are more appealing — something you can control with a hand gesture,” he says.

Gesture-based computing is widely being looked at as a solution to improve safety and wellness in spaces occupied by multiple people. This includes speech recognition and eye tracking, and according to consulting firm CapGemini, “75% of business leaders believe that increasing customer appetite for non-touch practices will persist in a post-pandemic world.”

No matter what Mendoza finds himself designing next, he says he will continue to be guided by a lesson he’s learned again and again in the last decade.

Years ago, I would sit down and try to fulfill a creative version of an app. Now I think more strategically about how to retain customers and create a positive overall experience for them.”

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