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Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe.

Products that remove small life annoyances

I’m currently travelling in the U.S., which means I can finally drag some of my favorite apps from the graveyard screen on my iPhone to the home screen. I’m now happily exploring around in Yelp and Fandango, which I haven’t been able to do in a while. Even Foursquare — which I’m already a huge fan of — is suddenly on steroids.

At the same time, there’s one part of Don Norman’s The Paradox of Wearable Technologies that I keep coming back to:

I am fully dependent upon modern technologies because they make me more powerful, not less. By taking away the dreary, unessential parts of life, I can concentrate upon the important, human aspects.

I realize that when apps work well — really well — they do just that. It’s not that they get out of the way in an invisible UI sense. They are extremely visible, and they consume all your attention while you’re using them. But they take away the boring parts of life so you can focus on the exciting bits.

I apologize in advance to those of you who live in the U.S., but please allow me to gush a couple of examples to illustrate my point.

Fandango

Buying movie tickets online is a mission in most cases. Even if you can figure out how to use the site, you’re not guaranteed that the payment gateway is going to work, and there’s often no way to save credit card details for future purchases. But before I came on this trip, I saved some movies I knew I wanted to see in the Fandango app. Once I got here, I just tapped on a movie, the app showed me nearby theatres and times, I bought a ticket using my PayPal account, and I showed my phone at the door to scan the ticket.

All the app does is take the mundane parts out of buying movie tickets — the search for a theatre, the payment, the ticketing process. It lets me focus on what I really want to be doing — watching a movie.

Foursquare

I expected Foursquare to be better in the U.S. than in South Africa, but I’m blown away by its usefulness. Here are some things that really helped along the way:

  • Foursquare knows I live in Cape Town and that I check into a lot of coffee places. So when I arrived in San Diego the app told me welcome, and recommended some coffee houses nearby (a friend, who checks into a lot of Mexican restaurants, got that as her recommendations).
  • After you check in somewhere, the app tells you where people are likely to go next.
  • Because the data set is so huge, I find that the ratings and recommendations work much better across the board.
  • For example, the time of day affects the recommendations — breakfast places in the morning, lunch places around noon, etc.

Again, this isn’t earth-shattering stuff. But it takes away just enough of the mundane parts of being in a new city to make your visit that much more enjoyable.

And that’s what good technology does. It’s not necessarily invisible, but it performs a disappearing act on the things you don’t want to do. There are certainly major, wicked problems to solve in the world. But there are also thousands of small, tedious tasks we deal with every day that we can solve with technology.

That’s what’s inspiring to me about these products, and why I’m going to pay much more attention to “small annoyances” as a way to get product ideas.