Natural user interfaces like Siri and Google Now aim to "disappear" by understanding you perfectly or anticipating your technology needs before you have them. I don't trust them. You know who already understands me perfectly and anticipates my technology needs? Me. Not a "digital assistant" who can never spell my wife's name right. Still, wouldn't it be nice to have a phone that is, if not as smart as a human, perhaps as smart as a dog who knows to bring your slippers in the morning when you wake up? That's the promise of Aviate, an Android app that watches your app-usage patterns, and displays only the apps that you're likely to want in common situations.
Aviate takes over your (probably horrendously cluttered) Android phone and auto-organizes it for you—no more sorting and searching apps. But its most interesting feature is "Spaces": It's a little bar at the top of your phone homescreen that senses when and where you are (for example, at work or at a restaurant) and surfaces the handful of apps that you're likely to be interested in. If Google Now comes off like a benevolent (but sometimes creepy) HAL 9000, Aviate seems more like that family dog. It's lightweight, attentive, and what it sometimes lacks in "intelligence" it makes up for in good behavior.
Mark Daiss, Aviate's co-founder, is refreshingly open about this. "Aviate can and will get your context wrong at times. In addition, users sometimes just don't want 'contextual information,'" he tells Co.Design. In earlier iterations of Aviate, the app strained too far to be too smart—and inevitably failed, which left users more annoyed than they were before they agreed to let an app "help" them. "What we learned in the process is two things," Daiss says. "First, oftentimes users just want to get to apps they already know they want, like Gmail and Facebook. The second is that, if Aviate was wrong, it was really, really obnoxious to users because it was taking up 50% to 90% of their homescreens."
The solution: Scale back and aim for base hits rather than home runs. Aviate's team shrunk "Spaces" into a thin strip at the top of the screen, which meant that the amount of "contextual info" it served up was limited, "and if it's wrong or users don't want to engage with it, they can simply ignore it," he says. But if it's right, "the user can take an incredibly easy gesture—swiping down—to get to that information quickly if they so choose."
Technology that overpromises and underdelivers—i.e., most "intelligent" or "natural" UIs—bugs people because they learn that they can't trust it. But if the design sets expectations appropriately, it creates space for us to forgive technology's mistakes while appreciating its successes. You wouldn't expect Fido to plan your schedule for the day, but it sure is nice to have your slippers delivered to you when you roll out of bed. If Aviate can deliver the Android equivalent of that experience, it'll feel like man's (and woman's) best friend. Which is way better than a solicitous but stupid assistant.