This year we have seen many interesting ideas to increase user engagement on websites, independent of their device. By interacting with dynamic interface objects, people’s attention has been placed at the center of the action. They can drag, swype, gesticulate and directly get the desired result from their application. What has become almost ubiquitous now are “mosaics”—areas showing a high-level view of the system-wide options. In Windows 7 we could define the size of the desktop icons, the horizontal and vertical distance between them and the text dpi setting. The larger the icons, the more clear it becomes that they are actually blocks as part of a mosaic. We can place common-purpose items next to each other and think of them as connected puzzle pieces; we can select and drag individual or multiple blocks to rearrange them or to connect them to another existing piece. Once an individual block is selected, we can use the arrow keys to move not only within connected parts, but around the whole screen—our biggest mosaic block. The OS “remembers” the positions of all individual pieces to prevent us from searching for their best fit again. Windows 8 has introduced the Metro interface, making the mosaic more prominent. Everyone could create their own building blocks to resemble the best way they want to use the system. The blocks react more smoothly when dragged and potential effects are shown even before the user has released the mouse button. Neighbor blocks were colored differently for better distinctiveness, which came at the cost of more visual noise, because users usually aren’t concerned with the whole screen, but with a tiny area they are currently looking at. Still, there is no embedded monitor sensor for following eye movements and highlighting screen areas accordingly. At the same time, the animations that this would require and the increased variability could be even worse than a static screen of distracting colors. To make more clear where the boundaries between individual blocks are, we could use a single color and borders of adjustable opacity to mimic a table with variable-size cells that get highlighted on mouse over.
Mosaics become widespread on mobile devices too, where they make efficient use of the limited screen space. Maybe even the devices themselves are a reason for their popularity. We can see how the smallest block starts from a mobile device and grows proportionally to reach a more suitable size for a large TV, where the channels are also presented in a mosaic form. In fact, the W3C box model is also supporting the creation of mosaics. Some people have learned to take advantage of this by making OS-like websites in an attempt to lead less experienced users to click on something that will execute a malicious code on their machine. This shows that having mosaics everywhere makes it easier to abuse them.
Today, it would be hard to imagine a useful machine without an input device that enables written communication between people. Billions of emails are sent every day thanks to the mosaic layout of the hardware or software keyboard. This wouldn’t have been possible if this device was missing or very hard to use. The mosaic layout makes the keyboard very space-efficient, which leaves enough room for the touchpad, hands-resting space, LED indicators, stereo speakers, power button and others in the same area that a laptop screen would require. To find a better device that would put human thought in a digital form won’t be easy.
Other forms of mosaics are also available, but some are more memorable than others. In December, there are many beautiful advent calendars loaded with emotions—shiver, hopes, expectations—that show on a daily basis. They are especially engaging for the youngest among us. Every day hides another small surprise, which makes the whole month much more enjoyable. We have played with mosaics when we were kids too, so we can immediately recognize them. As big kids, we also like mosaics, but mostly when it contains something useful (like knowledge) that we could use well into the future. The advantage of digital advent calendars over analog ones is that they can be different every day and every load. The dates can be shuffled every time, so that a person has to seek for the date again, before mindlessly clicking on its contents. This way, the process of searching could make the reward much more enjoyable. We can associate different types of content to each date block and determine dynamically which one should be loaded. This is even more useful if we know in advance the areas of interest of our users. Or we can associate a single advent calendar with multiple others and redirect to the corresponding day within them. I have tried to show this here (musical ~2MB) as an attempt to make Christmas a bit more enjoyable for you :). Of course, we must consider that all the content in all available advent calendars won’t be sufficient to gain mastery of a topic without the needed practice and effort. In this case, as I have always pleaded, finding the right books for the right people can make a more lasting positive impact in their lives than something else that they would consume (or use once) and forget. A good book retains its power long after it was given as a gift and may reach unexpected places and destinations. It will help other people build their mosaics as well.