How to build a wireless picture frame that doesn’t suck

I’ve had nothing but frustration from a Momento wireless digital picture frame I purchased last Christmas for my family, my parents and in-laws. That culminated recently when I found out iMate, the company behind the frame, was shutting down the online service that connects to the frame. Not much of a loss as it was fairly unimpressive, except that this service is the only way to modify the frame’s wireless behavior. It’s like Exxon saying they’re going to discontinue gasoline. You can keep your car, but…

Much like MP3 players before the iPod, wireless frames have been stuck in a morass: technically capable devices hindered by bad software, a poor understanding of the target audience, and a complete ignorance of one crucial factor: usability. In an effort to demonstrate how an understanding of your target market translates into a usage model that can propel or drown a device, I humbly present how I would build a wireless picture frame that doesn’t suck. If someone actually incorporates these elements and makes a mint, send a case of beer and a case of frames so I can stop fielding calls from angry relatives that I’ve cursed with poor renditions of these devices.


Let’s start at hardware since this is the one area that seems mature at this point. Screen technology is good, and images on most frames look fine. We’ll make some minor changes however. First, use a standard photographic aspect ratio. Few take widescreen pictures as the preponderance of their photos, so stick with something like 5×7″ formatting. Most companies have figured out people want something with tasteful decor not a hunk of black plastic, so we’re good there. The only problem is with manufacturer logos on the front of a frame (I’m looking at you, Philips). We’re creating a photographic experience here, not a brand lovefest.

Now let’s do two crazy things. First, dump all the memory card slots on the back of the frame, save for a single, standard USB port. Sacrilege you say? Well, our selling point with this baby is wireless so we don’t need any memory cards. Plus I’m trying to save you a couple bucks to pour into better software and maybe even a focus group or two. This is also a different product, targeted to a different consumer than the standard “take the card out of the camera and put in the back frame” that’s been done to death.

Next, dump the remote control. Yeah it’s neat and all, but aside from frame setup it’s rarely used. That $2 unit with the 6-inch range and poor buttons really wasn’t that fun to actually use anyway. So what will we do for buttons? Well, if you want to be cheap, put a four way directional pad on the back of the frame, plus an enter and power button. Oh, and buy at least one step above the bottom of the barrel components and make the buttons big for the older folks (more on that later), and design the buttons to be operated while looking at the front of the frame (so if you need to move the cursor right, you’d press what would be the left directional button if you were looking at the back of the frame). If you want to up the ante, put, say 6 touch sensitive areas on the border of the frame. Don’t do anything as gauche as marking these on the actual frame, rather have the screen note where the buttons are and what they do when trolling the user interface, then disappear when no longer needed, like the “Smart Keys” on Nokia cellphones from the late 1990’s. It would be slick if you activated the interface with a wave of the hand, or by picking up the frame. Very Apple-like of you.

If you want to be really cute and score major points with grandma, make the hole for the male and female ends of the power cord a color other than black, so she knows where to plug the thing in. Take a lesson from Dell circa 1998 when they started color coding their mouse and keyboard plugs.


What most manufacturers have missed is that the wireless frame is a different product, purchased by a different consumer than the non-wireless digital frame. The latter should be targeted at someone who owns a digital camera, and wants to pop their card from the camera to the frame. If they are slightly more sophisticated, they might make a “mix tape” of sorts on a flash disk, occasionally update it, and keep it in the frame. They’re not heavily invested in online photo sharing or social networking, and are OK if they mail grandma a new flash card every six months.

Our wireless frame is a bit different. It should be targeted at more experienced techies/digital photographers, who are conversant in things like RSS, Facebook, etc. They want to do a couple of things with their frame:

  1. Have it interface with whatever service is hosting their pictures now, like Flickr, Picasa, Facebook or what have you. They don’t want you to reinvent the wheel and force them to upload their pictures to another service, or setup a shared drive on their computer and leave it on all the time to act as storage for the frame. These folks want sophisticated features and an ability to control what feeds the frame receives, and allow friends to send pictures. You can use nifty buzzwords like “we’ll pull pictures from ‘the cloud,’ and ‘Web 2.0-enabled'” in your marketing meetings. Trust me, it will be fun.
  2. This same group of buyers wants to buy a bunch of these for their family. While these folks were the chubby geeks everyone picked on in 4th grade when they wanted to write BASIC programs instead of playing kickball, they’re now married and (gasp) reproducing. They have parents and grandparents scattered around the world, and they want to share their expanding families, travel adventures and mobile pictures with them. You nail this aspect of the wireless frame and instead of one consumer buying one, one consumer might buy 4-8.


Take a lesson from Apple here, and realize that the software you integrate with this thing is going to be what makes or breaks it. Any of your competitors can buy a commodity LCD panel (just make sure it’s 5×7 or another standard photograph size), put some wood trim and WiFi on it and call it a wireless frame. But you’re too smart for that. Remember, all we really want on the frame itself is excellent RSS photo rendering capability, and perhaps some rudimentary settings like manual wireless setup, sleep/wakeup settings and maybe a link to your helpful online manual should you need more assistance. The magic happens outside the frame hardware.

Make the frame good looking, have someone other than a programmer design the usability/layout aspect and you’re set. The power of the “experience” follows these guidelines:

  1. First, forget your own proprietary picture site. I’m sure yours is wonderful and those three offshore developers you hired spent a whole week on it, but Picasa, Flickr, Smugmug, et al have you beat. Sorry. Figure out how to make your frame handle RSS photo feeds with aplomb. I don’t care if you make us use something like Framechannel, just make RSS picture feed rendering the frame’s #1 purpose. No bad distortions, no black bars on all sides of the frame, and yes junior, you’ll have to figure out a way to have the frame wade through our collection of 5000 photographs and randomize them appropriately, not just display the first 50. Our target market has our pictures on one of these sites, doesn’t want to use yours, and doesn’t want to keep their computer on all day just to dish out photos. Maybe even have some “freshness” setting that causes the frame to bias itself towards newer photos with an occasional oldie thrown in, or just does a complete randomization.
  2. Take setup off the frame! Create a web-based or downloadable application to configure a frame and provide a USB stick with each frame, preferably packed right at the top of the box (and don’t start beefing about cost. I’ll bet you can get 128MB USB sticks for a few cents). In this app you’ll setup the frame’s wireless configuration, which RSS feeds you want it to pull, and maybe even some snazzy features like who is allowed to email pictures to the frame, and when it shuts off and wakes up because you’re all about green technology. You might even allow for a personalized message so grandma sees “Happy Festivus Grandma!” when she first powers on. This app will output an XML file (don’t worry, your techies will understand and you’ll be all about open standards) that is associated with the frame through the frame’s ID that you printed on the back. After all that:
    1. I setup an RSS feed on my favorite photo hosting site. Maybe I even keyword photos with “Grandma,” “Mom and Dad,” “In-Laws,” etc. since you thoughtfully designed your frame to do keyword filtering.
    2. I configure grandma’s frame, without opening the box and unpacking everything, via your nice web/downloadable app, save the file to the USB stick you so thoughtfully provided and stick it back in the box. I configured Grandma’s WiFi network after all, so I know the wireless settings and don’t want to bother her with that.
  3. Grandma plus the nice green power plug into the little green hole, and the frame asks you to put the memory stick (with picture) in the slot (again, pictured). It reads the configuration, tells you to remove the stick, and Grandma whoops in delight as her favorite grandson appears on the screen. The frame also “phones home” so I know grandma is up and running and I can change her settings or add new feeds.
  4. Beyond your nice configuration application, you have a “frame management” website. I know, you’re marketing guys will need to come up with a better name, but this lets me see all the frames I’ve configured, and change which RSS feeds they pull, how quickly the pictures cycle, etc. I can add sis to the list of people who can email or MMS a picture to grandma’s frame, or upgrade grandma’s frame firmware when you provide some nice new features. Your website is eminently usable since you spent about as much time on the user experience and hired some people with expertise in this area, rather than leaving this to the developer, whose idea of “user experience” is telling you how he made it compatible with SafariFox 7.3, despite missing those 18 grammar faux pas.

For grandma, she interacts with the frame like a standard, non-digital frame. There’s no care and feeding, no setup and no maintenance, it just “magically” gets new pictures. For the person taking the photos, he or she uploads them to the photo sharing site they already use, and your software takes care of the rest. No fussing unless you need to change a setting, in which case the buyer of the frame can adjust their own frame, or grandma’s frame sitting half-way around the world from the comfort of their laptop.


So now that you’ve assembled this wonder and sent me a few for testing, you market it based on the connectivity. The iPod was as much about iTunes as it was about a hardware MP3 player, and you’re going to approach this from the same angle. The geeks will love the tech, and you’ll up sell them on quantity since it’s not only connected to “the cloud” rather than your proprietary software, but it’s also so easy even grandma can do it and I’m buying one for everybody this Christmas. When grandma gets handy with her computer, I can set her up on Flickr or whatnot, add her RSS feed and she’s off to the races without having to learn some goofy application or get frustrated tickling tiny frame remote.

I’ll even give you a buy on version 1.0 and let you use your existing hardware. Like nearly all things technology-related, rather than focusing on the bits and bytes, rethink your market and get the user experience right, and you will rise above suckitude while your competitors wave their tech spec sheets in the air and wonder why no one is buying.



  1. Interesting article, I hadnt considered building one myself but have had bad experiences with some manufactured versions.

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  6. Wow Patrick. You wrote this in 2009. And its still more or less true. At we’re solving this problem though – almost exactly to your instructions. Nice work.

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