Press all the right buttons

Instead of perpetuating a flawed design, Gavin Thomson developed a mobile phone concept with a keypad that puts usability first

As designers, we survive by solving our clients’ problems. Our thought processes are generally focused around a particular problem at any point in time.

However, I am sure all of us are stimulated by everyday experiences or simply observing others. Sometimes these ideas are significant enough to pursue as projects in their own right, but most of the time they are contributions that a client would appreciate.

Many markets are saturated with products; their development seems focused around presenting the same format over and over again, with style updates and technological advances. As a consequence, it can be disappointing to find that some fundamental problems have been overlooked. There are occasional exceptions, where radical thinking has broken away from the norm, but these are rarely mainstream.

The mobile phone market is a good example. I love to make and receive calls, but I hate writing text messages. Realising others shared this view, I decided it was time for a more proactive approach.

Rather than trying to find a client to pay me to develop these thoughts, I thought I would adopt the unconventional approach of taking the initiative myself, by initiating a study about how we could improve mobile phone ergonomics.

The phone has evolved over the past 20 years from the ‘ring’, dial-wired handset, to cordless, 12-button keypad handsets, to early mobile car phones with enormous batteries, to the first ‘brick’ mobile handsets, to smaller handsets and today’s iterations of ‘clam shell’ or sliding mobile phone cameras.

When text messaging was introduced, the keypads inherited this function by default rather than by design. Keypads on mobile phones are as small as they can be, which for many is too small for comfort. This problem is highlighted when you write a text message because you use the keypad that much more. To allow texting and data input, these small buttons have had miniature letters added to them and people are expected to not only read these, but be able to remember where all the letters are – ‘abc’ is easy because it’s at the beginning, but where is ‘K’ or ‘P’?

Our study started with the clear objective of providing as big an area for a ‘keypad’ as we thought would be acceptable in today’s climate of compactness. Like the ‘clam shell’ design, it has a static size and an active size, where the display/camera ‘pops’ in and out of the main body. The keypad is round with the ‘joystick’ at its centre and the numbers placed around this in a clockwise fashion. We have looked at different button profiles and a range of different graphic layouts, but all with the intention of making larger targets and more legible icons.

We felt it was time to acknowledge the ‘psychology of learning’ – how the brain learns intuitively where numbers and letters are positioned, without relying purely on vision. So, as well as larger buttons, larger graphics and a clockwise button configuration, our study has also explored the area of ‘colour ergonomics’ and how colours can facilitate number and letter association. Could it be possible that, over time, the brain would begin to associate the colour purple with the letters ‘pqr’, for example?

This study has identified the area of colour ergonomics as a system that should be explored further – perhaps giving rise to the next evolution of the mobile phone. Significantly, though, this study has again proved that size does matter.

Gavin Thomson is the founder of product design group Gavin Thomson Design and has formerly worked at Factory

Case Study: semiotics in mobiles

• Using larger buttons, larger graphics and a clockwise style of button layout can aid usability

• Colour is very underused as a visual device

• Tests show that a 12-wheel colour spectrum is optimal

• There is great potential for using colour decoratively to appeal to personal tastes

Pushing your idea

• Consultancies could be more proactive in pushing their ideas

• Why not rethink existing designs completely instead of reworking standard ideas

• Undertake extensive user research to prove your case

• Make a case by working up the results visually

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