New tricks

Digital media services for mobile phones are a rapidly evolving area, but, as so often, designers are among the last to be brought in. Clive Grinyer argues that good design is crucial for realising the promise of a fully convergent digital world

Over the past five years the mobile phone, that humble miracle of technology that we are now never apart from, has been evolving from a voice and text communication tool into a pocketable computer that holds our music, photos, e-mails and much more. In a series of sometimes sudden jumps in technology – colour screens, memory size, physical slimness and faster 3G networks – the promise of the mobile phone is at last becoming reality.

At the same time, the companies we have always associated with telecoms and mobile – BT, Orange, Carphone Warehouse – have become Internet, TV and content providers and conversely, media companies such as Sky and Virgin are delivering content and services to the mobile.

This world of digital media content is still new and evolving. Countless services and applications can be downloaded, but usage still remains low compared to Web services. It seems that simply turning exciting new services on is not enough; people need to learn and identify value and relevance to what they do when they are mobile or sitting at home in front of the PC.

But the great opportunity of convergent, synchronised information and content is about to hit us and, as anyone who is lucky enough to have played with Apple’s new iPhone will tell you, design is crucial in unlocking the potential of digital experience, whether it be entertainment, communication or information.

The issues in designing for digital services on the mobile are similar to those of designing for the Internet – understanding navigation, clear and legible graphics, quick and intuitive routes to what you want, expression of brand values, understandable terminology, good copywriting and great visual design – but massively compromised by the much smaller screen area available and button-and-curser navigation.

But when you see great examples of mobile digital design like Sky’s TV application, which allows you to see what programmes are on and set your Sky box to record, from your mobile, you can see the potential and attraction of converged services.

For mobile operators, the Internet has grown hugely from simply a catalogue approach to a key business tool. Using the Web to help customers help themselves is a win-win situation for operator and customer alike if done well. Getting account information, solving technical problems, buying new phones, ringtones or music and video can be done better on the Web, so you don’t have to call customer services. Technology is creating more exciting and useable experiences. ‹

Web experiences, whether on PC or mobile, are usually like electronic pages turning one by one. If you don’t have broadband, the wait for each page is frustrating and going backwards and forwards is slow and cumbersome. New technologies such as Ajax and Flash are now advanced enough to change this experience radically.

Whether it is moving around a map, helpfully filling in a box when you are form filling an order or request, describing a photograph you are placing on Flickr, or choosing something to buy, these richmedia applications allow us to move away from a page-by-page experience and have the type of experience we are used to on computer games. And as broadband use hits critical mass, access to such experiences is growing and less held back by accessibility issues. Indeed, usability is being dramatically improved.

These opportunities mean that digital media, on mobile and Web, are increasingly attractive to the big content player, the music industry. Record-launching gigs streamed to your mobile, interactive samplers and games of new films on mobile and the Web, personalised information on your football team and access to blogs and information about your favourites are increasingly built into media comms activities from the start. It’s a hugely rich area where imagination is the limiting factor and these multimedia, multi-platform experiences will increasingly be part of our lives. Advertising in the conventional sense has never fully broken into the mobile space because of its intrusiveness, but where advertising is integrated into the experience, as it is in the search engines of Yahoo! and Google, the mobile digital space will again be exploited more and more.

The number of designers operating in this space is still small. While design for the Internet is in huge demand, few clients or designers have investigated the opportunities – or identified the challenges – for digital design in the mobile space. But as the mobile becomes a very natural and important door to media content, services and information of all description, we will have to learn quickly the similarities and differences between the PC and the mobile, the TV and the music player, and all the other bits and pieces as they start to work together. And in this Web 2.0 world, personal content, self-authorship and social networking will drive these services and how they are controlled.

As with all aspects of the mobile industry, technology tends to be the trigger for change. And as with all examples of technology push, the customer – and design – gets left till the end. The role of designers to affect the decisions made early in product development, before they impact adversely on the customer’s experience, is crucial.

Digital design, on mobile or Web, is always about great visual and usability design, but in this space it is about understanding how people use their mobiles, their needs and frustrations, the relevance and usefulness of content that makes the difference between success and failure. Putting the customer first and designing the experience is, as in every act of design, not just an option. In a space that is so exciting and so full of promise, design is already – and will increasingly be – the crucial factor in adoption and success. l

Clive Grinyer is director of design at Orange

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