Rules of thumb

As converging technologies morph mobile phones in to mini computers, the way users interact with them also changes. In demand is speed, simplicity and easy navigation, as much as rich media content, finds Sarah Frater

The queues that formed outside the Apple store on London’s Regent Street in July for the new 3G iPhone speak volumes about interface design. Many thought the iPhone offered little more than rival models, and on a strictly feature-for-feature basis they may be right. But the iPhone looks so good and its multi-touch ‘flick, tap, pinch’ interface is such fun to use that you suspect it would have shipped in bulk even if it only made voice calls.

In fact, one million units of the 3G model flew off shelves in the first weekend. ‘Apple’s high standard of design changed everything,’ says Christian Lindholm, a partner and director at Fjord, the London-based convergence design consultancy. ‘It pushes everyone up. But it’s not just a question of pretty icons – Apple goes much deeper. It’s about designing experiences.’

Lindholm is referring to the rich media content emerging for mobile phones which is steering the way user interfaces are designed. Make a telephone call, and all you need is a numeric keypad, but once you start watching TV, downloading movies, surfing the Web, playing games and sending e-mails, you need different ways of interaction, be it a touch screen or a physical Qwerty keypad. The soon-to-be-launched Sony Ericsson Xperia X1, for example, covers all bases. It has optical scroll, four-way navigation key, physical Qwerty keys and a touch screen. ‘The user can customise the screen,’ explains Tim Hernquist, senior product manager at Sony Ericsson UK and Ireland. ‘This funnels content and allows users to navigate through it.’

Hernquist is spot on mentioning navigation. In UI terms it’s wayfinding for the micro realm, with designers providing not only pictorial and cognitive cues, but also quick routes through gigabytes of information. This means mobiles, with their wealth of content and convergence of applications, are less phones and more a ‘mini computer in the hand’, as Horace Luke, chief innovation officer of HTC, the Taiwanese phone maker, puts it. The upcoming Nokia N96, for example, allows you to watch TV, download movies, and GPS your way around town, as well as make ordinary voice calls.

The design challenge, according to Nokia senior designer Daniel Dhont, is to guide users through this content without their getting lost electronically. ‘You can’t overload users,’ he says. ‘You may offer vast content and services, but you’ve only got a small screen.’

It’s a theme echoed by many. Pleasing ergonomics, and precise user feedback are vital, but as Nick Turner-Samuels, Samsung Mobile’s head of content, describes it, ‘small devices that do everything’ are the ‘major challenge’. Chris Liu, Fjord’s managing director and a former head of Sony’s European human interface design team, explains, ‘The small screen challenge is about the capacity of the user and the screen itself. It’s design by deduction. You take most of the stuff out rather than adding things.’

If UI design is about good navigation, and paring back, it’s also about context, or ‘environment, environment, environment’, as Luke describes it. ‘Mobile phones give users access to zillions of Web pages, and they want to access them with one thumb as they walk down the street, chewing gum and Internet snacking as they go. The UI has to be easy and intuitive.’ Those old enough to have record or CD collections will probably store them in a rack, and browse through them, flipping each one forward and back, before putting them on the turntable. ‘That’s an intuitive, familiar approach that works on-screen,’ says Luke, but adds ‘If you want to reply to an e-mail, you probably want to do it quickly. UI designers have to supply the appropriate interface. It’s not only familiarity, but urgency that matters.’

For RIM, the company behind the Blackberry, appropriate means a full Qwerty keypad. With the success of Apple’s multi-touch screen, you’d think these would have gone quietly. However, the new Sony Ericsson has one, as does the Blackberry Bold, with RIM describing it as the user interface that can’t be beaten for e-mails. ‘We believe our users want a keyboard,’ says the company’s Philip Lander.

While there’s debate about the place of physical keyboards, no one doubts the primacy of good visual design. ‘You want things to be look appealing,’ says Sofia Svanteson, one-time employee of Razorfish Stockholm and now chief executive of Swedish digital design consultancy Ocean Observations. For Ericsson, Svanteson’s design team created a new messaging service. ‘We wanted to make Ericsson better than the competition,’ says Svanteson.

This commercial realpolitik is lost on few. In a world of countless content providers, from traditional broadcasters to movie studios and even mobile phone manufacturers themselves, people need to know who’s supplying. If they don’t, they will feel little loyalty, and move on. This makes visual branding a key concern. As Liu succinctly puts it, ‘Every time someone interacts with content, there’s an opportunity to make money.’

By Christian Lindholm

The mobile phone is probably the most successful gadget ever invented.

It offers a utility that is unbeatable – linking us to friends, loved ones and business partners, reassuring us that we are part of a connected community. It has become deeply ingrained in the everyday fabric of modern life. We use our mobiles as extensions of our personality, buying those brands and models that most closely match our sense of style. We show them off to friends, or display them proudly on coffee tables; in some countries, the mobile phone is a key object of aspiration, a symbol of status and success.

The mobile phone’s ubiquity as a consumer device has given rise to new developments in both technology and design. The entry of Apple, long known as an iconoclast in the world of computers, has now driven forward a new paradigm and further transformations.

When I first started working on mobile phones in 1995, the very first LCD display had entered into production. I still remember how we were mesmerised by the 84×84 pixels we had to play with – we could do graphical menus, proportional fonts; it all seemed so cutting edge. Little did I know back then that colour displays would soon become the norm – or that this development would occur sooner than I could have anticipated at the time.

Since then, progress in mobile phone development has been exponential – in terms of speed, capacity, screen size, colour depth and resolution. The norm is now 5cm screens with 240×320 pixels and a colour palette of a million colours; I expect that within the next five years, 10cm screens will become the standard. This revolution in technology continues next year with the fusion of three key technological enablers.

The first is a new generation of pixel-less screens, with resolutions twice what they are today and pixels so tiny they are invisible to the naked eye. The second big development is the OMAP 3430, a new super-powerful processor from Texas Instruments. When combined with the third big development – layered 3D graphical user interface libraries – mobile phone designers suddenly have a completely new canvas on which to paint. Rich trompe l’oeil-style visual effects will become the norm, with the best adding tremendous value and transforming the mobile phone into a sublime user experience.

These new developments will, in turn, transform the jobs of graphic designers. Designers will not only need to master animation and motion graphics, but will also need to start thinking of graphics and design as vehicles of interaction. I liken this transformation to the evolution from still photography to film, and from celluloid to digital. As with photographers and film-makers who were unable to manage the switchover to digital, I suspect many designers will struggle with these technological and design transformations. However, the more technically savvy designers will rise to the challenge and create a new generation of iconic mobile interfaces.

I witness some of these changes when I gaze over the shoulders of Fjord’s designers – some already masters of motion. And I cannot help but think of the millions of users who will eventually enjoy this craftsmanship, as they communicate with friends and loved ones, conduct business, go shopping, listen to music, play games, browse the Internet and connect with the world on their mobiles. Welcome to a new era of mobile beauty.

Christian Lindholm is a partner and director at Fjord, the London-based convergence design consultancy with offices in Berlin and Helsinki.
He is the inventor of the Nokia Navi-Key, and developed the Nokia Series 60 user interface

Start the discussionStart the discussion
  • Post a comment

Latest articles