Simplicity and distinctiveness are essential to usability in mobile phones. To satisfy users, developers of mobile devices must aim for these qualities when deciding which features and applications to include in their handsets.
Device manufacturers and service providers often race to include as many applications and features as possible because they can, and not because people want them. Often the users end up having to navigate through a myriad of extra features to get to the ones they actually want.
One example of this kind of feature race is how manufacturers try to solve the problem of text input. There are several handsets that offer text input through every possible method: hardware keys, touchscreen buttons and handwriting recognition. Does this make text input easier or does it generate a chaotic experience for the user? Who uses all inputs?
Targeting too many types of users with one device means not satisfying anyone. Another approach is to identify which input method is ideal for a targeted user and support only that option. For example, the HTC T-Mobile G1 only features QWERTY input, which makes its UI less cluttered with options.
Being usable and efficient with features should be the standard in mobile UIs. There are some simple check boxes to tick when considering a design: minimizing memory load; visual and interaction consistency; providing feedback; error prevention; providing user control and freedom; using natural language (avoiding industry or tech-speak). However, in the bigger picture, usability and interaction design is similar to learning the technique of painting. As much as you may have impeccable technique with a brush and an eye for color, it probably will not make you a Michelangelo – usability is the technique, but understanding the user is the art. A combination of both makes an excellent user experience.
So how can designers identify UI solutions that are optimal for their targeted users? Designers and developers have often created UIs based on what they, themselves, would prefer. This is why technical gadgets are only fully appreciated by a small group of “power users” or “techies.” Interaction designers today put a lot of effort into creating vivid portraits of fictional users, or “personas” different from themselves, to guide the product development. To ensure that the resulting design solutions actually satisfy a real user, designers can use several techniques, such as field studies, observing real behavior, or interviews. Preferably, these types of tests should be done repeatedly even at the early stages of design.
For better or worse, the mobile UI industry develops at a very fast rate, which means extensive studies are the exception. While persona development can be efficient and effective, there is no one size fits all process in addressing the users' needs. Therefore, designers must be able to recognize which methods are suitable for the specific client and the users who they are addressing.
Understanding the users' needs makes choosing features much easier. For example, Apple's focus on attractive hardware, easy media consumption and web browsing means only using touchscreen text input on the iPhone, even though it is less convenient than hardware buttons. The HTC T-Mobile G1 targets users of Google services by offering convenient mobile access to services that previously have required using mobile web browsers. Since the G1 has a T-Mobile flat data plan for Google services, no UI for synchronization or backup is necessary since this happens automatically. Furthermore, to make multitasking more natural on the G1, applications are seamlessly paused and restarted when the user switches tasks. This eliminates the need for a UI for management of running tasks.
Selling a product without lots of new features is an emerging challenge. The good news for the mobile industry is that there is still room for innovation when it comes to finding ways in which existing features can be shaped and incorporated. Instead of desperately searching for new features to add, a better investment is to deliver features that are simple, satisfying and distinctive.
About the Author
Dan Gärdenfors, is Senior Concept Designer within the Innovation Group at TAT (The Astonishing Tribe). TAT is the Swedish based company that provides user interface technology that has added the “WOW” affect to the user experience inmore than 240 million mobile phones shipped worldwide (www.tat.se). Prior to working with TAT, Dan designed user interfaces for digital pen and paper applications at Anoto, the inventors of digital pen and paper. He has also developed interfaces for several computer games for visually impaired children. He can be reached at: .