Defining the mobile phone
I have been working with mobile user experience for over 16 years. During this time, the profession of designing for good user experience has changed surprisingly little. In early 1990s, the forerunners of UX (the name and acronym were invented much later) had already a very good understanding of what UX is all about. In the CHI conference in 1993, IDEO held a full-day tutorial in using personas (then called “characters”) and scenarios in design process to ensure that users and consumers are taken into account in the process and that the result is both useful, usable and enjoyable. If you thought Alan Cooper was there first…
Naturally, this level of skill and understanding was rare. I would claim that Nokia was one the first telecom companies that took the user interfaces and consumers seriously. It wasn’t so much of management decision but driven by individuals that had the vision that mobile phones should be enjoyable and usable for everyone. In mid-90s, Nokia’s UI competence was best in the industry. Nokia defined the de-facto standard for user interfaces of mobile phones, with menus, soft keys , etc. The same principle and elements are still used in majority of mobile phones. For me, this is by far the most influential user interface design of digital products so far. Basic mobile phones is used by 3 billion people (compare to PCs that are used by one billion).
Searching for hardware innovation
Towards the end of 1990s, it was evident that competition was catching up. The UI paradigm of menus and soft keys was relatively easy to copy. The usability of mobile phones of other manufacturers weren’t necessarily as optimised and polished as Nokia’s, but it was already quite difficult for a layman to tell the difference. The competition catching up, Nokia needed to innovate again. As a hardware company, Nokia was primarily trying to innovate in the area of physical product design. Nokia’s shelves are full of product and user interface prototypes from this era: product concepts for novel form factors for mobile phones, new product ideas for home, car, for sports, etc. Interestingly, none of these were truly successful. Perhaps the success of mobile phones set the bar for innovation very high: anything that didn’t have as much market potential as phones were rejected. It simply paid off better to optimise the mobile phone business.
For user experience practitioners, this was both very interesting but also disappointing period. It was a great challenge to innovate new physical products for everyday use. Nokia had brilliant designers and a solid process for understanding user needs, innovating concepts, prototyping and evaluation. But when very few or none of the concepts were taken into productization, there were never the gratifying moments of seeing the concepts in consumers hands.
When the mobile phone business had proven to be the most successful for Nokia, the company optimized this so that it became one of the most profitable businesses in the world. As mobile phones were commodity, the manufacturer that could provide the largest variety of phones most efficiently was the winner. Nokia enjoyed for quite a while, and in some markets it still does, the virtuous circle where consumers bought devices that filled the shelves in the retail stores, and retailers therefore wanted to shelf Nokia because they were selling so well.
User experience practitioners were also part of this optimisation. The largest UI design teams were in the UI platforms, such as S40 and S60. They carefully designed platforms that can be embedded in a large variety of marginally different devices. There was not necessarily much room for innovation, but on the other hand, improving a small detail in the software UI meant that this improvement would be shared with tens or hundreds of millions of consumers. A small usability improvement could mean a vast improvement in the lives of people on earth in total!
Mobile phone user interface hardware (buttons, mainly) were also relatively standard. The software defined which buttons there simply must be in the device: navigation keys (up, down, left, right), soft keys, number keys, etc. The soft keys must be placed near the display, number keys together etc. This left quite little room in the physical design to innovate on the user interfaces. The biggest impact of UX in this front was to fine-tune, optimize and standardize the physical UI. This meant that nobody needed to spend extra time in thinking where the volume keys should go, what kind of media buttons (play/pause, prev, next) should be used, where’s the most ergonomic position for a camera key, and so on. Consistency helps consumers feel comfortable when they buy their next phone. This also contributed to the efficiency of the organization: there was no need to reiterate with the UI hardware design.
Searching for software innovation
With stable hardware and software platforms, creating new mobile phone models is very efficient. Small variations and optimization in the physical design and a new release of the platform software with the standard UI created products that were fairly similar to each other. The main visible differences were related to the shape, colors and materials of the devices. Sliding, folding, twisting and turning form factors. Plastic, rubber, steel, gold. And all the possible colors of the rainbow.
The user interface of the platforms were standard. Still, some quite remarkable changes took place during this period. New features that are the key enablers for the future generations of mobile devices emerged: high-speed connectivity, WLAN, internet browsing, and services running both on the device and in the server. (Nokia Sports Tracker is my favorite example.)
But adding everything on top of the old platforms created increasingly complex user interfaces. Just like the frog in the heating water kettle, the mobile phone industry couldn’t itself notice that it was creating devices that were increasingly difficult to use and that the new – some really good – feature couldn’t be found among all the old ones.
It required someone outside the traditional mobile phone industry to shake the industry out of this.
Redefining mobile phone
Apple’s iPhone started the redefinition of the mobile phone. Until then, despite the emerging features, for the majority of people, mobile phones were just … phones. This product demonstrated that everyone can surf the net, or anybody can install new applications that have nothing to do with calling on the phone. It made the new features very easy and enjoyable to use. And people loved it.
In a very short time, the perception of mobile phones changed dramatically. Apple’s iPhone was not technically the most advanced product out there, but through product innovation in both the physical (full touch screen) and in software (beautiful and responsive UI), it certainly was a landmark in the history of mobile phones. It did a huge favor for the whole industry. All other manufacturers were challenged to think again, leave the stagnated efficiency optimized platform game.
Currently we are living a really fascinating period in the mobile phone industry. All manufacturers and internet companies are trying to beat each other with better and different new concepts. Will the winner be a mini-laptop or a small pocketable device? Will it run Android, OS X, Maemo, or Windows? Will the services be called Ovi, Google, MSN or MobileMe?
As always, the best of these will survive, and start forming new de facto standards for the mobile phones – or should we already say mobile devices. For the user experience professionals this is the time of golden opportunities. There are so many companies and projects wanting to be the next leader in this area. User experience designers that create the most innovative and appealing solutions will be defining the iconic user interfaces for the next decade or two.
Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/miikas/