Archive for April, 2006

Nancy Broden

One Size Fits All?

We all work within constraints, and that’s even more evident in the world of mobile user experience design, where there are few accepted guidelines for what constitutes a good user experience. What’s more, the technology itself hampers the realization of that experience. Of late we have been pondering the ramifications of creating one design to suit a variety of mobile phone handsets. Is it possible to overcome the constraints of the each phone’s assortment of keys and screen resolution, and create one design that fits them all?

The user-experience design team at Punchcut is often called upon to assess and make recommendations on existing mobile phone applications. One of our clients, a startup tight on time and budget, came to us with a suite of applications built around a patent-pending technology that facilitates user interaction - making a purchase, participating in a poll, responding to reminders or alerts. With network carrier relationships in place, the applications needed to support a broad range of devices with varying screen resolutions and form factors.

Unfortunately, the client could not afford the many engineering cycles required to optimize the applications for each group of handsets. The original interface and interaction design thus took the path of least resistance, offering the user stacks of visually undifferentiated, vertical menus to browse and assigning specific keys to items requiring quick global access (”*” to access the main menu, for example). Similarly, visual design was limited to branding the application start screen and providing icons for the main-menu items. In other words, the overall user experience was at odds with the client’s aim to provide a “friction-free” consumer experience.

Before presenting the client with a user-experience strategy that better supported their overall user and business goals, we surveyed the list of target devices. We discovered there were similarities in their form factors that would allow us to recommend a more sophisticated approach to the interaction and visual design of the applications. We noted that all of the handsets had:

o Color displays
o Left and right softkeys
o Four navigational keys (next/back, up/down)
o A dedicated “Select” key

With this in mind, we determined our design recommendations:

o Improve navigational efficiency by making use of the softkeys for items requiring global access and context-dependent actions

o Offer lateral navigation for peer-level items using the next/back navigational keys

o Indicate focus in menus and lists of items

o Align content with brand on an application-by-application basis by re-examining nomenclature and tone of copy

o Develop a visual language (color palette, iconography, typography, images and spacing) consistent with brand on an application-by-application basis

o Capitalize on opportunities to reinforce that visual language, such as on the application launch screen

The problem of diverse resolutions remained, however. The target handsets had display areas ranging from a brief 128 x 128 to a comparatively generous 176 x 220. The spectrum of sizes and aspects did require we produce three sizes of images (small, medium and large) for screens that included a full-screen or full-width image. Our client’s engineers would need to produce three versions of each affected screen and include the appropriate screen when porting each application to the target handsets. Needless to say, the number of screens affected was kept to a minimum in each application, usually no more than two or three.

Scalability was a factor in some decisions: The menus remained vertically oriented and were primarily text lists; images, when used, were aligned top left or center; and we decided on a maximum number of scrolling screens of content to determine the need for pagination or additional navigation. Otherwise we aimed high, scaling back on “menu overload” by introducing more sophisticated, context-sensitive navigation options and allowing the brand speak more clearly through a coherent visual language.

Although we have not yet performed user studies to gauge the soundness of our user-experience design strategy, we are pleased how well it has translated across our client’s suite of applications.

Have you faced a similar design challenge? How did you approach your solution? Did you arrive at any design guidelines or principles that you have since applied in other situations? Share your thoughts and insights with the Idlemode community.

Ken Olewiler

MVNO: Hype or Hope?

It looks like the era of the MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) has been ushered in. MVNOs — companies that buy network capacity from network operator to offer branded mobile subscriptions and value-added services - are proliferating rapidly. Beginning with the successful launch of European offerings such as Virgin and Transatel, and continuing in the United States with Boost Mobile and now Disney and ESPN Mobile, MVNOs are fast becoming a mainstay of the mobile space. At last count, there were approximately 200 planned or operational MVNOs worldwide. Which begs the question among UI professionals: How - and how much - will MVNOs impact the user experience? Here’s the way I see it.

A Change of UE View
I’m expecting the primary influence of MVNOs will be to spur a paradigm shift in how people think about the user experience and the interface design.

Traditionally, the core focus of mobile devices was communication - voice, messaging, e-mail, and so on. However, mobile devices have rapidly become much more than communication centers; in fact, the MVNO model has helped them evolve into personal connected devices that have the potential to provide not just calls, but key information and content for both pleasure and productivity.

This is a big transition, and one that will require interfaces to change to keep up. Today’s list-oriented navigation just won’t cut it; old-school UIs will have to give way to new ways of accessing data that allow users to make the most of a rich flow of content and information. For example, early-adopter ESPN shifted from a traditional navigation structure to an innovative slider navigation that allows users a much greater depth of interaction.

UI to Create Brand Growth and Extension
Premium brands are seeing MVNOs as a key opportunity to extend their products and messaging into channels that were once too cost-prohibitive to consider. Up until now, the consideration of custom-branded devices and interfaces was severely limited by the high development effort and support costs necessary to establish the technical and billing infrastructure. With the advent of MVNOs, the challenges to establish a custom device, service and billing infrastructure are significantly less, since the brands can leverage the well-established infrastructure of mobile operators.

And as MVNOs proliferate worldwide, brands can now differentiate themselves from the competition on the mobile device just as they do in the traditional marketplace. One way they’ll do this: tailor the user interface to the content to help deliver on the brand’s promise.

Customization and Diversity in Design
Since content providers are often focused on providing customization choices for consumers, it’s reasonable to believe that as premium, branded MVNOs continue to emerge, greater diversity in mobile interface design will become both a reality and a necessity. A proliferation of brands will drive the need for a more custom experience, and consumers interested in the brand focus are likely to demand more personalized experiences themselves.

This increasing influence of MVNOs may well open the eyes of the major telecommunications carriers to the value of better, more personalized mobile experiences. High up on most MVNOs’ wish lists is a live idle screen, which allows them to customize the screens and personalize them with their proprietary content. Whether it’s a crawling stock ticker, the latest weather, or Billboard’s Top 40, this pushed data flow represents a huge value-add to the MVNO model.

While this idea is somewhat constrained by the limits of technology today, emerging solutions may enable a more flexible presentation of information at all levels of the device.

And Speaking of Technology…
One of the chicken-and-egg conundrums of the mobile space is this: Does a demand for a more engaging interface drive technology, or does new technology spur better interfaces? With MVNOs in the picture, I think the former scenario gets more important. As MVNOs demand richer user experiences, the big operators will feel pressured to develop the technology that allows the creation of better user interfaces.

But there’s a flip side to this, which I like to call the “What if they gave a party and no one came?” issue. More features are great only if people use them. Plenty of carriers are high on the idea of bringing video entertainment to phones, but we don’t yet know whether the public will embrace watching “Crash” on a 2-inch screen. Even expanding data offerings can be a bit of a gamble, because many people think of their phone as just that - a phone. They don’t want (or use) it for much more than that. For every phone company, the key driver is data services across the network, and getting people to use those services is the big challenge.

Recent surveys by RBC Capital Markets, The Yankee Group, and Forrester suggest that the public is not enthralled with the idea of video or music delivered to their mobile phones. This may be due to the fact that it these features are seen as too expensive or frivolous, but it may also be due to the fact that a compelling user experience has yet to be created around these features.

Predicting the exact impact MVNOs will have is difficult, of course. There are plenty of questions, starting with the obvious: Will consumers really want a branded phone? There’s also the not-so-small consideration of consumers who want to partake of more than one brand. Should a content-branded phone allow the flexibility to host other brands and content, and if so, how would this work? And while increasingly refined technologies are allowing for a greater breadth of content type and customizable UIs, MVNOs are still limited by the existing technical constraints and infrastructures of the carriers providing the mobile services. Whether these premium brands will build the critical mass to influence key technical changes that can accommodate deeper customization remains to be seen.