Part I: Listening to Users - Design Issues
By Steve Wallage, Mon Mar 29 12:00:00 GMT 2004

This is a series of four interviews with leading academics and industry figures on what the mobile industry should be doing to meet the current and future needs of mobile users.

Stuart Eggleston of design startup, Digerati Studio, kicks off the series by talking about design issues. Stuart previously worked for a major operator, and now advises operators and software vendors on mobile design issues.

His philosophy is that a small design studio can make a much bigger difference than a larger, more impersonal organization. As Stuart puts it, "The question is not about size but about results and abilities." He is also a firm believer in really understanding and empathizing with the user. Throughout his career, he has worked hard to ensure that he gets users working with technology in the most natural surroundings and in the most natural ways.

Bringing Design to the Fore

Judging from a slew of mobile handsets out there, Stuart estimates that a staggering 95% of mobile handsets 'fail' because they are not simple and intuitive enough for first-time users. He further stresses the importance of having even the most novice users complete a simple task - such as sending a SMS - themselves after just a thirty-second demonstration.

Evidently, the usability gap faced today is due to the lack of design in the development process - and not bringing in designers until the end of the process.

Stuart found himself despairing at 3GSM at how many products and applications had been created, and were now waiting for design input. The single most important benefit of getting the design right is improved ease of use, which leads to a satisfied customer.

Stuart quotes the story of a designer who had worked for both Apple and Microsoft. On being asked about the differences between the two, he said that at Microsoft the deadline was 'king', while at Apple the product was 'king'. He sees far too many companies in the mobile industry veering towards the Microsoft line.

Apple also provides examples of the benefits of getting the user interface (UI) and design right. Users are often delighted with a new Apple and are therefore prepared to pay more. They are also keen to show it off, and thus create word of mouth marketing. They are also often proud of the device - for example, many are willing to pay $20-30 to engrave their iPods.

Ignoring A Major Market

Many mobile presentations talk about the wonderful attractions of the youth market. Yet, most of their audience is (unfortunately) too old to relate to it. They also assume that the youth market is the driver of all things original in the mobile arena. It is obviously a key market but the most voracious adopters of new mobile services are often a decade older.

A much larger - and more untapped - market is the 'silver surfers'. Demographics are certainly in their favor. Most European countries are heading for at least 50% of their population being over 50 years old. And today, getting a device that best meets their needs is virtually non-existent. The constant reduction in size of device and buttons is contrary to the needs of the silver surfers.

This can also be a problem in the enterprise world. A major oil company found that its engineers were having difficulties using smartphones. What was the problem? The designers were in their 20s and most of the engineers were in their 50s. What was a reasonable screen size and UI to one, was not to the other.

Getting It Right

Arguably, 'that's great in theory but business just isn't like this.' Products have to be launched to match competitors, develop new services and continually evolve offerings.

It's certainly true that providing a bigger role for design has some downsides in terms of time and cost. However, it can create much greater long term benefits. Stuart believes the three stages of design (conceptual, behavioral and interface design) as suggested by Alan Cooper are the right way to move forward.

Conceptual design ensures that the product has an obvious benefit. Behavioral design starts looking at how things work, and the flow diagrams to show menu options. Interface design is the more detailed analysis of what the user will see, hear and feel.

For mobile retailers, Stuart sees one of their great weaknesses as not letting customers play with a charged handset. This is the opportunity to show off the product and make them want it. In reality, many shops still have plastic models and locked cupboards.

For focus group testing of new devices and services, Stuart believes that vendors and operators must start getting feedback on the UI. Research must also find out how users would really utilize new services, rather than ask mundane questions about possible future usage. This often requires real world settings such as focus groups taking place in the home.

For product development, Stuart clearly sees designers brought on early in the process and involved from conception to advertising. He has seen the marketers, engineers and designers often in conflict over perceived differences in focus. In reality, these differences are often not that great.

The acid test of the design argument will be 3G handsets. It was clear from 3GSM that many vendors and operators will be rushing out handsets to ensure a '3G Xmas'. The price of getting poorly designed 3G handsets out in the market is high. The media will slate 3G, users will become disenchanted, and the market will not appreciate the value and complexity of the handsets. Of course, the price for delaying 3G can also be immense with the negative response from investors and regulators as well as the competitive disadvantage.

But the question remains: will the users suffer again through poor design in the race for 3G?