Stalking the Wild Youth: Mobile Phone Design for Teenagers
By Mark Frauenfelder, Wed Oct 20 08:15:00 GMT 2004

Watching teens use phones in their natural environments gave a group of researchers insights into how future handsets aimed at the youth market should be designed.

People often confuse what they want with what they need when it comes to consumer products. Manufacturers try to collect this information through interviews, but observing users’ behavior in their natural environment can provide better insights. The science of ethnography, studying how people in a culture interact with each other and the environment, can be an ideal tool to learn how teenagers use mobile phones and to help shape designs to cater to them.

Last year, a team of researchers -- Sara Berg of Interaction Design Department at Umea University in Sweden, Alex S. Taylor of the Digital World Research Centre at the University of Surrey in England and Richard Harper of UK design consultancy The Appliance Studio -- went to a sixth-form college in England and for five months observed the way a group of students used their mobile phones. The researchers used these observations, along with periodic interviews, to come up with a concept for a 3G mobile phone that addressed their findings.

To Give or Not to Give

While observing teens in their natural habitat – campus commons, dining halls, parks, hallways – the researchers came to the conclusion that mobile phones were not only used as tools for transmitting and receiving information, but were also used as tools to establish and maintain the status of social networks. Mobiles facilitated what the researchers described as the “obligations of exchange.” In particular, students have a social contract with each other to give and accept “gifts” in the form of text messages. The gift’s value is derived in part from the message’s content, but it also comes from the fact that the gift was given at all, regardless of its content.

The students regarded text messages as objects that “embodied” special meanings, memories, and events. One student told the researchers that her phone was “like a box of stuff that reminds me of certain people.” Students were observed passing phones to each other so that small groups could all read the same message. They also sent messages to friends at certain times of the day, such as a ritualistic and obligatory “good night” message, peppered with unique grammar and jargon, to close friends or romantic partners. To teenagers, text messages are like glue to increase social bonding.

Armed with this information, the researchers came up with a preliminary design (using Flash and foamcore non-working prototypes) for a 3G device that took into account their findings about teen behavior.

Because the teenagers in the study liked to personalize the format of their text messages in order to endow them with an extra level of meaning apart from the content of the messages themselves, the researchers decided to focus on an MMS system that allowed users to capture photos and video, which they could further customize by adding sound, sketches, and text. And to emphasize the gift-giving nature of the messages, they went for a literal approach -- messages would appear on the users’ screen as little surprise symbols. These messages could be further customized by the recipient as a way to further emphasize their importance as a symbol of a special event or relationship, or as a way to manage reciprocity obligations.

The phone itself was a clamshell design, opening up to reveal two large touchscreen color displays. The top display showed the phone owners social network as a crowd of cartoon people standing in a field. (the bottom display doubled as a keypad and navigation interface). Characters standing in front of the crowd represented close friends. The ones in the back represented contacts with more tenuous social ties. The cartoon avatars could be customized by the people they represented to display emotions (through animation and facial expressions) indicating the kind of relationship they have with the phone owner.

An Incremental Embrace

After building the mock-up, the researchers showed the phone and the software demo to different teenagers to get their reaction. They reported that the device had “a high level of acceptability,” and that the user interface was easy to learn through trial and error, thanks to its similarity with popular Internet chat and instant message services.

So did any of the device manufacturers pay heed? Well, sort of. Taylor, who now works for Microsoft Research in Cambridge, said, "one of the major manufacturers have shown an interest and prototyped a few of the ideas. Interestingly though, it's the operators who have shown more interest and actually had us come in to discuss possible designs."

Taylor says the companies that have expressed an interest in the phone haven't embraced the whole package of features, however. "What's notable is that in all cases it's only certain features of our concept that the companies have toyed with. There seem to be two reasons for this piecemeal process. First, the companies have sought to incorporate the ideas into their own designs, so this puts a limit on how far they can detract from the overall look and feel they have created. Second, their are obvious technical constraints that curtail what aspects of the concept can be implemented. For example, the scroll wheel-like system to navigate the social proximity address book is next to impossible to design on existing hardware."

More importantly, does Taylor believe that ethnography is an acceptable form of research for mobile design? "I think the mobile industry, as a whole, has been far more accepting of fieldwork and particularly qualitative methods of data collection and analysis, as opposed to the broader technology industry," he says.

However, he thinks "the point of qualitative fieldwork is often missed. Both manufacturers and operators see it as a means to add yet more data to a bank of quantitative measures, so that claims such as x is better than y, or x will occur more often than y can be made. The trouble is, qualitative, and specifically ethnographic, fieldwork does not lend itself to this form of data. Rather, its focus is on how things -- such as phones -- come to be made meaningful in everyday life and how they come to play into the social organization of routine interactions. Quite simply, ethnographies are not in the business of casual explanations of the world. Instead, they aim to recover the taken-for-granted and ordinary phenomena that come to constitute our social lives. A fundamental shift in thinking is needed if they are going to make the most from this perspective to design things that will be truly useful."