CeBIT 2004: Features Alone Do Not Make a Handy Cool
By Eric Lin, Thu Mar 18 14:00:00 GMT 2004

Design is about more than looking good, or looking high-tech. Good design is about making something you have to have, even if you can't explain why. We delved into the deeper levels of handy design today at CeBIT.

German companies are known for no-nonsense high-quality design, but solid engineering and clean design are not enough to make something easy or even fun to use. For instance, despite Germany's good reputation, there is not a single door handle here which works as you expect it to. As a consequence, the entire country is literred with push or pull signs on nearly every doorway. While walking through the huge campus of Hannover Messe, fighting with the doors, we could not help but start talking about Donald Norman. Norman, an outspoken proponent of usable design, recently published a new book called Emotional Design. Sometimes the design of an object makes it so desirable that - usability aside - you have to have it. Some of these products are also highly usable which is part of their emotional appeal, others may not have the best interface but we learn to live with these in exchange for owning something that makes us feel good.

Emotional designed framed our trip through the booths of manufacturers and carriers, and provided some very valuable feedback. Some campanies have nailed the je ne se quoi of design so eseential to emotional appeal, other companies couldn't be further from it. We touched on Nokia's Lifeblog application last week, but today we got to try it. Seeing pictures, messages and notes organized into a timeline together on a handy as well as on a PC evoked an emotional response. There was a wave of security and warmth as you watched a virtual life stream before your eyes. It created an even greater sense of attachment to the handy which users already tend to feel very personal about.

Some of the phones we saw, we were impressed with, but few actually appealed to our baser instincts. The Sony Ericsson S700 is a wonder of engineering. Holding it opened or closed it feels and works like exactly as a you expect. Turn the S700 sideways and open the camera lens, and the S700 looks and acts exactly like a camera. This wasn't just emotional design, it was usable design as well. Most handys can't produce such an overwhelming positive response, but rarely do they produce an emotionally negative response either. Motorola have a few new handsets that literally infuriated me. I wondered if the designers actually made calls or sent text messages or used handys at all. I literally left the booth steaming mad.

After seeing hundreds of handy that didn't impress us either because they looked and felt like all the rest or because their techno-trickery was just that- gadgets for their own sake, we were struck by a software demonstration. We were lured in by the high resolution screen of the F900i, a new 3G handy for NTT DoCoMo. The screen alone could not inspire an emotional response, but the applications are what reeled us in. The geekier applications (like streaming video with Japanese subtitles) appealed to our technological side, but playing with the avatars for videoconferencing and other "cute" applications touched us emotionally. As a finale to our DoCoMo demonstration, our hostess took our picture, sent it via infrared to a special printer, and we each left with a Polaroid picture of our smiling faces. The smile wasn't just for the picture, it was for the whole experience.

The mobile companies that are popular have built their brands, their reputation, on more than just price or technology. They have built products that appeal to our human side, because even the geekiest among us still want to smile.