In the following interview highlights, Kim Lenox, Senior Interaction Designer at Adaptive Path, spoke with Barbara Ballard, President of Little Springs Design and author of Designing the Mobile User Experience, about her thoughts on designing for the mobile space.
Kim Lenox [KL]: Hello, I am here with Barbara Ballard who will be presenting “Going Mobile: How to Choose Target Platforms and Devices?” and “Mobile Usability Testing” at Adaptive Path’s UX Week 2007 this August in Washington, DC. Barbara, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on the mobile space with us.
Barbara Ballard [BB]: This topic is becoming even more relevant with last month’s major product release: the iPhone is the only phone out there, for example, that you can reliably trust to do AJAX. On the other hand, it doesn’t even do Flash. So, while the iPhone is the most complex device out there in terms of what web technologies it provides, it still doesn’t provide all the technologies that other cross-platform applications might want to be able to serve.
Most companies start their process by saying, “Well, Java is obviously the best answer so we are going to go develop in Java and we have Java developers and so that’s our solution.” And other companies go out there and say, “Well, AJAX is clearly the best answer,” but they don’t understand what that means in terms of market penetration, vagaries or even the very nature how mobile applications might be different. To pick on AJAX for a moment, AJAX is great, but wireless connectivity is by its very nature intermittent. So, if you have one part of a page not refreshing and another part of the page refreshes, you’re gonna have different parts of the page reporting different statuses for the same thing. It can get very confusing, just a trivial example, but one that impacts how you design. The new Google reader application and AJAX is pretty good at not having the two panes being consistent with each other.
KL: It’s definitely a design challenge.
BB: It’s very much a design challenge, but the challenge starts before they even bother bringing in the designers and so this is a place where design can lead, but only if they’re educated about the structure of how devices work, how the platforms work and what sort of response latency, data freshness and the like that they need to serve their customers best.
KL: And that’s generally what you’re going be covering in your topic at UX Week and I’m wondering, are you going to be covering anything relative to the market penetration of which phones are in which regions and what the different platforms are? There are so many different platforms out there, how do you go about figuring this out?
BB: I’ve got something on the order of seven to ten points to consider and one of them is geographic focus and which sorts of platforms have good penetration in the different geographic foci. Another one is operator involvement so those are both critical. For example, in the U.S. alone, Verizon supports Flash, Sprint doesn’t to the best of my knowledge, AT&T doesn’t, but I would check that recently. Everybody supports Java, but you have to have the certificate signed and if you’re not going have a partnership with the carrier, you’re pretty much toast if you want to go to Verizon.
Your business model starts hooking in as well. And yeah, it affects design and design affects all of the rest and it gets confusing. And really this is gonna be drawing mostly from one of the chapters in the book, which is on selecting technology, but it’ll be referring to the chapter on industry structure, which seems kind of odd to include in a design book, but if you don’t understand some of these industry structure aspects, your designs won’t ever see the light of day.
KL: I was looking at that chapter first because that’s the challenge for a lot of web companies that are building for mobile. They’re not quite sure about their users and it’s an important part of the business model.
BB: And who your customers are, those aren’t necessarily the same people. It’s like the poor phone manufacturers tried to have a relationship with the user, but in reality, for most of them anyhow, their relationship is with the carrier.
KL: Right. How do you think with the iPhone’s release, it is going to change this business relationship currently with the carriers and handset manufacturers?
BB: I think the iPhone will make the carriers more amenable to such relationships and if you go look at the Jitterbug, it’s got the same flavor of carrier partnership. The iPhone is giving us a few niceties that have existed for years, and yet have not seen the light of day.
It takes somebody with the brand recognition, the market cache, and the force of personality of Apple and Steve Jobs to make it happen and when I phrase it that way, Apple came in really bullying Cingular. Now, Cingular needed some bullying. In fact, the operators need some bullying. They’re not yet comfortable with the web wave even the pre-web. They are very concerned about taking down their network and I think they’re using the wrong line of thinking about that.
So far to the best of my knowledge, no web site has taken down any wire line network, maybe I’m wrong, because you just block off the offending parties so I don’t understand why that’s happening. And so I’m hoping that between Apple pushing these companies out of their box and the grand experiment of seeing whether this outrageously priced, relatively low-featured device makes it, even despite, you know, so-called slow network conditions. Well, it’s already improving my business.
It’s making everybody more aware of what breaking the mold on what mobile phones would look like and whether the operators stay in line or stay engaged with such activities as the Jitterbug and iPhone or if they need to get out of the way and both models can work. The Europeans might get out of the way and Japan might get more involved, what the Americans will do I don’t know. So, I’m hopeful.
KL: I have seen a shift as well from the moment the rumors started of the iPhone. I worked at Samsung and saw the shakeup happening with the rumors and then with the announcements. It was really kind of obvious.
BB: And the Prada phone is pretty and it’s got a couple of nice features, but beyond the tactile feedback and the Flash front-end, it’s the same user experience.
KL: Why do you think that the iPhone has gotten such great play and the Prada did not? It came out what four months before, right?
BB: Yeah, the Prada phone was launched in February if I’m not mistaken. They were both announced at 3GSM in January in Barcelona, but the Prada phone was obviously much closer to market. And at the time, there was some rumors or thought that maybe Apple was copying the industrial design of the Prada phone.
The Prada phone’s actually doing very well and it’s pretty and it has some nice features, but it doesn’t have the integration. I haven’t had a chance to test either device. The Prada phone is just a fancified regular phone in terms of what I can tell with the nice tactile feedback. So, it’s very incremental.
The iPhone, while looking almost like it, challenged some of the base assumptions like how voicemail works. Apple fixed that, and yeah, Jitterbug fixed that. They fixed it very differently. Actually, I think the Jitterbug will sell a lot more and make a lot more money than iPhone.
KL: You had mentioned they’ve changed, for example, voicemail. Were there any other paradigms that they’ve shifted with the release of these phones?
BB: They both challenged the key assumptions. The Jitterbug challenged the assumption that you have to have feature after feature after feature just piled on and I suspect they used the money that they were saving to buff up some of the remaining quality. We’ve been talking about simple devices with large buttons for a long time. The Trace Center up in the University of Wisconsin, has been talking about this since 1996 I think. It’s kind of sad that it’s taking this long to get on board.
There is also a U.S. law: if there’s an acceptable version of the hardware or software, the government is supposed to choose that one and the Jitterbug will be much closer to accessible. And if their management really chooses to push that, they could shift the entire U.S. industry in one fell swoop because roughly 25 percent of adults in the U.S. work for some flavor of the government.
That has fairly profound implications and the state governments basically just adopt the federal government regulations rather than try to manage it on their own. So, it’s not just the federal government that would be impacted by that; whether they choose to do that or not remains to be seen.
The iPhone is trying to be your iPod and your phone all in one, but I don’t think it’s the iPod for diehard iPoders. For two simple reasons: one, battery life, it’s really important your phone works when you need to make it work. If you are using your device constantly the way that diehard iPoders will, you’re going to run out of battery when you are stuck somewhere. Two: memory size, eight gigabytes just isn’t going to be enough for a diehard iPoder. So, they haven’t carved out their bread and butter with it and yet, Steve Jobs is saying that it’s your everything device, but his actions belie that a bit. I don’t think that an everything device is really doable.
KL: Why do you say that it isn’t doable?
BB: Well, technically it’s doable and by technically, I mean you can shove a music player, a video player, an email client, a chat client, a phone, text messaging, a great web browser with all that entails, and your information doodling device and really make it an entire computer in the palm of your hand, but the user experience will suffer. And anyone that has a critical user experience component for you, for example, the diehard iPoders, it’s critical that their music experience be uninterrupted. They’re going to continue using the iPods rather than the iPhones. For somebody like me, who maybe listens for an hour a day to Podcasts, the iPhone is fine—so there’s a difference. Although, I’ll have to see whether Podcasts can be done with it directly. That would drive me batty if they weren’t able to and I think that’s the case.
If you really want a great information device, is the small screen ever going to be enough for you for information visualization? Would the voice experience suffer? I’m going to point at Palm and Apple as two of the key manufacturers: they’re trying really hard to make it not suffer and they’ve done a pretty good job, but still it’s suffering.
The more features you shove in there, the more issues you’re going to have. You can use your mobile phone as your camera for your vacation; the technology is there. If you have a memory card, you’re golden. Most people are going to bring their pocket camera as well. It’s faster, it’s more optimized for taking pictures, you turn it on, you push the button, there’s the picture. As opposed to turn it on, press the button, push the other button, load it up. Oh, it doesn’t have a great flash and oh, it doesn’t do this. Okay, I’ve finally taken a picture and now it’s taking three seconds to store. And if I upped all of the memory and processor to make all of that work faster, I would use up the battery before the end of the day and I couldn’t use it as a voice device. There are always tradeoffs and I think that you’re going to have a device in your pocket that does all the things that you can’t bear to be without.
KL: The UX Week attendees are web design professionals and I’m making the assumption that many of them are entering into the mobile space. So, what advice or tips do you have for them specifically?
BB: Well, you just described my primary market for the book, so here is my shameless self-plug: buy the book it was written for you. In more concrete terms, consider what type of user market you are shooting for. You have a wide-range of users and those are going to range from your iPhone users, and we all have a pretty good idea of what those people look like, all the way down to “I just need a little bit of information on my low-end phone, make it work please.” That’s going to be on a browser that doesn’t have scripting and can only download 10k or 20k as a webpage. They might be using the built-in browser like Opera Mini.
There’s also this extra-special group of users. These are smartphone users in third world countries. More and more of those folks are using their mobile phone, typically Symbian and Opera Mobile, as their primary or only access to the Internet. And so understanding which flavors of market you’re going after and optimizing the experience for those markets is more than just optimizing for Firefox or maybe Safari. It’s more fun than that.
KL: The information that they require is going to be much more robust because they don’t have PCs at home.
BB: Exactly. That’s why I didn’t really put them on the same spectrum. Google Maps is becoming more popular on phones and it’s a downloaded application rather than the web. Web designers will decide whether a downloaded application is a superior solution for their precise needs. Google did precisely that with Gmail and Maps. They have not yet done that with Reader. It’s a really interesting space and if you try to please everybody with a single design, I guarantee you’re not going to please very many people at all.
KL: That’s good advice. As far as your usability testing conference session, is there anything in particular that you wanted to cover in this conversation as we wrap up?
BB: The one-minute overview is don’t test on the computer; it doesn’t have the same expectations, the same interaction paradigms, it doesn’t have anything. So, test on a device. There’s some really interesting research going back and forth as to whether field testing is particularly necessary or not. And most of it says probably not; certainly not for the first pass or two of usability testing.
KL: Before we wrap things up, is there anything else you would like to add?
BB: I’d be happy to share a key design philosophy: the mobile phone is the one device that is going to be in your pocket. It’s going to be carried with you all the time. This has a number of fairly obvious implications for limitations of the device and I’m not talking about right now, I’m talking about structurally long-term. Things like it will be wireless (as in using a local wireless network). Wireless tends to be intermittent. It will be battery powered. Okay, so we have battery issues. It will be a small screen. If it’s a larger screen like some sort of rollout screen, you’re not going to be able to use that screen all the time, you’re only going to be able to use it part-time because you need to be able to use it while walking. You just keep going through this list and it’s probably the case that users will have a better device to access the web, but at least sometimes this highly limited device is going to be the device they’re using to access your service or application. I can do an hour-long talk just on that because you can keep going deeper and deeper into the implications of that simple thought.
KL: Definitely, the context of use makes a huge difference in how you design things.
BB: Yeah, it affects context of use, it affects limitations of the device.
KL: Thank you so much, Barbara. I’m looking forward to meeting you at UX Week.
BB: Thank you!