This article by Marek Pawlowski, founder of MEX and Editorial Director at PMN, provides a summary of the second day’s proceedings at the MEX conference in London this week (27th – 28th May). This is part 2 of a 2 part summary. Read the first part here.
The second day of the conference started with a morning of in-depth breakout sessions. Participants were challenged to respond to MEX Manifesto points by working together in small discussion groups, combining executives from all parts of the mobile industry.
The first session addressed MEX Manifesto point #2, entitled ‘Handsets are no longer just for the hand‘. Robert Weideman, Senior Vice President of Marketing at mobile input solutions supplier Nuance, provided the inspiration for this session. He delivered a keynote presentation exploring the interface challenges we face when it can no longer be taken for granted that the mobile device is held in the palm of the user’s hand.
This is potentially one of the most significant challenges in the evolution of the user experience. Throughout the development of analogue, 2G and 3G phones, one of the few consistent factors has been the physical presence of the device in the hand. However, as we entrust more and more of our media collections, data and even personalities to the mobile handset, it is playing a greater role outside the palm of the hand.
Weideman identified a number of scenarios, ranging from in-car GPS to home media integration, when the mobile handset is being used at a distance which makes a physical interface impractical.
Voice control, gestural interfaces and even holographic projection were highlighted as potential avenues for exploration as the industry seeks ways to enhance the out-of-hand mobile experience.
Immediately after Weideman’s inspiring presentation, the MEX conference split into small discussion groups, with each team asked to explore a different aspect of Manifesto point #2.
Two groups were set the task of designing a music docking station for the handset that would appeal to 14 – 17 year olds. Helped by the presence of so many expert product designers within the MEX audience, the two groups produced innovative and different concepts.
One focused on the social aspects of music, producing a sketched prototype of a docking station which enabled several teenagers to plug their handsets into the device at the same time. In doing so, they created a collaborative element to the product, with a ‘gaming’ concept where the kids would be able to compete to decide who got to play the next tune.
The other team focused on a portable docking station, which employed a combined carrying handle and wind-up charging mechanism to allow it to be used outside, away from a power source.
Other teams explored the Manifesto point from different angles. Two teams were asked to come up with new usage scenarios when the handset would be used outside the hand. Others came up with specific interface innovations to make the mobile phone a better in-car GPS. Two remaining groups were tasked with improving the usability of Bluetooth – a key enabler technology for many of these scenarios – and thinking about how mobile accessory products could be better marketed in the retail environment.
The second breakout session of the morning focused on Manifesto #3, ‘Fragmentation is the enemy of innovation‘. Carl Taylor, Director of Applications and Services for network operator Hutchison Whompoa, offered a provocative view on this topic, asking delegates to consider whether fragmentation was, in fact, a direct result of innovation.
He explored many of the ways fragmentation manifests itself in the mobile business – from the need to test applications on a wide range of different handset specifications to the business models which see content providers losing 50% of their revenues in distribution costs.
Taylor also argued that most customers don’t actually want a huge range of different applications to choose from – they just want one solution that works well. The duty of network operators was to manage the user experience on behalf of the customer to ensure they were provided with a reliable, pleasant and safe environment.
Taylor also challenged mobile developers to become more realistic about fragmentation, recognising that the operator would remain the gatekeeper of the customer relationship for the forseeable future. He was also disappointed developers weren’t doing more to understand user experience requirements themselves, describing how many of the ideas pitched to him by application providers fall short of the usability benchmark required by his network.
The subsequent MEX breakout discussions were designed to promote the industry collaboration and empathy which will be essential if the mobile business is to reduce fragmentation. Groups of delegates were asked to think about fragmentation issues from the perspective of other value chain participants – major global network operators were forced to think like small software developers and media companies had to get into the mindset of handset manufacturers to gain a better understanding of why fragmentation occurs.
Group tasks ranged from identifying issues to proposing new ways in which operators could help more developers to get their products to market. Other teams spent time considering how basic things like inconsistency in customer language can create the uncertaintity and confusion which is the public face of the industry’s fragmented business models.
Despite the highly emotive nature of the issue, which saw some heated debates within the breakouts and the summary session, the partipants universally acknowledged the refreshing insights resulting from the exercise.
After lunch, Thomas Kleist of Native and Tom Airaksinen of Ocean Observations each delivered beautifully illustrated presentations on MEX Manifesto #1, entitled ‘Content itself will be the interface of the future‘.
Kleist delved into the conceptual significance of interacting directly with rich content and what happens when you strip away the visual clutter of menus and icons. He argued that by doing so, we can actually inject a sense of fun into the process of learning a new interface, citing the Nintendo Wii as an example.
By using real and natural elements to form the interface, it is possible to break down the barriers which prevent all but the most tech-savvy from rapidly adopting new technologies. Kleist observed that the old argument that interfaces required rationality and structure to be effective was increasingly invalid – getting closer to real world examples was often the most rational way to achieve interface simplicity, even if it may look more complex at first glance.
Airaksinen focused his attention on the current situation in the mobile business. He cited examples of today’s menu systems, which offer 26 different menu options to manage contacts and menus which change depending on how you access them, leading to confusion and uncertaintity among users.
He also identified the ineffectiveness of transfer screens, which simply showed lists of icons or made a barrier between the user and their content. He called for the death of the ‘dumb icon’ – if icons are to justify their place on the screen, they must do more than simply represent an application. There is potential for them to convey information about the status of that application or the content it contains.
Airaksinen also made the point that ‘not all content is created equal’. Why did the interface of his handset treat all 600 of his contacts as if they were as important as each other? There were probably 2 or 3 he contacted every day, 5 or 6 he contacted each week and the remaining several hundred might only be contacted every few months. He proposed that all applications needed to become smarter in how they presented content in a relevant way.
He showed a demonstration example of a music player built on Nokia’s Series 60, which automatically re-sized interface tiles according to how much content they contained. If the Rock genre contained twice as many songs as the Pop genre, it appeared twice as large.
Another example was a Sony Labs innovation using intelligent image processing to create cursive thumbnails from larger pictures. This allowed the thumbnail to focus on the most important part of the picture, rather than just miniaturising the whole image.
Manifesto #9 – ‘Users as individuals, uniquely complex and contradictory‘ – was tackled by Dr. Norman Lewis, Chief Strategy Officer of Wireless Grids Corporation. In addition to his role at Wireless Grids, Lewis is also the chair of the ITU Telecom programme committee and was previously head of research at Orange France Telecom.
Lewis has spent considerable time studying the behaviour of children in relation to digital technology. He focused his presentation on the social, familial and educational dynamics which are causing the emerging generation of children to be so very different in their behaviour patterns.
The digital environment has become their key platform for self-expression because kids are increasingly unable to spend any time away from adult supervision. Whereas the children of 30 years ago were encouraged to play in the neighbourhood, many of todays kids are kept under the watchful eye of adults who fear for their safety.
This has led to a ‘bedroom culture’, where parents are happier for their kids to spend time in front of their PC than they are to see them running around the local park. Children, however, have lost none of their appetitie for self expression and are now turning to the digital environment of social networks to achieve this.
The mobile device, with its inherently personal nature, has become a key part of this process.
Lewis digressed to explore the notion that the mobile business cannot hope to understand the behaviour of every individual user, nor should it presume that its focus groups and surveys can hope to achieve an accurate picture of what people want.
He believes the industry must develop platforms which allow users to customise their experience for themselves with radically simple tools. Furthermore, Lewis proposed that this kind of customisation could provide a revenue stream to rival advertising. He cited the example of Chinese social networking site QQ, which has a hugely profitable business from millions of micro-transactions used to buy small content items to customise to the look and feel of its users’ pages.
After two intense days of debate about the mobile experience, much of it focused on next generation data services, it was left to Simon Crowfoot of Spinvox to provide a refreshing dose of pragmatism. Crowfoot eloquently addressed MEX Manifesto #10, ‘The potential of smart voice‘.
With the industry so intent on delivering new services, the potential for generating revenue growth from the voice experience is often neglected. However, Spinvox itself has proven this can be done, developing a series of premium products which use voice recognition to enhance the mobile experience. It is best known for the way it has applied this technology to voicemail, enabling users to receive a text message translation of their voicemail without listening to the message.
This radically simple concept, which makes no use of flashy interfaces or advanced handset technology, has become wildly popular. Spinvox itself recently received a huge USD 100m funding round as it continues to role out the platform with network operators around the world. Crowfoot found himself talking to a room where it turned out 50% of the audience were themselves evangelical Spinvox users!
I’d like to thank all of the people who put so much effort into making MEX 2008 a huge success – the speakers, facilitators, judges and sponsors. Most of all, I’d like to thank everyone who attended the event and participated with such enthusiasm and creativity in the many breakout discussions and debates. The event thrives on involving all of these bright minds in the intellectual process.
MEX 2009 will be held on 19th and 20th May in London – put the date in your diary today!
If you’ve missed out on attending this year’s conference, the MEX Report is a great way to catch-up on the cutting edge of user experience thinking. It will be available for purchase to those who didn’t attend – please send me an email at email@example.com if you’d like to pre-register for your copy and I’ll be in touch as soon as its ready.
Also, we are launching a new initiative – MEX Briefings – where we bring MEX insights direct to your offices. From the end of June, we’ll be touring the world with a programme of in-house seminars for companies that need to get up-to-date with the key trends in mobile user experience. These tailored sessions enable you to bring MEX into the heart of your organisation and come with a corporate license for the 2008 MEX Report. If you’d like to book one of these sessions for your company, please drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is part 2 of a 2 part summary. Read the first part here.