Measures of technical prowess dominated Mobile World Congress. The event’s vocabulary was characterised by quad core 1.5 Ghz processors, 41 megapixel cameras, 720p displays and LTE network speeds, all resulting from intense competitive pressure at the high end of the device market.
Users, however, will struggle to see the difference.
My lasting impression of several days immersed in the industry’s most advanced technology is of a sea of generic black slates, each with slight differences at the component level, but ultimately just variations on a theme unchanged for several years: imitating the iPhone and iPad.
Apple, meanwhile, are poised to release a new template tomorrow.
Some at the event put forward the argument that differentiation has shifted into the virtual sphere and that users are satisfied simply with faster, cheaper glowing rectangles through which to consume services. I don’t subscribe to this line of thinking. The body of evidence from user interviews and observations suggests people are still driven by physical form and, crucially, how component and software innovation is used to create integrated, meaningful features.
A longer specification list does not in itself correlate to better user experience. The need to reiterate this in 2012 suggests, for all the lip service the industry pays to the important of user-centred design, much work remains to be done within the MEX initiative to espouse better practice more closely aligned with the reality of users’ lives.
I spent my time in Barcelona looking for examples of this approach and, amid the noise of technical cliches, interesting threads emerged.
Damian Dinning of Nokia showed me how, if you look beyond the 41 megapixel headline, the PureView 808 has actually been designed to enable new types of close-up photography through a combination of technical innovation and new interaction sequences. It also comes in a gloriously bold red colour, part of a palette which seems to speak of a new confidence at the Finnish manufacturer.
Emporia revealed how their ongoing commitment to refining products through multi-layered user research, in partnership with Cambridge University, is making mobile services accessible to those previously excluded by technical complexity.
There was a noticeable growth in the intended use case of tablets, expanding away from pure consumption activities to embrace more creative endeavours. The re-emergence of the stylus as a credible accessory provided evidence of this, as did new applications from the likes of Adobe. A central focus of Samsung’s stand was an artist-in-residence, sketching aesthetically-pleasing models while the slightly jaded mobile industry mob looked on.
The majority of experiences remained reliant on visual innovations. However, Immersion’s HD haptics, SRS’ audio technology and HaptiMap’s research efforts all provided examples of how mobile experiences can engage our senses of hearing and touch. Firing designers’ imaginations and driving the development of better tools for integrated visual, audio and haptic design remains one of the MEX Pathway priorities.
Jason Flick of YOUi Labs demonstrated how gaming industry inspiration can make speed relevant and a clear user experience enhancement.
The unique visual qualities of Qualcomm’s Mirasol displays prompted thoughts about their role in another MEX Pathway initiative – quiet design – particularly in view of their exceptionally low power requirements.
Matt Plested of Alloy showed how even a market as seemingly commoditised as USB modem sticks can be reinvigorated by user-centred design principles, showcasing the work they did for Sierra Wireless.
Innovation in software interfaces was harder to find, not least because the small application developers at the forefront of UI experimentation were noticeably absent. Ixonos’ multi-pane sliding UI and Nokia’s PureView slide-to-zoom gesture were the standout exceptions.
A discussion with Liat Rostock of EyeSight broadened the horizon of interface innovation beyond touch and into gestures, but also revealed the nuances of user behaviour and technical challenges facing this approach.
I’m sure many of you were there too. What did you think of it all? Email me, I’d love to discuss.
My full archive of notes and photos from MWC is here, or individually listed:
- Gestures in a mobile context
- Searching for new UI metaphors
- Mobile creativity unleashed
- Prioritising relative speed
- Sound experiences outside the visual canvas
- Maps appropriate to context
- Refining through multi-layered user research
- User environment driving technology
- Displaying visual quiet
- Subtle interaction and sensory engagement
- Finally found form factor flourish
- Consuming devices move to create
- Copy fast, fail soon