Progressing mobile experiences from functional to beautiful


Marek Pawlowski, founder of the MEX conferenceThis article by Marek Pawlowski, founder of MEX, is part of an ongoing series exploring each of the 15 MEX Manifesto statements at the heart of the 7th international MEX User Experience Conference in London on 19th / 20th May 2010.

MEX Manifesto statement No. 3: “We believe functional efficiency is a basic right, not a privilege, and true functional identity is achieved by imbuing interfaces with a sense of beauty and emotional connection.”

Around 50 percent of consumer electronics products returned to stores as faulty are actually in fully working order, but are too complex for the customer to understand.

These were the findings of a 2006 study by Elke den Ouden at the Technical University of Eindhoven. Her research also discovered users will invest an average of 20 minutes to familiarise themselves with a product before abandoning it.

This tells us two things: firstly, the majority of customers are unwilling to persevere with overly complex products; secondly, there is an immediate and direct financial impact for companies which fail to provide good user experience – the cost of returns.

Thankfully, basic usability in the mobile industry has improved significantly over the last few years: manufacturers and operators are finally shipping devices pre-configured with all the right settings, allowing users to open the box and start doing new things immediately.

As demand for new services has entered the mainstream, functional efficiency – an expectation the device will quickly and easily allow you to access the advertised features – has rightly become an expectation among customers.

This is great news for users. However, it also presents an increased challenge to the mobile industry.

It is no longer sufficient to base your user experience strategy on simply providing efficient usability; instead, you must look beyond the need for simplicity and explore ways to add a sense of beauty and emotion to the user experience.

This is something which can exist at all levels of the customer experience, from the marketing and retail environment to the packaging and user interface. There are opportunities to create the intangible magic which genuinely moves users to fall in love with a product throughout the various stages of the customer relationship.

The physical form factor is an obvious starting point. Does your handset have genuine sculptural quality? Do users want to look at it, touch it and keep it close them because it inspires their sense of aesthetic? The traditional goal of meeting the ergonomic needs of the 5th to 95th percentile is no longer a sufficient competitive differentiator. Customers must love your product as both an object and a tool.

I find it interesting that, with objects, beauty rarely correlates with youth. Sculpture, painting and architecture is often deemed beautiful only after age and nature has mellowed its modernity. Technology products are inherently young and new, so the challenge of embuing them with a sense of beauty is much greater.

One of the breakout teams at the MEX Conference in May 2009 looked at this issue, exploring a range of new material choices which would allow a handset to age elegantly. Instead of each scratch, scuff and chip reducing the visual quality of a product, they would instead help to develop the same sort of appealing patina which appears on copper, wood and leather over the years.

There are 2 previous MEX articles on this subject which I recommend reading, entitled ‘Touch, feel, inspire and sustain‘ and ‘Touch me!‘.

Another area where beauty and emotion can be expressed is input mechanisms. I have watched numerous iPhone owners flicking their finger across the screen of the device simply because the scrolling effect is so satisfying to watch. The visual ‘ping back’ which occurs when you reach the top of a page seems to be a particular favourite. In user research sessions, I have observed people doing this almost sub-consciously, in the same way they would fiddle with a pen or a piece of paper during a conversation.

The current generation of iPhone limits this form of input expression to the visual dimension, but more and more handsets are starting to extend to touch sensations. We are moving from a world where the physical characteristics of input mechanisms were pre-determined at the point of manufacturer, to a new frontier where haptic feedback can be varied across applications and tweaked according to user preferences.

Immersion, a pioneer of haptic technology, will be exploring some of the possibilities for this at our MEX Conference on 19th/20th May 2010. One particularly interesting example is a new form of emotional messaging, where users separated by thousands of miles can feel their finger tips touch in virtual space as they trace lines across the screen.

The interface itself also provides a fertile canvas for expression. The sheer number of pixels available to designers is exploding. Just 2 years ago, 320 x 240 displays were state-of-the-art. Today, it is not unusual to see 800 x 480 or higher, giving 5 times more pixels to play with.

This allows for better typography, more life-like images and, increasingly, is married with the kind of 3D graphics acceleration previously reserved for dedicated gaming machines.

The opportunities for better, more beautiful design are endless. One example I stumbled across recently was Auditorium, a musical puzzle which combines touch, visual elements and the audible dimension to create a soulful gaming experience for the user. Click on the image below to see a YouTube video of it.

This topic of ‘magical moments’ and beautiful interfaces will be explored in more depth at the MEX Conference in London on 19th/20th May 2010. Itai Vonshak and Alex Rapoport, co-founders of design studio Elements, will give a joint presentation examining what beauty really means in mobile interfaces and whether it is enough to create genuine magic for the users.

Vonshak and Rapoport are the design leads for the First Else, a new handset coming to market later this year, and one of the only products I have seen since the launch of the iPhone to break genuinely new ground in mobile user experience. I wrote about it during Mobile World Congress this year (‘First Else offers a different interaction flow‘).

I believe there is a significant new challenge emerging for the mobile industry. While progress must continue on much needed basic usability improvements, the next generation of handsets, services and applications will need to also inspire a sense of beauty and emotional connection. These feelings, more typically associated with classical forms of artistic expression, are the key to increasing the amount of time and money users are willing to spend on their mobile experience.

Some follow-up points for discussion (I’d love to hear from you by email, Twitter or by posting a comment on the blog):

  1. What are the most promising areas for creating beauty and emotion in the mobile user experience?
  2. Is functional efficiency itself a form of beauty?
  3. Are there any mobile experiences which particularly inspire you or delight your aesthetic?

This article by Marek Pawlowski, founder of MEX, is part of an ongoing series exploring each of the 15 MEX Manifesto statements at the heart of the 7th international MEX User Experience Conference in London on 19th / 20th May 2010. Further information and conference registrations are available for GBP 1499 on the MEX web-site at http://pmn.co.uk/mex/.


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    Marek Pawlowski

    Some follow-up points for discussion (I’d love to hear from you by email, Twitter or by posting a comment on the blog):

    1. What are the most promising areas for creating beauty and emotion in the mobile user experience?

    2. Is functional efficiency itself a form of beauty?

    3. Are there any mobile experiences which particularly inspire you or delight your aesthetic?

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