The second mobile wave is multi-platform user experience design

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. 1: “We believe mobile user experience will be defined by a desire to connect entertainment devices, health appliances, car dashboards, smart architecture elements and other digital nodes, leading to the new world of multi-platform experience.”

The industry is on the cusp of significant change in the way products are designed. It can be thought of as the second wave of user-centred design process to sweep the mobile business: a realisation the user experience of mobile products is influenced as much by the devices and systems they connect with as by the individual interface and form-factor considerations which characterised the first wave.

We call this multi-platform user experience design. In this new world, the first rule is to assume users are engaged with multiple channels simultaneously and you are competing for every percentage point of their divided attention span.

If I think back to 2004, when we initiated the research for our first ever MEX User Experience Conference, the first wave was just beginning. An industry historically driven by creating technology and then looking for ways to sell it to consumers was finally coming to terms with the rapidly maturing customer landscape. Companies were realising their roadmaps must be driven by the needs of specific segments rather than portfolios of technology spun out of the R&D department.

That thinking has progressed in subsequent years, a process accelerated by the arrival of a benchmark example of user experience design: the iPhone. With so many iPhone clones now on the market, it is easy to forget how different the Apple device looked when it first arrived, providing a bold example of what a mobile device could look like if you were willing to abandon the 30 year conventions of 12 button keypads, clamshell flips and small screens.

It was a wake up call for the mobile business and caused a spike in the strategic significance attached to user-centred design.

Of course, many questions remain unanswered by that first wave of user experience improvements. Although the size and remit of user experience teams within mobile companies has expanded significantly, there are still far too many devices and services reaching the market with usability flaws or hamstrung by the wider user experience issues resulting from the industry’s fragmented structure.

However, with the importance of this first wave now universally recognised, I am confident that, in time, mobile companies will complete the move from technology-centric to user-centric product design.

The next stage – the second wave to which I referred earlier – is about recognising how the growth in connectivity has hugely increased the influence of the wider digital landscape on individual products.

Consider, for instance, audio content. Users can access audio services of some kind through their PCs, car dashboards, home entertainment systems, dedicated portable music players, televisions, mobile phones and other channels.

The user drivers are obvious: they want to listen to relevant content, in a familiar way, through numerous different touchpoints. There are clear benefits to this being delivered as part of a connected system, allowing the same content and interface preferences to be shared across, say, the user’s car, phone and home audio player. However, in these multi-platform scenarios, there is likely to be a particular device or product which has a disproportionate controlling effect on user requirements.

It could be argued, for instance, devices like the iPod and iPhone exert more influence on the purchasing decisions and user experience preferences of many customers buying a home entertainment centre than the qualities of the centre itself. I know of numerous individuals who have chosen audio equipment for other areas of their life based on how well it integrates with their existing iPod, iPhone or iTunes.

They bring with them a set of user experience expectations and product requirements driven by their pre-existing decision to centralise content in a particular system, a familiarity with its controls and an interaction pattern influenced by its UI.

The biggest challenge in this second wave of user experience will be understanding how to balance the user needs specific to a particular device with the wider design considerations of the overall system. In the audio example, a simple manifestation of this might be how to create car audio controls safe to use when driving, while at the same time reflecting the user’s desire for a system similar to their home PC, where they store most of their music.

There are some specific and immediate implications for the designers of mobile phones. This new multi-platform design approach raises the very real possibility that the visual UI differentiators companies are spending so much time and money developing today may well be considered irrelevant by users more concerned with whether the product fits well with more important aspects of their personal digital universe.

Even if a company can establish its particular device or platform as the commanding influence within a user’s digital universe, the design will still need to reflect the reality of limited attention spans, simultaneous multiple device usage and multi-channel media consumption.

Put simply, if you are still designing products and services believing they will enjoy the user’s undivided attention, you are in for a shock. Ask yourself the question, can my users still have a great experience with my mobile product if they have one eye on the TV, one hand scrolling through their iPad and half their brain listening to the home audio system?

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. Which device is likely to exert the greatest controlling influence over UI expectations within users’ personal digital universes?
  2. Is it possible to design and test all possible usage scenarios within a multi-platform user experience or should we instead direct our efforts towards a new approach, where we aim to make products as ‘neighbourly’ as possible, playing nicely with any other prospective network citizen it might connect with?
  3. Can we combine products into overall experiences which are greater than the sum of their parts?

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

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    Waqar Ahmad

    Good post—informative and thought provoking.

    I don’t think that a single device will have greatest controlling influence. User context is the key and role of a device will vary depending upon context. In one context of use, a device may be a driver (controller) and in another, same device may be driven by some other controlling device. For success of a multi-platform world, what would matter most is the openness of the interacting system components to share services and data. It does not seem practical to conceive and test all possible usage scenarios beforehand—better make an open platform and let developers create innovative products. The platform openness will drive innovation and has the potential to considerably improve user experience. Many a times, users struggle with interoperability of devices. There is no doubt if interoperability of devices improves, value generated from appropriately integrated platforms will be much more than mere sum of the parts.

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