Touch, feel, inspire and sustain

What does quality feel like? If you held two versions of the same mobile phone in each hand, one coated in basic, smooth plastic and the other finished with a texture, which would feel more desirable?

A missed opportunity – differentiating through tactility

The tactile experience of mobile devices has been a quiet art for many years, primarily occupying the industrial design teams within manufacturers, each of which maintains – to a greater or lesser degree – an in-house library of materials to be used in future products.

Typically it is a process conducted within the silo of the industrial design group. There is little integration with the wider experience of software and services on the device.

As a result, the industry rarely focuses on tactility for differentiating mobile devices, even though many consumers I talk to cite it as one of their key priorities when purchasing a device.

At best, consumers are offered a certain amount of choice, with the option of a ‘premium’ device most likely finished with some metal accents, or a more ‘basic’ product with a smooth plastic case.

Motorola’s PEBL was one of the few devices to introduce a new, satin-like rubber effect, but major variations in tactile experience are usually confined to luxury niche manufacturers such as Vertu, which has flirted upon occasion with leather, ceramics and wood.

10 years and little has changed

Before it sold its ill-fated handset business, Siemens was an early pioneer in the tactile experience of mobile products. I recall an interesting discussion I had with Ulrich Skrypalle in 1999, when he was Head of Design at Siemens. I was interviewing him for an article when Siemens launched its 3G concept devices in London.

At a time when most manufacturers were still labouring under the misapprehension that the primary use case for 3G handsets would be making video calls while sky-diving, Skrypalle remained remarkably grounded in the importance of human sensitivity to touch and quality.

He said: “Change the material from plastic… Use ‘authentic’ materials. As I showed, metal, rubber or a material mix, so that the feeling on the hand or the touch on the skin is better.”

It is unfortunate that ten years later, we still have a market dominated by plastic phones with a disappointingly similar tactile experience.

(I’ve published the full interview with Ulrich here. It was originally written in September 1999 and is the first in a new series, entitled ‘Archives’, where we will revisit stories from PMN’s extensive library and see how much – or how little – has changed since they were first published.)

Massage, pillows and physical bonds

More recently I’ve been having an interesting conversation with former students of OCAD, The Ontario College of Art & Design in Canada, who undertook a project in collaboration with network operator Telus to explore material use in mobile devices.

One team of students, Laura Henneberry, Jessica Ching and Shally Lee, started with the premise: “Face to face communication is personal, emotional and dynamic; but the physical experience of communicating through technology is often static, cold and functional.”

From this, they went on to develop a series of concept designs, ranging from handset casings which had a massaging effect when held next to the skin, to mobile phones which cushioned themselves against the user’s face during a conversation. They also experimented with a versatile fabric loop, which helped to established a bond between the user and their device.

Elegant ageing

Another group, including Denise Philpott, Melissa Houghton, Alex Gornicki, Andrea Kezdi and Kathy Tien, explored the notion of ‘Elegant Ageing’. They questioned whether the scratches, dents and cosmetic damage sustained by a device during its lifetime had always to be a negative thing or whether they might actually beautify the handset, in the same way metal can acquire a graceful patina over the years, or the stone steps of an ancient monument become smooth and bowed with the passing many seasons.

They looked to the Japanese concept of ‘Wabi Sabi’ for inspiration, the philosophy that beauty comes through age and imperfection.

The result was a multi-layer paint process for handset casings. Over time, the constant touching of the device would gradually wear away each layer of paint, revealing a new colour beneath.

Sustainability and the upgrade cycle

Such notions have been given further impetus in recent years as customers become more aware of the environmental impact of upgrading to a new handset every 12 or 18 months. At the recent Mobile 2.0 event in Barcelona, Tom Rafferty of sustainability consultancy GreenMonk, challenged the industry to start thinking about handsets which lasted 6 years rather than 6 months.

With over-the-air software updates, a modular approach to hardware design and more sustainable materials usage, there is no reason why a device couldn’t be continually upgraded to ensure it was at the forefront of technology.

Modu, the Israeli handset manufacturer, is developing products which could fit this requirement. It uses a tiny core handset containing the wireless link and a series of ‘jackets’ into which it can be inserted, providing a diverse range of functionality – from music docking to specialist messaging devices.

We had a whole session on tactile experience at the MEX Conference last month and asked several of our breakout groups to explore new materials for handset design. One of the concepts which emerged from these workshops was the link between materials which ‘age well’, such as the smell old leather acquires over time, or the way wood darkens and smooths through touch, and environmentally-friendly handset development.

(Interestingly, the most recent issue of the Financial Times magazine had an interview with Mark Miodownick, founder of the Materials Library at Kings College London. Mark provided invaluable help when I was bringing together our MEX session on tactile experience. The interview makes a fascinating read and is highly recommended. As a side note, the Materials Library is planning to change its name to the Institute of Making and expand its engagement with industry. It is looking for a part-time business manager to help with the transformation.)

If user psychology can be changed to break the association of new features with upgrading to a new device, the industry could dramatically reduce the environmental impact of the mobile business by producing fewer devices which are kept for longer. The key question, of course, is what impact this would have on profitability for a business built around the upgrade cycle.

The next step – tactility becomes virtual

Looking further into the future, the tactile dimension of digital devices will become an issue of increasing importance for everyone in the mobile business, part of the skill-set required by industrial and software designers alike. Research In Motion, the Canadian manufacturer of the Blackberry, was recently hiring new employees in this area.

One of the primary drivers will be the introduction of ‘virtual materials’, haptic actuators which enable tactile effects to be programmed with the same ease as software controls.

Where previously the primary tactile elements of a mobile device have been fixed at the point of purchase, soon almost all of the ways in which we feel and interact through touch on a mobile phone will be customisable in software.

Eventually it may be possible to transform the tactile feeling of any surface using a combination of software and hardware, allowing the back casing of a mobile phone to simulate – on demand – a feeling such as running water and then switching instantly to create the sensation of rough wood.

Haptic technology is already finding its way into large numbers of mobile devices courtesy of Immersion, which has licensed its platform to Nokia, Samsung and LG, among others. South Korean handset manufacturers have been the early pioneers, shipping Immersion’s technology in large numbers of products.

(Christophe Ramstein, CTO of Immersion, spoke at our MEX Conference last month. I also interviewed Terence Warmbier, Director of Business Development, in February 2009 – see the video here.)

Immersion is following a three stage evolution process for haptics. The first is based on controlling a generic vibration device within the phone, allowing for a range of effects which occur in response to particular software events.

The next generation, which should start to reach the market over the next 18 months, will see piezo-electric actuators embedded directly beneath the touchscreen, providing much more localised feedback and a broader range of sensations.

Further ahead, the third generation will make use of electro-deformable polymers (EDP), materials which can actually change their shape when an electric current is passed through them. Imagine a physical button actually growing from the touchscreen and then disappearing when it was no longer required.

However, Immersion isn’t the only company with a vision for implementing haptics on mobile devices. I recently had a fascinating conversation with Ville Makinen, CEO and co-founder of Finnish supplier Senseg. Originally focused on biomedical engineering projects for companies like GE Healthcare, Senseg is now in the process of commercialising its haptic technology for consumer electronics devices like mobile phones.

Sensation without movement

Senseg is unique because there are no mechanical parts involved in its platform. Instead, it uses a proprietary (and, until the patents are granted, highly secretive) process to generation sensation using an electrical field. As a result, it can potentially simulate an infinite variety of effects through a touchscreen, other surfaces or even when a finger is hovering a few millimetres above a surface.

Makinen explained Senseg’s concept of ‘tixels’, whereby surfaces are broken down into a number of areas, each of which can be given a separate effect at the same time using Senseg’s proprietary haptic controller (this is where most of the company’s IP is focused).

In practice, this means a surface could be covered in hundreds of individual ‘tixels’, each no larger than a finger tip and each capable of emitting a different effect simultaneously. According to Makinen, this would enable them to create the sensation of a whole screen rippling, as if it were the surface of water.

The technology is still 18 months away from market, but the company is working to reduce the size of the electronics control module into a suitable form factor for mobile devices and improve the integration process. Eventually, it will be possible to embed Senseg’s technology into existing capacitive touch panels through the addition of the control module and Senseg’s software studio.

Skills across boundaries

These developments will bring with them their own challenges. Today, mobile user experience practitioners remain relatively confined in their respective silos, with some focused on the graphical elements of software design, others concentrating on information architecture and others coming from a more traditional industrial design background.

Virtual tactility will require skills that reach across all of those divides and practitioners who can understand the whole flow of mobile experience, from the ear to the eye to the finger.

I’d be delighted to hear from anyone with a view on this area. It is certain to feature as a topic in future newsletters and MEX Conferences, so please drop me a line ( or +44 7767 622957) if you’d like to share ideas.

Also, we’ll soon be publishing the official 2009 MEX Report, capturing the industry’s collaborative response to the MEX Manifesto through a combination of videos, presentations, sketches and written summaries. It is a great way to catch-up on the cutting edge of mobile user experience if you weren’t able to make it to the MEX Conference, including all our presentations and workshops on tactile experience. Send an email to Marek Pawlowski ( if you’d like to register your interest and we’ll contact as soon as the report is available to buy. (Please note, all MEX conference attendees will receive a copy as part of their attendance fee).

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  1. 1
    MEX - the strategy forum for mobile user experience - Archives: Ulrich Skrypalle, Head of Design, Siemens (September 1999)

    […] In September 1999, Ulrich Skrypalle was the Head of Design at Siemens, spearheading the company’s efforts to refine its products to meet differing lifestyle requirements. He was also the winner of the 1998 CeBit design prize, awarded for his work on the Siemens SL10 mobile telephone. I spoke with him following the Siemens World Premiere in London on 28th September 1999, during which he had presented his acclaimed concepts for third generation (3G) mobile telephony and computing systems. The interview is re-published here to provide background and context for my June 2009 article entitled ‘Touch, feel, inspire and sustain‘. […]

  2. 2
    Marek Pawlowski

    I’d be delighted to hear from anyone with a view on this area. It is certain to feature as a topic in future newsletters and MEX Conferences, so please drop me a line if you’d like to share ideas.

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