Heads-up for a Better Mobile User Experience

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By Matt Jones & Simon Robinson

Once upon a time, building a compelling, usable, useful mobile service was hard. Very hard.

The devices had small, fiddly keyboards, seemingly designed by evolved svelte beings, not the fat-thumbed, clumsy typical users. Displays were black and white, pixelated, and very small, with the classic “snake” line game being hailed as a major user-pleasing feature. The only onboard sensors, if you could call them that, were the one attached to the battery, to warn of an imminent end to talk time, and the phone’s aerial, which could determine the strength of the nearest mobile network signal.

Researchers and designers like us stared down at the materials we had to work with and sighed. While desktop and laptop computers at the time were advancing with dazzling screens, subwoofer audio, and lovely web browsers, it felt like we had traveled back in time to join the ranks of developers who struggled with programming the small displays of early photocopiers and ATM machines.

Things are so different now, thanks to a combination of three factors:

  • First, there’s the relentless progress Moore’s Law has brought, with processor speed doubling every 18 months while costs remain the same.
  • Then, market forces brought fierce competition to pack devices with as many hardware and software innovations as possible, from eye trackers to brighter and bigger displays.
  • And, of course, there was Steve Jobs. His genius was to inspire and provoke teams at Apple to see the richness that touch screens, app stores, and an ecology of devices and platforms could bring.

The fruits of this progress were richly illustrated at an Apple tech conference in 2012, where visitors enjoyed an art installation consisting of over 100 iPads glued together. 

This long, shiny strand was synchronized to show the apps that were being downloaded from iTunes in real time. Like a great dark pool, the display entranced viewers, surfacing as it did the world’s appetite for apps—for everything from dieting to connecting with the Dalai Lama—as well as exposing the work of an army of developers who are daily providing new snacks.

Today’s smartphones seem to provide an incredible user experience – just take a look at this image of a shopper who has waited hours to be able to buy the latest, greatest device.

He just can’t hide his raw ecstasy at getting his hands on a shiningly seductive piece of the future. Millions of others, like him, find apps effective, satisfying, and enjoyable. Meeting their needs, filling dead time, solving their problems.

In our new book, we celebrate the success that is apps, services, and the ecology of mobile devices; but, we also ask the question: what do the current approaches to mobile interaction overlook? Is there more to user experience than can be expressed through today’s heads-down, glass-blunted, and private me-centered reality?

It seems obvious how things should develop in the mobile market—more apps, better screens, longer battery life, faster and faster networks, drawing us more and more towards the tempting pool that leads us to digital worlds that offer so much. We want to help undermine this certainty by providing alternative perspectives; changing the future but starting now.

More details about the book can be found at changetheworldUX.com

Image Source:

Image 1: Image reproduced by permission of Harold Thimbleby

Image 2: “A customer exists [sic] the store while Wozniak watches” by Anuj Biyani (https://www.flickr.com/photos/anujbiyani/ 2278098213). Licensed under CC BY 2.0 (https:// creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/).

Image 3: Mobile Merger (http://www.mobilemerger.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/iphone_glow_crop.jpg).

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