7 years ago today my time with Sony Ericsson came to an end.
I used to work for them as a software and hardware usability specialist. Our part of the company was dedicated to smartphones. Back then, they weren’t mainstream. They were incredibly expensive, a status symbol, mostly owned by business people. Perhaps you had one? (leave a comment if you did!)
At that time, there were no guidelines in the public domain for smartphone UI design. When it came to things like navigation, fundamentals, hit areas, button sizes, tactile feedback, hardware ergonomics, we had to design and test everything from scratch. And this was much more difficult than it is today.
Design and prototyping
Believe it or not those lovely prototyping tools you’re used to using didn’t exist back in the early smartphone days. Seriously, count yourselves lucky you have these! The UI design team used to use Adobe products for design. For prototyping, Macromedia Director and Flash were firm favourites.
For the early flip style smartphones, we had to design not just for one style of interaction (full touch) but there were actually three interaction paradigms!
1. Full touch. This is like what you have with your current smartphone – the full UI has touch interaction.
2. Full flip keypad. With the flip closed, the UI could be fully navigated and interacted with just using the hardware keys on the flip.
3. Combined: Touch and keypad. With the flip in the closed position, the touchscreen shrunk to the smaller size but it could still be pressed using touch. The UI could also be fully navigated and interacted with using the hardware keys on the flip. This meant for a complex interaction style. Everything that was designed had to be tested with three interaction paradigms – complex stuff!
Old skool mobile user research
User testing meant looking over the user’s shoulder to see what they were doing. This was coupled with note taking at the speed of lightning to miss as little as possible!
Conducting research with mobile users years ago was fun to say the least. We didn’t have the means to record mobile UIs, so it meant looking over the user’s shoulder to see what they were doing. This was coupled with note taking at the speed of lightning to miss as little as possible and get everything down before you forgot it, being mindful that as you were scribbling, you were missing further user interaction. As the researcher, you then had to also follow your discussion guide and focus on maintaining the flow of the interview. I developed the knack of note taking without looking at the paper in the end – it wasn’t pretty but it worked a treat!
HIPPOs and developers
Developers were particularly problematic and I remember seeing red once when one said to me I must have asked ‘thick users’
At the end of the research there was no video evidence so then began the battle of convincing stakeholders. Developers were particularly problematic and I remember seeing red once when one said to me I must have asked ‘thick users’ because my research findings didn’t agree with their personal opinion. Seriously… I’ve heard it all! Patience is a definite requirement of any UX person and fortunately I have bags of it – queue a big friendly smile and a simple explanation of why users aren’t thick.
HIPPOs were also a huge problem. This is when the highest paid persons opinion overrules everyone else (in our case this was made worse by the fact the top decision makers were based in another country). It’s still incredibly common in companies and the only way to overcome it is to get the HIPPO on your side. Befriend them, educate them, show them evidence, let them think they’re making the decision.
Get the HIPPO on your side. Befriend them, educate them, show them evidence, let them think they’re making the decision
Running around corridors after users…
I remember a time when I wanted to replicate more natural usage of mobile, so I tasked users with walking down the corridor whilst carrying out tasks. Of course, this meant I had to scurry along behind them, trying to see what they were doing whilst making notes, remembering my guide, asking questions, etc, etc. It won’t come as a surprise to you to hear I didn’t do this again in a hurry! There’s only so much multi tasking one person is capable of.
Mobile research is so much easier now, thankfully!
Twinkeys and no keys… dealing with poor hardware usability
Our industrial designers were based over in Sweden, silo’d from the UI team. One day the hardware would just turn up and there’d be crucial functions missing that had been specified in the software. This then meant a long battle to make changes. I’m a qualified ergonomist so I adapted my role to include focus on hardware usability and worked on building relationships with the ID team. This worked really well and in the end they genuinely appreciated having someone to review their early design mockups and be the intermediary between them and the UI team.
Everyone benefits from capturing potential issues as early as possible
What happened to mobile innovation?
I was fortunate to make my way into several future concept groups and to help define some incredible future technology for mobile devices. There were some amazing things in the pipeline that I still haven’t seen on any devices. It feels as though mobile innovation has come to a bit of a standstill since the iPhone. I’m really looking forward to the day when the next big tech change in mobile happens.
7 years on…mobile is bigger than ever!
So, 7 years have passed… how did time go so fast!? Mobile is now bigger than ever and smartphones are mainstream. Most of my work in mobiles now involves helping companies to improve their mobile website conversion or their mobile app user experience.
Despite the fact that mobile is now huge, it remains the most difficult platform to design for
So many well known brands still make obvious mistakes in their mobile experiences.
There’s a real opportunity to stand out if your brand offers the best mobile experience
Need help with mobile?
Then you’re looking in the right place! At this point I should probably point out that at Keep It Usable, we also have the UX designer of the first ever smartphone.
Our mobile expertise is unrivalled
We know mobile design and user behaviour on mobile inside out, we know what works.
PS If you used to own a Sony Ericsson smartphone let me know!