Chris Heathcote  

On Mobile Handset Usability and Design

March 28th, 2005 by Chris Heathcote :: see related comic

_[Chris Heathcote][1] is a user experience manager in the Insight & Foresight unit of Nokia, watching and predicting trends 3-5 years away._

One of the hardest parts of designing for mobile phones, compared to, say, websites, is that your target market is huge - pretty much everyone. Segmentation is possible, but when people get in the phone store, they’ll change their mind on a whim, often influenced by a special offer, or simply which looks to be the smallsilvershiniest.

With Nokia, the problem is intensified - even those handsets that are ‘niche’ will still sell more than all of some other manufacturers’
handsets. Which means I’m really glad that Nokia releases phones like the 7280 or the 3650. Nokia is trying to push phone design forward, and whilst the mass market may not see the point of these models, to a certain percentage, these phones are perfect.

I am in Hong Kong at the moment, and sure, the phones on sale are the latest and the greatest, but I’m really disappointed. Where are the new form factors? The uniquely styled? Those with different input and output mechanisms? The most future thing I’ve found so far was in one of the markets - a little dialer keypad that goes between your phone’s accessory port and your headset (why take the phone out of your pocket to make a call?).

We are moving towards a future when some people have more than one handset, and switch between the two(/three/four) depending on where they’re going. This is easiest in GSM markets, where you have a SIM that you can transfer between phones. But the SIM can only hold basic contact information, and is fiddly to insert and remove. So we’re looking at ways to make this process easier. This includes how operators sell handsets - in many European countries, the handsets appear to be free or cheap due to operator subsidy. But do you really want a second contract for your going-out miniphone?

Another thing I’ve noticed in Hong Kong is the use of MP3 players - second only to New York in ubiquitous white earbuds, but also all kinds of shape and size of small solid-state music. But don’t you run out of pockets? Well, no, either the phone or player is hung round the neck, or alternatively the music player is clipped to a jacket. It’s not uncommon to see people listening to music in one ear and on a phone call with the other. Siemens’ Xelibri line did some great experimentation with this - do you want to display or wear your phone?

It isn’t a design/usability tradeoff - it’s trying to find the best possible design for each individual, rather than a lowest common denominator suitable for everyone. I use a trackball at work, I find it much better than a mouse, but if anyone else tries to use my computer, they’re repelled. It took many tries to find it (including some ugly tablet moments), but it’s my ideal solution. I think you should be able to find your ideal solution in mobile phones, and all your other electronics. I’ve seen people fall in love with the 7280, and that makes me extremely happy. Surely you should be clamouring for Nokia to release _your_ individually perfect mobile phone?

[1]: “Chris Heathcote”

17 Responses to “On Mobile Handset Usability and Design”
David Heller wrote:

I say bravo! Nokia is doing live experimentation in a market with extremely high turnover rates. If only software companies could be this progressive.

I really don’t think that UX people need to be trumpeting the “usability” cry anymore. Speaking to ourselves like a blog like ok-cancel is all about, there is much more of a need for design than there is a need for usability. Jakob Nielsen is wrongly the UX poster child, and we need to move away from that and find a new post child that can represent more complete solutions: Jonathan Ive? Steve Jobs? Time to get daring in design again.

Mind you a complete backlash from conservatism is what anyone in the US needs most. ;) … I hope at CHI someone talks about design outside the Design Expo.

Alain Vaillancourt wrote:

I want a big phone with a big keypad. I want the phone to be big enough that I can press it stuck between my chin and my shoulder, like with my desktop phone, so I can have both hands free without having to bother about earphones or ear buds. I want those keys as big as the ones on the keyboard connected to my desktop computer: I’m a male with big fingers and those tiny keys on their tiny keypads are driving me nuts. Each time I go past a cel phone store or kiosk I am tempted to go in and berate the staff for their subservience to miniaturization.

usabilist wrote:

Chris, what are your predictions: will we finally get rid of having explicit phone numbers once? I mean the acquisition of new number through bar-code scaning, radio-frequency tokens, wireless phone-to-phone transfer & so on. Then there will be no need for numerical keyboard at all.

David Heller wrote:

How are you going to carry that?
Wouldn’t a wireless headset w/ voice dialing be better? Why have buttons at all? Why have a handset?
I say:
1. miniturize more, so that the headset IS the phone … ala Minority Report.
2. Get better at REAL voice dialing …
hit a button,
say, “Dial”
say, “phone digits out loud”
or say, “code if pre programmed”

Voice recognition is so there already.


Make me an PDA/camera/mp3 player (read database and file repository) that connects to the above headset as an add on that accesses my addressbook, and is capable of automatically connecting voice to the entries. Meaning … if I say “Day’vid Hel’ler” it is able to cross reference that. if it is confused, it will read off the top choices, or say Mobile, Home, Work if I don’t have a default set.

Now that being said, the handheld needs to be connected to the network for web/e-mail etc. And Alain, you ain’t going to get a big keyboard for that, that’s for sure. not anything you’d want to put in a shirt pocket or put on a belt holster.

It’s funny b/c a phone is probably the “handheld” I use least, but is most important to me.

— dave

Tom Chi wrote:

I’m glad that Chris was able to contribute this article, but I’d have to disagree with some of the statements made. The focus on more and more phones is a strategy that a hardware vendor like Nokia is obviously going to favor, but I’m not sure if that is in line with what users want. There is probably a sizeable set that sees the phone as a useful tool and not as a fashion object. This doesn’t mean that these people won’t appreciate good design, but good design has the interesting effect of diminishing your need for more of a thing.

For example, if you love the design of your PDA, you probably won’t go out and get 3 other PDAs for different ‘occasions.’ This is especially true for devices that have data lock-in. If I have spent a decent amount of time putting contacts into one device, and having it loaded with my device specific settings, etc, then why on Earth would I want to duplicate that tedious work on a small constellation of devices?

As you noted, SIM cards are clumsy… I would also add that import/export of data between devices is pretty sketchy (esp. between different vendors), and that most hardware companies do not put enough effort into the management software that ships with their devices. All these pieces together create an environment where having many phones is something of a drag.

Now these problems *can* be solved, but not through more and wackier phone designs. What is needed is an extremely convenient way for data and settings to be portable and device agnostic. Also phones that are designed to actually work well in a public context — having a conversation out loud is still not really acceptible in many situations. Text messaging has helped somewhat in this regard, but because text messaging is so dependent on interaction with a tiny screen, it tends to take you out of context of the physical world.

Anyhow, there’s a lot more that’s worth saying about the next horizon in mobile devices, but I just wanted to offer an alternate view of the “natural” evolution of these devices.

Dave wrote:

Tom, while I agree that not everyone will think of a cell phone as a fashion statement, you have to admit that there is a fashion element to it, to the point of being an accessory. We aren’t getting multiples to match our clothes or anything like that quite yet, but we personalize them w/ face plates, add electrical lights for the antena or the batter back. And many people really do take advantage of buying a new cell phone every two years.

Now there will be people like my dad, who still has his first cell phone 5 years later, but this really isn’t the norm.

I also think comparing a PDA to a Cell is not apples to apples at all. i think of a cellphone as a belt. Some people use the same belt every day, otehrs have a ton of them. Do I need multiple belts? Of course not, but ya know, it’s nice to get a new one.

For me a phone is not all about utility at all. I love the oooo! ahhh! I get when I take out something that no one else has or has seen. (I have a palm phone; not a treo.)

It is nokia’s responsibility to create fashion statements and have good old reliables. While we’ve been concentrating on Nokia’s “special phones” I think traditionally nokia has done a decent job of designing both types. The others are just cheaper and well, less exciting, so why bother talkin’ about them. ;) (Uh! how do you create brand if no one is talking about you/it?)

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Dave, if you wear a different belt every day, do you have to punch in the holes for the belt you’re wearing that day? Or maybe transfer the buckle over?

Yes, oohs and aahs are great but Tom’s PDA parallel is wrt data capture which I think he’s dead on about - it’s a problem that’s often neglected.

Alain Vaillancourt wrote:

begin “clamouring for Nokia to release your (my) individually perfect mobile phone” (and answering Dave)
I dont’t want a headset or headphone or ear buds. I hate headsets, headphones and ear buds. They are a mess and a nightmare to drag along. The cords get entangled in everything. Besides, they make my ears sweat and itch. Ick! Ugh! I find them so inconvenient that when I use Skype on my desktop I put my headset around my neck, more or less, using it only to position the mike constantly near my mouth, and I get the sound from my loudspeakers. The software filters out any risk of feedback. And I don’t need, I don’t want a big _keyboard_ on my cellphone . All I want is a big _keypad_, and even a big keypad like the one on the right side of my desktop’s keyboard has a smaller footprint than my PDA. And I really want that keypad because the last thing I want to be forced to do is to have to speak to a dumb phone, when it’s so easier for me to push buttons. I want the phone to be big enough so that it goes all the way to my mouth and to my ear, like my regular desktop phone, with eear and mouth sections sticking out correctly. I’m always dropping my too tiny cellular phones, because they are so small and rounded out. I never (or hardly ever) drop my regular desktop phone handset, because there is always a part of a mouthpiece or earpiece sticking out conveniently for me to grab. This situation is completely loony because I often use my cell phone in situations (outside usually) where it is extremely inconvenient or even a disater if I drop it, while dropping my regular phone on the desk is not that bad. It should be the other way around! Finally, my pockets are numerous enough to store two or even three or even four ergonomically correct, man sized cell phones. If some people wear tight pants with small pockets al the time, with no jacket, well that’s too bad for them, because this is a clamour for my perfect mobile phone, not theirs. Oh yes, I nearly forgot, lest anyone think that I am a technophobe who only wants an ergonomic exercice in plastic reshaping, I am really looking forward to the day when Nokia (or others) make a detachable (from the phone) one inch square wireless display which I can clip on my sleeve to see call info and other info (other caller waiting, etc.) while I am holdong the rest of the cell phone to my ear and mouth.
end “clamouring for Nokia to release your (my) individually perfect mobile phone”

Mark Hudson wrote:

I think the Nokia user interface is a classic, and the 6680 is very well thought out. What I HATE is the Orange “homescreen” app that they install over the top, eating memory, disabling the active standby screen and wrecking my installed theme. It also has bugs (fails to update while keypad is locked, so you don’t know you have missed calls or texts), and it takes 5 keypresses to read an incoming text message, rather than 2 on the normal Nokia standby screen. Nokia, I implore you, save us from this dodgy customisation by the mobile operators!

Rich wrote:

for a classic example of the worse, most ill thought out mobile interface you could imagine then have a look at the link below.

reinoud wrote:

about bigger keys on the keypad:

why not make a phone with 6 keys? I’ll try to draw ;)

|     |     |
|  C  M  E  |
|     |     |
|     |     |
|  4  5  6  |
|     |     |
|     |     |
|  *  0  #  |
|     |     |

It works like this:
to dial a 4: press the 4-button
to dial a 5: press the 4+6 buttons simultaniously

etc. etc.


Pôl wrote:

Reinoud you’d need to press four buttons to get 8 or 2. Too much I think, but good try.

Pôl wrote:

Perhaps just three, but too much yet. :D

SH Dawoodbhoy wrote:

Iam over 60 years i need reading glasses isee far verywell drive alot it is not alowed to talk on mobilephone and to reply ineed glasses to see who ls calling at 70 miles an hour if i can see who is calling in verylarge letters or numbers i can decide to stop and answer or to reject i m sure msny of age people will want this mobilephones thankyou

Sebhelyesfarku wrote:

i am 88 years old and my phone doesn’t work

F. wrote:

>>>I want the phone to be big enough that I can >>>press it stuck between my chin and my shoulder, >>>like with my desktop phone, so I can have both >>>hands free without having to bother about >>>earphones or ear buds.

Thank goodness for that. I thought I was the only one who felt that way.

joan wrote:

My teacher wants me to find out how much it costs to build a cell phone for my ficticous company. I can’t find anything. Can you help?? Just a guestimate would be good.


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?