Emotional Design with A.C.T. – Part 1

As UX professionals, we strive to design engaging experiences. These experiences help to forge relationships between the products we create and the people who use them. Whether you’re designing a website or a physical product, the formation of a relationship depends on how useful, usable and pleasurable the experience is. Ultimately, we form relationships with products and services for the same reasons we form relationships with people:

  • Pleasurable products are attractive and make us feel good. Attractive people can have the same effect.
  • Usable products are easy to interact with and easy to understand. Good conversationalists are the same.
  • Useful products fulfill our needs in a way that leaves us emotionally satisfied in the long term. Long-term relationships can fulfill our physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual needs.

In a previous article on Boxes and Arrows (Design for Emotion and Flow), I talked about the importance of balancing users’ emotional states to command attention and create flow: the mental/emotional experience where all the user’s attention is totally focused on an activity. The total engagement of the flow experience is highly immersive and encourages user loyalty. The experience of flow during interaction can be seen as one of the foundations for the formation of an ongoing relationship.

In Part 1 of this two-part article, I’ll be discussing how emotions command attention. Then, we’ll dive deeper to explore how design elicits and communicates emotion and personality to users. Emotions result in the experience of pleasure or pain that commands attention. The different dimensions of emotion affect different aspects of behavior as well as communicating personality over time. In Part 2, I’ll introduce a framework for describing the formation of relationships between people and the products they use.

 

Defining “Affective Design”

Some time ago, a friend offered me a ride home after work. I got into her SUV and sat down, ready for the short ride. After a few minutes, an annoying beeping sound started. “Oh,” she said, “You’ll need to fasten your seatbelt to make that irritating noise stop.” Grudgingly, I did up my seatbelt and the noise ceased, but the beeping had accomplished its purpose; I fastened my seatbelt.

This is an example of affective design: design that’s intentionally created to capture the user’s attention, triggering an emotional response that will increase the likelihood of performing a certain behavior. The emotional response can be conscious or unconscious. For example, a brightly colored button will attract users’ attention unconsciously by affecting the degree of arousal (i.e. physical stimulation). And the behavior could be any action, from clicking a button or signing up for a newsletter, to making a purchase online.

To make the unpleasant sound in my friend’s SUV stop, I had to perform a particular behavior. In this case, the stimulus was the unpleasant beeping sound, which triggered my annoyance and led me to fasten my seatbelt. With your latest web app, the stimulus is likely visual, rather than auditory, but the energy that it commands is the same. One thing these stimuli have in common is that they demand and command your attention.

 

Attention

Attention has been described as psychic energy.1 Like energy in the traditional sense, no work can be done without it, and through work that energy is consumed. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) named the mental/emotional state where all our attention is totally focused on an activity “Flow”. Flow is a highly engaging experience, and strong emotional engagement demands and narrows the user’s attention. In order for users to accomplish their tasks and attain Flow, we need to capture and hold their attention by managing the design of their emotional experiences.

The products we design need to attract users based on how they look and sound, persuading them (via their feelings) to approach or avoid. They also need to converse with the people using them. The way these products interact should persuade users to take particular actions in predetermined sequences, while also affording users a feeling of control. If we’ve done our jobs correctly, the result is that users will commit and transact with our system; they click the button, subscribe to the newsletter, make the purchase or book the flight.

These events mark the formation of a relationship between the user and the product or application. Each experience with a company’s products or services shapes the user’s relationship with the company’s brand. In order to build positive brand relationships, companies need to effectively manage the user’s emotional experiences during every encounter with their products or service channels. As we’ll see, the consistent expression of a particular emotion is perceived as a personality trait, and our personality traits determine the relationships we form.

 

Dimensions of Emotion

To understand how emotional expression becomes personality, we first need to understand emotion itself. All emotional or affective states can be described in terms of two underlying dimensions: value and arousal. “Value” judgments are judgments of good vs. bad. We tend to base these conscious judgments on whether something is pleasant or unpleasant.

“Arousal” has been used to refer to the unconscious activation of the body, the brain or a particular behavior.2 It has been defined by levels of anxiety vs. boredom,3 and we can measure it by monitoring heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and skin conductance. To simplify it, you can think of arousal as the level of stimulation or activation. When we combine these two dimensions of emotion (i.e. the conscious & cognitive, and the unconscious & physical) we get a circular model of emotion.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Affect Circumplex (Van Gorp, 2006 adapted from Russell, 1980)3

Because arousal is largely unconscious, it provides an especially powerful channel for designers to command attention and influence behavior. For example, large images, bright saturated colors and high contrast all increase arousal levels. Increasing the size of an image and moving anyone in it closer within the frame will increase arousal levels.4 When the level of arousal increases, the focus of attention narrows and goes to whatever is causing the stimulation. A good example of this is a stop sign, which uses a bright red to command attention within the busy visual environment of the street.

During the product development process, there is often a disconnect between design, marketing and usability for this very reason. Visual designers and marketers are often focused on increasing arousal through the attention grabbing emotional-impact of bright colors and large images, while usability analysts are focused on controlling arousal and reducing negative emotions by ensuring task completion.

 

Dimensions of Behavior

Each dimension of emotion affects a different aspect of behavior. Value affects whether we approach (i.e. pleasure) or avoid (i.e. pain), while arousal levels influence how motivated we are to do either. Both pleasant and unpleasant objects and experiences can increase arousal levels. For example, fear and excitement are both high arousal emotions. The level of arousal also affects how intensely we experience a given emotion, and the more intense the emotion, the more attention is demanded. Arousal also affects our level of motivation. Low anxiety or boredom results in low motivation, while higher anxiety results in higher motivation. This continues to an optimum level (i.e. the balance of Flow), after which motivation and performance decrease, while anxiety increases.

Figure 2: Behavior & Motivation Circumplex (adapted from Russell, 19803 ; van Gorp, 20064)

In the case of the annoying sound in my friend’s SUV, the value of the noise was negative (i.e. unpleasant). This unpleasant feeling creates the urge to avoid. If the volume of the noise had increased, or the rate of the beeping had sped up, this would have unconsciously increased arousal levels, further increasing my motivation to avoid the noise or make it stop.

This is a very simple example within the relatively controlled context of a vehicle, but what happens when the context becomes more layered or complex? What happens when the design is visual and interactive? As we’ll see later, that’s when simple emotional expressions are perceived as personalities.

 

Emotion and Personality

Humans are such social beings that we perceive the expression of emotion in everything, including products, objects and websites. Because products usually remain the same, any perceived emotional expression becomes a perceived personality trait over time. The person who appears down or sullen the first time you meet is expressing an emotion — sadness. When that same person appears sad the next 20 times you meet, he or she is likely to be seen as “depressed”. When it comes to products and websites, we can think of a personality trait as the long-term expression of a particular emotion. Take a look at the video below to get a better idea.

Figure 3: American Express Video

As human beings, we assign personalities to objects, interfaces and websites based on the way they behave and appeal to our senses. Even though we consciously know that computers and media are not animate and do not have feelings, we still respond socially and automatically when viewing, interacting and evaluating them.5 It has been suggested that products should be viewed as “living objects with which people have relationships.”6 Through the relationships that are formed by using products, people can be made to feel happy or sad, angry or passive, relaxed or anxious, proud or ashamed, and motivated or demotivated.

 

Personality Traits and Relationships

Like perceptions of emotion, our first impressions of personality are based on the information received by our senses (i.e. sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch). These impressions are formed quickly and unconsciously. With websites and applications, personality is inferred from the use of language, user prompts, sounds, navigation, proportions, layout, contrast, color, images and fonts that comprise the formal properties of the design. In fact, these perceptions of personality are so automatic and unconscious, they occur regardless of whether the people experiencing them believe they are appropriate. Other, more conscious decisions about personality are based on how the object we interact with behaves over time.

In human relationships, personality traits are an important part of attraction and conversation. They shape our relationships by determining who we like and what we expect from those we encounter. They also influence how well we get along with others. In this respect, perceived personalities in products and websites are no different. Unlike us, however, product personalities can exist in fictional worlds and be controlled by designers so that they appear at particular times and places. They can often be simpler, more consistent and more easily identifiable than real personalities, reducing uncertainty and promoting trust.5

 

Dimensions of Personality

Although human personality traits are complex, psychologists have grouped product personalities into a small number of categories that have a similar character. They’ve identified two major dimensions of personality that are readily assigned to products, computers and interfaces by users: dominant vs. submissive5 and friendly vs. unfriendly.7

Figure 4

Figure 4: Personality Circumplex (adapted from Reeves & Nass, 19985; van Gorp, 20064)

Take a look at the simple objects below. Are they expressing emotion? As static objects, any emotions they’re expressing will remain consistent over time. If the major dimensions of personality are friendliness and dominance, which object do you perceive to be friendlier? Which do you perceive is more dominant? Check the comments people left below the photos. Happiness is associated with a friendly demeanor, pleasure and approach behaviors, while sadness is associated with unfriendliness, pain and avoidance.

Figure 5: Objects Displaying Personality – (photos courtesy of Jim Leftwich)

 

Designing Personality: Dominant or Submissive?

Dominant visual features could be described as angular, straight, cold/cool, dark, silver, black…with a heavy base. Submissive visual features could be described as round, warm, light/lucid, soft/delicate, golden.8 When a personality is not represented with overt dominant visual or interactive characteristics, the tendency is to describe it as more submissive. Of the two sites in Figure 6, which site is more dominant and which is more submissive? Which site is friendly and which is unfriendly?

Figure 6: Martha Steward and WWE – Submissive and Dominant Designs

Notice which one of the sites above you’re more naturally attracted to. Which one do you feel more compelled to approach or avoid? Which one naturally grabs more of your attention? How well do these sites match the likely personalities of their target audiences? Generally speaking, you can attract the user by presenting a visual personality that is similar to his or her own. When it comes to attraction, we’re attracted to things that look similar to the way we are, or the way we’d like to see ourselves.

 

Friendly or Unfriendly?

Friendly visual features could be described as positive, while unfriendly visual features could be described as negative. Friendliness is not only determined by what is said, but also by how it is said (i.e. the tone of the conversation). Our tendency to assign and characterize personality based on conversation is easily recognizable in the example below. This example uses contrast, visual weight, , color value, size and typography to alter the meaning that is conveyed by the words. The content conveys the message, but the look and feel change how that message is interpreted, altering the meaning.

Which of the statements below would you rather hold a conversation with? Which one do you feel more compelled to approach or avoid? Which one naturally grabs more of your attention? When it comes to conversation, someone has to lead, and opposites attract.


Figure 7: Personality and Meaning4

Similar or Complementary?

Similarity is the theory that people are more attracted to those with personalities similar to their own, over those who display different personalities.5 Complementarity is the theory that people are attracted to people with personalities that complement their own level of dominance or submissiveness (Markey 20079; Personality Research10). It comes down to the old question of whether relationships work better when people are the same or opposite? And the answer is yes.

When it comes to personalities, different things stir our emotions at different stages of a relationship. Researchers found that Similarity takes precedence early in relationships, playing a vital role in initial attraction. Complementarity becomes more important as relationships develop over time.11 People in long-term relationships are more satisfied when their partners are either more or less dominant than they are. Two dominant persons may experience conflicts as both attempt to lead, while two submissive individuals may lack initiative, as neither is willing to lead. (Markey 20079; Wikipedia 200912)

Generally speaking, interaction between the system and the user should be complementary, where the user takes up the dominant role, while the product, interface or service takes on the submissive role. These roles might flip in the case of a guided tour, or an application where the system is guiding the process or has an air of authority.

 

Conclusion

In Part 1, we learned that emotion commands attention. We also learned that affective design is a term used to describe design created to intentionally capture the user’s attention and trigger an emotional response that will increase the likelihood of the user performing a desired behavior.

The value dimension of emotion influences our behavior (i.e. whether we approach or avoid), while the arousal dimension influences how motivated we are to do either. Emotions influence different aspects of behavior, and their expressions are perceived as different aspects of personality over time. Value influences the perception of friendliness, while arousal influences the perception of dominance.

Emotions, Behavior & Motivation and Personality
Figure 8: Emotions, Behavior & Motivation and Personality4

And finally, we learned that customers are attracted to things that they perceive have a personality similar to their own. Over time however, they prefer to interact with things that take up a role which is complementary to their own.

Useful, usable and pleasurable experiences help facilitate the formation of relationships. In Part 2, we’ll look at the different ways people experience love to get an even better understanding of how relationships form. Then, I’ll introduce a new framework that describes how to systematically provide experiences in the different ways that are necessary to form relationships.

Citations

1Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

2Cacioppo, J. T., and Petty, R. E. (1989). The Elaboration Likelihood Model: The Role of Affect and Affect-laden Information Processing in Persuasion. In A. Tybout and P. Cafferata (Eds.), Cognitive and Affective Responses to Advertising (69-89). Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

3Russell, J. A. (1980). A Circumplex Model of Affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 1161-1178.

4Van Gorp, Trevor, J. (2006). Emotion, Arousal, Attention and Flow: Chaining Emotional States to Improve Human-Computer Interaction. University of Calgary, Faculty of Environmental Design, Master’s Degree Project.

5Reeves, Byron and C. Nass. (1998). The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and New Media Like Real People and Places. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

6Jordan, Patrick, W. (2000). Designing Pleasurable Products. London: Taylor & Francis.

7Desmet, Pieter, R. (2002). Designing Emotions. Pieter Desmet. Delft.

8Wellman, Katrin and Ralph Bruder, Karen Oltersdorf. (2004). Gender Designs: Aspects of Gender Found in the Design of Perfume Bottles. In D. McDonagh and P. Hekkert, (Eds.), Design and Emotion: The Experience of Everyday Things. New York: Taylor & Francis.

9Markey, P.M.& Markey, C. N. (2007). Romantic Ideals, Romantic Obtainment, and Relationship Experiences: The Complementarity of Interpersonal Traits among Romantic Partners. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24(4), 517-533.

10Personality Research. (August 1999). Interpersonal Complemetarity. Retrieved December 19, 2009, from Personality Research.

11Vinacke, W. E., Shannon, K., Palazzo,V, Balsavage,L., et-al. (1988). Similarity and Complementarity in Intimate Couples. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 114, 51-76.

12Wikipedia (2010, January 2). Interpersonal Attraction. Retrieved March 18, 2009, from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Google, Stanford, and The Government Fight Swine Flu

Bolt | Peters recently collaborated with a team at Stanford University on designing the Google Sites template for local governments to use as a backup to deliver information on the H1N1 outbreak, and also disasters and emergencies in general. The goal was to create a template that was well laid-out, easy for non-techie local governments to edit and update with content, and conveyed the most important information to different audiences.

Swine Flu info template

 

How It Started: The Quick Fix

With the recent outbreak of H1N1, Santa Clara County’s official public flu information site was taken down by the surge in web traffic. To help relieve the demand, the Stanford SIE Program, a Stanford University group that develops technology for social change, stepped in literally within hours of the interruption to create an ad hoc backup site using Google sites, so people could still access the critical info.

This is the version of the site they originally posted, using Google Sites’ standard WYSIWYG editing tools:

Stanford's original stopgap design
Stanford’s original stopgap design

After the site went live, Stanford trained the Santa Clara County maintain it and add their own information. Santa Clara County needed to have site that could handle the traffic and get the information out as quickly as possible—which is to say that there wasn’t a whole lot of time to think about design.

This experience made it clear that it would be valuable to create a well-designed, easy-to-edit template for local governments to distribute information in case of emergencies—not just H1N1, but any public hazard, including floods, earthquakes, wildfires, and so on.

The team contacted us in late October with the original draft of the website. Since it was important to make the site available as soon as possible to deal with the ongoing H1N1 outbreak, so the timeline we had for design recommendations was really brief—just a few days. With that in mind, we got to work.

Spotting the Problems

Because of the layout restrictions, our design evaluation focused primarily on information design. We had two main issues with the early design, along with a handful of usability tweaks here and there.

First draft of Google template

1. Lack of visual hierarchy.

With two columns of equal width and mostly indistinguishable boxes filled with text, it was hard to tell at a glance what information was urgent, time-sensitive, or recently added.

2.
Big chunks of info, no
 organization

The info wasn’t grouped into meaningful categories—there wasn’t much visual or spatial distinction between contact info, prevention info, calls to action, and so on, making it difficult to zero in on information even if you know what you were looking for. Also, the info came in big blocks of unscannable prose, and deep reading is the last thing you want to do when you’re trying to learn about the tsunami headed your way.

3. It didn’t anticipate the distinct needs of the most critical user
segments.

There was plenty of good info on the site, but it was never clear who a given piece of info was for—you couldn’t scan the page headers and think, “Yeah, there’s what I’m looking for”. Instead it had a “general audience” feel to it; the info didn’t take into account that different groups might have different needs and different levels of urgency.

4. Buried info.

Vital info on vaccines, symptoms, and SMS / Twitter updates was absent from the front page entirely, lurking deep in the navigation.

Our Recommendations

To keep editing simple for the local government end-users who would be using the template, we had to stick to using the WYSIWYG Google Sites editor, which meant no custom CSS and very little control over layout. We also had literally a single day to make our recommendations and synthesize them into a first-draft mockup—the result wasn’t pretty, but got our main info design recommendations across loud and clear.

First revision of template
Our first stab at redesigning the H1N1 template

Redesign Goal #1: Prioritize information according to the urgency
of visitor need.

Our design takes into account that there are different “general public” user segments with different goals, and that there are tiers of urgency and priority. From most-to-least urgent, we identified these segments:
* People infected with the flu: Immediate help / contact info
* People worried that they might have the flu: Self-diagnosis
* People concerned about catching and/or spreading the flu: Preventative measures and vaccine info)
* People just curious, staying informed: Information about travel restrictions, public response, news updates, deep flu info

The structure of the site was altered to serve each of these segments:
# We added a page-width alert box that would be displayed to convey urgent, time-sensitive info—this is a common feature on many of Google’s sites, as well as CNN.com.
# A yellow-shaded box to give the highest priority group, currently affected individuals, clear instructions on what to do.
# The left-column contains info on self-diagnostic and preventative measures for at-risk or concerned individuals.
# The top-right contains info on vaccines; below is links to deep info, research, and update notifications. Though the Google Sites template didn’t allow us to resize the right column, we noted that it should be made smaller than the left column.
# The left sidebar navigation was reserved for redundant quick links to most important info, as well as links to pages for specially affected individuals and organizations.

Redesign Goal #2: Reduce block text down to easy-to-scan lists
and chunks.
Cut the bureaucratic BS.

We broke down the block text to keep from overwhelming users with too much difficult-to-scan information upfront. Lists were kept to under 8 items long, unless they broken down into categorized sub-lists; text was kept under five lines. All information that couldn’t be condensed in this way was moved to lower-level pages, and linked from
higher-level pages.

 

Users don’t need to know what the mission statement and goals of the organization are; they just want to know if and how they are personally affected, and what they can do in case they are affected.

Redesign Goal #3: Use informative headers that directly address
user goals, and which give all users clear next steps.

All types of visitor (e.g. directly affected, at risk, concerned, just curious, administrative, medical, etc.) should be able to tell by the header if that information is “for them”. We tweaked the headers to make it clear what kind of info you could find in each section. We also made it clear what, if anything, each user segment needed to do:
* Immediately affected individuals are given step-by-step instructions on how to deal with their
emergency situation(s).
* At-risk individuals are given step-by-step information on preventative, precautionary, and self-
diagnostic measures.
* Individuals seeking non-urgent information can be given supplementary external information
resources (by phone, online, and downloadable / printable) and means to stay updated (by email,
text, RSS, Twitter).
* Urgent contact info is immediately visible in the right sidebar.

The First Revision

After we sent over our recommendations and mockup, a member of the team sent us a nice note a day or two later:

You’ve convinced us that we have to completely rethink and redesign the site from scratch, so
your style guidelines come at a very good time. I can’t thank you enough for opening our eyes to
how we can do this in a much better way. I think we can create a site that works much better than
the original site.

…and then a few days after that, Stanford sent a revised version over to Google, who worked with the design firm OTT Enterprises to create two new designs with some added visual design flourishes.

Unfortunately we don’t have permission to show you this revision yet (working on it), but it wasn’t bad—certainly cleaner and better organized, easier to scan, less dense. There was, however, a large distracting green gradient background, some empty space in the sidebar columns, a few stock photos, and a muddled color palette (green, blue, yellow, and gray).

Our second batch of suggestions focused mostly on visual design and layout. Just a few of them:

Visual Design

* Get rid of the gradient background; it’s distracting and confuses the emphasis on different parts of the site, since it runs behind multiple different elements.
* Get rid of the green coloring, which is tertiary to the blue and yellow. Instead, use several shades of blue as the primary color and a little light beige or light grey as a secondary trim. Blue signifies authority, calmness, trustworthiness, etc., which are of course appropriate here. Notice how almost every major government agency’s website (including the CDC) uses dark blue and gray as the main colors.
* Remove the stock images, including the CDC and Flu.gov widget images, which look like ads. The phone and email icons are fine, however.
* Rather than images, make the content headers stand out with size and strong typography—”make the content the focus” is an old web design adage, and the content, in this case, is the flu information. Here are a bunch of sites that use typography, font size, whitespace, and bold layout to create emphasis, using few images [list of a bunch of websites].

Layout

* Header and upper-page content takes up way too much space—note that the important info (”If you or your child…”) doesn’t begin until more than halfway down the screen. Compress.
* I like how Design #2 places the alert and contact info in the sidebar; in Design #1 the sidebar is wasted space. This frees up space to move important info (Vaccine and How to Care for Someone With The Flu) up to the right side.
* This design consists mostly of links to deeper pages, but there’s definitely room to put more specific, useful info right on the homepage: symptoms, preventative measures, vaccine info (see our original design)
* Get rid of the Contents box.

The Results

Stanford started over once again, aided by our style guide and input from OTT Enterprises. After further iterations in Google Sites, they handed it over to the Google visual designers, and here’s the before-and-after:

Before
Google Sites template, super rush draft

After
Google Sites Public Health Template 1.0

Can you do better?

As with all things on the web, the template is a design-in-progress, and will be improved as time goes on. Stanford SIE is looking for feedback on the design, so here’s where you can send feedback for the Public Health template and the All Hazards template. Since these Google Sites templates are available to everyone, you can even make your own design edits and mock up improvements.

Or if you just think it’s great and you just want to use it yourself, here’s the complete list of links:

Google Sites Templates blog post

Public health sites:

Template
Example site
User guide

All hazard sites:

Template
Example
User guide
Stanford SIE site (we’re credited here!)

Note: Nate and Tony’s book on remote testing, “Remote Research”:http://www.rosenfeldmedia.com/books/remote-research/, will be published by Rosenfeld Media in 2010.

Four Key Principles of Mobile User Experience Design

Prior to becoming a senior UX designer at Popular Front Interactive, I spent two years as a mobile UX researcher within the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Mobile Technologies Group – a lab tasked with both future-casting and then rapidly prototyping innovative mobile experiences.

As I transitioned from academia to industry, I discovered that while mobile UX was discussed, it wasn’t discussed from the same broad frame of reference that I was used to within the confines of a research-based institution. Although more recent mobile UX conversations I have found myself in have undoubtedly benefited from the ongoing smart phone revolution, overall I still find these conversations to be needlessly driven by tactical adoration and lacking a conscious consensus regarding the fundamental principles of the mobile-user experience.

I do not presume these following principles to be all-inclusive or ultimately authoritative; rather, it is my hope that they are received as an anecdotal summation of my findings that might then spark and contribute to the larger conversation and consensus-building process.

 

PRINCIPLE #1: There is an intimate relationship between a user and their mobile device.

While an intimate relationship between an individual and their mobile device may seem like a given, the depth of that relationship probably goes deeper than most initially realize. In fact, I argue that the relationship extends to a physical level and the exchange of bodily fluids.

Imagine that it is a hot summer day and someone asks if they may borrow your mobile device to make a call. You hand it over. What level of trust does this simple act portray? Consider those around you right now: How many of them would you loan your mobile device to without hesitation? In your social circles, is it acceptable to decline such a request? How does context influence this scenario? What if you are at work? At a bar? How about a family reunion?

Let’s assume that this person is noticeably respectful of your device and the personal data it contains while making their call. At the call’s completion, the individual immediately and graciously returns it, whereupon you notice that it has accumulated an amount of … goo (perspiration, humidity, etc.) that is typical of mobile device use on a hot, sticky summer day…but then again, it isn’t your goo.

From a gooey physical level to a level of data privacy and security, there is an intimate bond between an individual and their mobile device, the strength of which often elevates the mobile device to the status of iconic personification. I am my phone. My phone is I.

In order to meet user expectations, mobile experiences should assume a semi-guarded state of primary usership; however, we must also responsibly protect our users. As the trend of embedding ourselves into our mobile devices increases, so does the cost of our devices being compromised. Assume primary ownership, allow for secondary usership, and plan for what might happen should we lose ourselves.

In a worst-case scenario, a compromised mobile device containing a significant amount of personal data would become the networked equivalent of a voodoo doll, where actions performed via the mobile device could cause actual harm to the individual personified by the device. In cases such as this, a remote wiping of all data on the device may be a user’s only recourse. 

 

PRINCIPLE #2: Screen size implies a user’s state. The user’s state infers their commitment to what is on the screen.

Imagine that you have been looking forward to seeing a particular blockbuster movie since the day it was green lit, and now that the day of its release has finally come you are going to get the most out of the experience by going to see the movie on the largest IMAX screen in the tri-state area.

Let’s say that when you finally take your seat in the sold-out theatre, you notice the person sitting next to you has a very annoying laugh. There is nowhere else to sit in the theatre, and you’ve been dying to see this movie for more than a year. What are the chances you abandon the experience and walk out? Probably fairly slim to none.

Now let’s say that you were backpacking through Europe when the above blockbuster was released, and that you have been equally anticipating the movie’s Blu-Ray release. To celebrate the release, you and your friends are gathering at the home of the friend who has an impressive home theater featuring a 52-inch HD screen, and again you find yourself seated next to the guy with the annoying laugh. Now how likely are you to abandon the experience? Probably more so than above, but still not likely.

What if this scenario played out in a college dorm room and the movie was being viewed on a 22-inch computer monitor? What if you were sitting next to the guy with the annoying laugh? The chances that you might abandon the experience are probably increasing.

What about a mobile device’s 3.5-inch screen? Is there any way you would sit next to some random person with an annoying laugh for 90 minutes to watch that movie? Probably not.

Although there are any number of social and environmental factors that would affect the user abandonment rate in the experiences described above, it is consistently possible to estimate a user’s level of commitment to an experience based upon the size of the screen through which they are engaging it.

Since mobile devices are likely to be the smallest screens in a user’s experience, the design of mobile experiences must accommodate the user’s varying commitment and distributed attention. How an experience accommodates these conditions will change depending on experience type — game, banking application, or the like — but the underlying impetus remains the same.

 

PRINCIPLE #3: Mobile interfaces are truncated. Other interfaces are not.

A dreaded task that usually accompanies getting a new mobile device is the act of transferring your data from the old device to the new. In years past, this meant arduously re-entering all of your contacts via the device’s, most likely E.161 (12 key), keypad.

There were a few early, notable attempts to ease this burden. GSM service providers pushed device manufacturers to save all user data to the devices SIM card by default, but the card’s limited storage capacity produced a poor user experience. On the other hand, CDMA service providers began automatically transferring address books between devices as a customer service. Even early on it was widely acknowledged that although an individual wanted to use information on their mobile device, they would go to great lengths to avoid having to manually enter that information.

Palm, and later Research in Motion, sought to improve this fact of mobile user experience by introducing and then proliferating the practice of syncing. This concept paired the truncated mobile interface with a full-sized desktop interface, allowing the user to easily and reasonably efficiently enter their address book data via a familiar QUERTY keyboard. Although this feature was initially limited to smart phones, it has since been incorporated into a wide swatch of consumer-grade devices. In fact, the notion of syncing has become so ubiquitous in mobile computing that the syncing of one’s entire networked identity is a core plank of Google’s Android operating system.

Even as miniaturized QUERTY became and becomes a more standard feature for all mobile devices, the truth remains that mobile interfaces are truncated and better used for manipulating data rather than entering it. One might conclude that as mobile devices continue to incorporate increasingly impressive sensor arrays, even standard, consumer-grade devices will provide powerful data collection capabilities. Regardless, data collection is not data entry, and data entry is not likely to become a mobile-appropriate activity. 

 

PRINCIPLE #4: Design for mobile platforms — the real ones.

There is a prevailing tendency is to discuss mobile platforms in terms of device manufacturers and service providers. This is understandable. It is fun and easy to get caught up in the moment of the latest tech demo, press release, or rumor. However, in needlessly binding the dialogue to the news of the day, we create unnecessary segmentation across an already complex landscape. The overall conversation is better served by focusing on the mobile platforms that have emerged as constants over time. Those four platforms are voice, messaging, the internet, and applications.

 

Voice

Voice was the original mobile platform, but it is also the platform with the most nebulous future. Don’t get me wrong: People will always need to make an occasional phone call. However, the frequency with which we are doing so is declining. Why? Mobility is as much about efficiency as anything else, and telephony (vocal communication and vocal response interfaces) has proven more difficult to optimize compared to other methods of interactivity.

For example, let’s say that you wanted to verify that your paycheck had been deposited. Most banks offer both tele-banking and online account access. Which interface are you likely to use, and why? How about if you wanted to order a pizza? Would you rather call, be placed on hold for five minutes, and then dictate your order to a multi-tasking teenager, or would you rather just use a GUI to do it?

 

Messaging

Friedhelm Hillebrand, the architect of the messaging (SMS) specification, described the platform’s limit of 160 characters as “perfectly sufficient.” The question we must ask ourselves in considering this mobile platform is, “Perfectly sufficient for what?” Although Hillebrand can provide several reasons for how he arrived at the 160-character limit, the one that I have always found the most interesting is that his team discovered that most postcards typically contain 150 characters or fewer.

Have you received or sent any postcards recently? If you have, they were likely either brief social communications (“Having a great time. Wish you were here!”) or they were simply task-oriented such as RSVP-ing for a wedding or canceling a subscription.

Messaging trends today continue to affirm Hillebrand’s postcard comparison. The vast majority of SMS traffic consists of social interactions within small groups of individuals. The second tier of usage is comprised of simple task-based transactions such as voting, entering contests, and receiving notifications.

In both cases, SMS and postcards, content-heavy experiences are a minority occurrence as the media is not designed to accommodate such a level of engagement. Furthermore one could argue that due to the designed efficiency of the messaging platform, that a content-heavy experience would be far from appropriate. 

 

The Internet

The Internet is the most awkward of the mobile platforms in that it is the one that is the least natively mobile. Currently almost 95% of all Internet users experience the web via displays with resolutions of 1024×768 or greater. As such, 1024×768 is observed as a fairly universal standard and is what a significant portion of Internet-based experiences are designed to. Given that mobile displays typically range between resolutions of 60×120 and 480×320, it is fairly obvious that most Internet-based experiences aren’t designed with mobile users as a primary consideration.

As a means of making Internet-based experiences more accessible to mobile users, most mobile web browsers have been designed to include adaptive methodologies for displaying larger experiences on smaller screens. While these adaptive tactics, which typically employ pan and zoom-esque interactions, have undoubtedly made more of the Internet accessible to mobile user, one could hardly argue that it has resulted in a desirable user experience. In fact, if browsing the Internet from a desktop is regarded as a scanning activity, than browsing the Internet through the adaptive lens of a mobile browser might best be described as a squinting activity.

As mobile web usage has continued to emerge as a somewhat common activity, the assumption that Internet-based experiences are to be automatically adapted for mobile users has given way to the design of alternative experiences specifically for mobile users. While this trend has provided mobile users with more efficient and scannable web experiences, it also has the potential of overplaying the users’ expectations for Internet-based mobile experiences.

As Internet-based mobile experiences have become more device-centric and sophisticated, they have begun to resemble mobile applications, thus creating a scenario where users might expect the Internet-based experience to function as a mobile application would. The distinction between desktop applications and Internet-based experiences may be rapidly evaporating, but it remains germane in the mobile experience. Although there are several differences between the platforms, the primary point of contrast I will draw here is that applications are able to use device-level services such as sensors, ad-hoc networking, and optics, whereas Internet-based experiences cannot. While mobile browsers are beginning to make some of these services available to Internet-based experiences, each platform will always have affordances the other doesn’t. As such, and to manage user expectations, if an experience looks like an application and attempts to behave as an application would, then it should be an application — and vice-versa.

 

Applications

From a technical standpoint, applications represent executables that are native to a specific mobile environment, have been selectively installed, and have access to the device’s full array of available functionality. However from a UX standpoint, they represent a specialized interaction design that caters to an affluent, sophisticated, and targeted mobile user base.

As few as 24 months ago, the seemingly basic task of locating and installing an application on a mobile device required a fairly developed skill set. With the recent proliferation of “app stores,” this task has become more user friendly; however the percentage of users who are able to install an application on their mobile device nowhere near approaches that of those who know how to make a phone call or send a text message. So, regardless of recent improvements to the overall process of acquiring and installing a mobile application, the user who can perform this task would still be considered sophisticated compared to the overall segment.

All things considered, mobile applications might best be described as the boutique mobile platform. As is the case with most boutique experiences, a comparatively small audience will compensate for itself through fervor and zealotry. However, since the success of an application-based mobile experience is based almost entirely upon acceptance within that small audience, extraordinary attention must be paid to the particulars of the target audience’s needs and behaviors. What existing need is the application attempting to mobilize? What efficiencies can a focused interface bring to that workflow? How can the specific affordances of a mobile device augment and improve upon that experience in contrast to using one of the other mobile platforms?

Mobile applications are powerful tools…for a relatively small segment of individuals who want them and know how to use them.

 

Conclusion

Someone tweeting on behalf of Punchcut once wrote, “In mobile UX, don’t confuse precedence with standard.” I couldn’t agree more, but as I hope that I’ve successfully illustrated, this statement is well ahead of where the conversation should be. Both standards and precedence are both tactical perspectives. Within our context, they both represent distinct libraries of interactions and are either redefined as the landscape evolves or simply replaced as more elegant solutions are brought to market.

The variable nature of each of these categorizations only further demonstrates why it is best for the current mobile UX conversation to focus on higher-level principles rather than tactical particulars.

As mobile UX designers, we have both opportunity and choice in front of us. The opportunity is to establish the foundation principles of a stable, yet still emerging, experiential space. The choice lies between getting caught up in the excitement of the fad du jour or asking ourselves the difficult question of what foundational principles am I following, or establishing, with the work that I am currently doing.

The only unfortunate part is that the time we have to make this decision is quickly running out.