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Designing Exceptional Mobile Experiences

by Timothy J. Wood, Kim Lenox
17 min read
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A discussion with Kim Lenox, senior interaction designer at Adaptive Path.

If you were to draft a profile for a UX thought leader, you’d likely come up with something that closely resembled Kim Lenox. Known for resetting the perimeters of everyday problem solving, Kim has devoted her career to making life—if not the world—better through user experience design.

Fresh from a three-week European speaking tour, Kim spent an hour on the phone with Tim Wood of EffectiveUI. They spoke about one of Kim’s passions: the art, science and philosophy of mobile UX design.

Wood: Before we jump into the interview, can you tell our readers about your professional background and what your role is at Adaptive Path?
Lenox: I am a senior interaction designer at Adaptive Path, one of the design leads. Basically, I will take a project from the very first sales call all the way through to completing the product. I will have the conversations with the clients and figure out what their objectives are and build out a proposal that’s appropriate, and then take it all the way through to designing the product. If there’s research involved, I’ll probably do the research as well.
At Adaptive Path, we have design leads and we also have practitioners. I’m actually both; I will lead a project, but I will also be a practitioner on a project under someone else’s lead. We flip those roles so we have more than a few individuals who lead projects. We all generally get to lead projects. It makes it easier (and actually more enjoyable) to have the opportunity to lead something and also have a chance to be a design resource or a research resource. That enables me, for example, to focus on the design problem more than client relations at times.
Before Adaptive Path, I worked at Samsung Electronics at one of their six global design centers in San Francisco (which recently moved and merged with Samsung‘s Los Angeles Lab). At Samsung, I was part of a team of interaction designers, industrial designers, and design researches all sitting in the same room working together on projects, primarily for the North American market, but also for the global market.
We did advanced concepts for the most part, things that were three to five, maybe even 10 years out. I did a lot of research and a lot of interaction design work there. In everything I do, it’s a collaborative process working within project teams. Prior to Samsung, I was working at LeapFrog and prior to that I was working in interactive television. I’ve basically been doing software design and development and project management for the last 13 or 14 years.
Wood: Our discussion today about designing exceptional mobile experiences begs the question: What does “mobile” mean to you? Does your perspective extend beyond the classic telecom context, especially given some of the market trends today and the direction consumer electronics is taking?
Lenox: Yes, mobile to me definitely extends well beyond the feature of communicating by phone. When I think about mobile, I think about how we take our content and our lives with us through a mobile device, which might be a PDA or a Palm Pilot-type of phone. It might be our MP3 players, or an iPod with video. The essence is that we’re bringing our stuff with us into a mobile setting, which is quite different from just having a mobile phone for communicating. It’s now about moving our stuff around with us.
Wood: Given that mobile devices have enabled new behaviors—like being able to bring all our content with us all the time—what are some of the common challenges you face when designing for mobile devices? With all the constraints that small-scale interfaces present, especially around things that you are able to hold in your hand, put in your pocket or take with you in your car, what are the challenges?
Lenox: I think that the biggest challenge we face within the mobile industry is that a lot of the time our clients and our partners are thinking about features and technology first rather than what the users’ needs are within a mobile context.
At Adaptive Path, we help our clients understand that while they have built cool technology, or while they enabled great features, we need to actually find out whether the user is going to want them. And if users do want them, how will they actually use those features?
We take a step back. Instead of looking at features and technology, we look at users’ motivations and behaviors in the mobile context to better understand what the needs are. What are the opportunities, what are the gaps that current products are not fulfilling? From there, we can unearth some new opportunities that might be found within the mobile context.
Wood: How do you educate or sell your clients on moving more towards a user-centered model to answer those types of questions?
Lenox: Often clients come to us with a design problem and say, “We need an interface designed for this feature.” If they come to us, they’re not coming to have somebody just implement a user interface. That’s not why you come to Adaptive Path. We really engage the client in the process of understanding their user. We will talk to them and ask: Is this the appropriate feature? Is this the appropriate way you want to approach it? If they’re willing to work with us, we take them along the process of educating them about the consumer.
We often do ethnographic research to help us understand the specific problem at hand, but also to help the client understand who their users are and what their users’ needs are. We have various research techniques. We pick and choose the techniques that are appropriate for the challenge we’re facing.
One of the first projects I worked on when I started at Adaptive Path (Rachel Hinman and Dan Saffer were co-leading the project), we did a deprivation study. The project was for mobile Internet usage before the iPhone came out and mobile Internet usage wasn’t commonplace (and it still isn’t). In order to find out how people would be using it, we deprived them of their PC Internet usage, gave them a mobile phone, and told them it was their only access to the Internet for several days. That unearthed all kinds of fabulous data about the problems with mobile Internet usage that informed us on how we would actually build a better experience.
Wood: Interesting. Can you talk about the aspects of mobile UX design that you find frustrating?
Lenox: You know, I don’t find designing for mobile frustrating at all. I find that we have amazing opportunities right now. There are so many unknowns to tackle that, to me, the field is a playground of opportunities. I don’t find anything necessarily frustrating about what I do. It’s exciting.
I guess if there’s anything, it’s that I don’t have enough time to do all the fun things that I want to do and there’s not enough time to do all the cool research that’s possible. There’s not enough time to actually design all the features and experiences that I want to do.
The technology is there. Users are much more savvy than they were ten years ago, and they expect a lot more. We have the tools now to actually do amazing things. I think what’s inhibiting a lot of innovation right now is the model of having users pay for certain services per usage. It’s a limitation on what’s currently available in the marketplace simply because the carriers (or operators) and the manufacturers—the players—don’t quite understand what the users’ needs are and what the possibilities might be.
Instead, they’re thinking about the traditional approach where people pay to use this wireless pipe. They’re not thinking about the products in a way where we could actually enable useful experiences. If I’m standing in front of a restaurant, I should be able to automatically get access to the reviews of that restaurant from all of my social networks. Why can’t we have the technology for that? Or rather, why haven’t we enabled that yet? Because the parties haven’t figured out the business model that will make money appropriately.
Wood: Is that true for just North America or do you find that’s the case in Europe and Japan as well?
Lenox: I think that overall in Asia and in Europe, they’re definitely more experimental and they’re definitely moving forward a lot more quickly than North America. The hardware available in Asia and in Europe is several years ahead of what we have in North America, so that’s a concern.
I’m not quite sure why North America is lagging behind. The knee-jerk reaction in the mobile industry is to always blame the carriers. I don’t want to just blame the carriers—we have clients that are mobile manufacturers as well as carriers, and I always find it amazing that the people we work with really understand and can envision where the industry can go and what the possibilities are. But they’re limited within their own companies to make real change happen.
Our job as designers is not just to design cool stuff, but also to actually educate at the executive level about the value of our designs and the business benefits of the work we’re doing. We’re no longer solely responsible for designing the interface or designing the experience. We also have to explain why and how that experience can actually make money and why that experience is worth pursuing.
Wood: Absolutely. I agree with you 100 percent. With respect to the possibilities and potential that is emerging in the marketplace given all the new technologies, what do you think are the key advantages that the mobile platform can offer in terms of user experience, and how is that platform best exploited?
Lenox: Like I said, we’ve barely scratched the surface on the possibilities. We, as an industry, need to take more time in understanding what the human behavior is and how we can best create beneficial experiences for the consumer.
So it’s a different ballgame basically dealing with mobile context because you can’t just simply ask somebody what they want. In any user experience design, you can’t just ask the user what they want. A well-used story to make this point is if Henry Ford had asked people what they wanted before the car was created, they would have said they wanted a faster horse.
Users can’t always envision the future the way designers and engineers can. It’s our collective responsibility to observe behaviors and realize that a faster horse isn’t going to happen. As designers, we need to find those gaps and unmet needs that users don’t even know exist.
Wood: So true. Do you think the same approach holds true for other interactive services and experiences beyond the mobile platform, especially now that just about everything’s connected in a ubiquitous computing environment with rich Internet applications (RIAs) hyperlinked to other parts of site, and cloudware and software as service?
Lenox: Absolutely. There are so many possibilities that we could be doing right now. Anybody working in software development needs to set aside a certain amount of budget towards just simple R&D—allowing a few of their designers and engineers to get together and think outside the box, think beyond this quarter, next quarter, next year, and really envision what the possibilities are.
Many of our clients have R&D centers that work on future possibilities, mostly around technology. But I really think that there needs to be dedicated resources to behavioral research on possibilities. Combine that with all the new technologies, then what can we do? The exciting thing is: I don’t know. Nobody knows how all the connectivity will merge and diverge and what the business models will be. Ultimately, somebody has to make money because we need to keep the roof over our heads and earn a living. I recognize that there has to be a business objective. But if we spent a little bit of time thinking about what the opportunities are, we could come up with a lot of new and exciting products that will improve peoples’ lives and make money for the businesses creating them.
Wood: Perfect segue for my next question. Can you provide some examples of exceptional mobile user experiences on the market today, or applications or services available on handsets or mobile Internet devices?
Lenox: I posed this question to my colleagues at Adaptive Path when you sent me the questions in advance. I work with some amazingly talented and really smart people—we have a great mindshare. You can pose a question to the team and get a flood of information.
On the services side of things, the key is that it’s less about the device and the actual hardware, but it’s about the service and the connections that the services enable. Twitter, for example, I think is an obvious emerging service that is being used in ways that the folks at Twitter had no idea would happen. For example, during conferences people in the audience and even outside the audience are contributing to the dialogue through Twitter.
I used Twitter a lot while I was traveling for the last three weeks to keep everybody up to date. I’m not really a blogger and never wrote a blog prior to joining Adaptive Path. But I found that while I was traveling Twitter was a great way to keep people up to date. When I got back after three weeks, my colleague said, “You know, between your Twitters and your emails, I didn’t really know you were gone.” That was my intention. Three weeks is a long time to be away from the office, so by just keeping in touch a couple times a day, it made people feel like they were a part of what I was doing and stayed abreast of what was going on.
The different services available to connect us socially are really a phenomenal thing because we are all so dispersed. Our families are dispersed and our connections are all over the place. Twitter is a great example of a tool that enables us to be in touch.
I also used TripIt while I was away and that worked out great because I gave access to our administrative team. When a flight was cancelled, they could take care of it for me during business hours in the U.S. when I was asleep in Europe. I didn’t have to dig through any paperwork or anything. I gave them access; they took care of it. Again, these services that happen in a mobile context or happen on your desktop—it really doesn’t matter what or where the hardware is any more.
Wood: You mentioned abstract social factors and the ability to make connections and communicate with people. What are some abstract concepts you’d throw into the bucket of defining an exceptional experience for the mobile space?
Lenox: I think it’s about bringing my stuff with me—my contacts, my music, being able to have my videos and accessing the various different types of small video clips, YouTube, and having everything personalized. I can collect these things, bring them with me, and share. That creates part of your social identity.
When you look at everybody’s digital content—YouTube and Flickr streams, SlideShare presentations—it creates a portrait of who people are and becomes part of how they want to identify themselves and represent themselves to the world.
Wood: The concept is around anywhere and anytime accessibility. Whether or not your content is embedded in a device is irrelevant because it could be on a network, or local or on some kind of storage device attached to your mobile device. It’s a matter of having things universally accessible and being able to tailor that content to your specific needs for that specific context at specific times.
Lenox: Generating your own content and making it accessible is also important. My way of doing that on my trip was through Twitter and Flickr. I uploaded photos to Flickr but I had a limited amount of mobile phone data that I could upload and download while I was in Europe, so I didn’t do it on-the-fly from my mobile device all the time. That’s one of those stumbling blocks. I could have been mobile blogging, had I wanted to fork out lots of money for the data plan (or if I had been traveling in North America, I suppose). But those are the types of constraints that are inhibiting the evolution of where the community is going to take this mobile culture. Technology is limited right now by cost and by bandwidth issues and is holding things to a slower pace than it ought to be.
Wood: I find it interesting that the consumer electronics market is fundamentally different than the traditional Web environment, or the RIA space—that user experience can affect market factors and consumer spending so strongly. Does the churn and cutthroat competition in the mobile handset market drive the progression of user experience?
Lenox: In any software development sector, a lot of really amazing stuff never sees the light of day. When I was working at Samsung, the number of amazing concepts that never saw daylight was phenomenal. Now that I’m working with other manufacturers here at Adaptive Path, it’s really clear to me that it wasn’t just Samsung. The entire consumer electronics industry generates a lot of really amazing ideas and very few of them actually make it to market.
That’s disappointing to me as a designer because obviously designers get into the business because they’re passionate about what they do and not because it’s not an easy job to be a designer. The competition, the strenuous hours—people generally do it because they’re passionate about it, because they want to make change, because they want to put cool products into people’s hands. It’s really frustrating to see so many great ideas not emerge.
When the iPhone came out, it was a really good thing for the industry and it was also a really bad thing. The good thing is that all the designers who had been working for years on similar concepts were able to say, “See, we could’ve done it.” So that’s a good thing. Now businesses are finally looking at designers and saying, “Oh, they knew what they were talking about. Look at that. It actually could work.”
However, the bad side is that there will probably be a lot of me-too products coming out now. The companies that were already close to releasing their first touch screen or had released their touch screen—like the Prada Phone that came out easily six months or eight months before the iPhone—aren’t getting enough play. Companies now will speed up the production of touch screen display phones that are already in the pipeline.
Matt Jones, one of the founders of Dopplr, brought up an interesting point. He basically thinks that the iPhone is actually going to stifle industry innovation simply because everybody’s going to mimic the iPhone. So rather than thinking beyond the iPhone, everybody’s just going to be duplicating it. In his theory, it’s going to slow the pace of innovation because everybody’s putting all of their energy on the me-toos instead of focusing energy beyond the iPhone to what’s next. (And forgive me, Matt, if I’ve butchered your point).
Wood: Aside from industry influences like the iPhone and the Sony Xperia, do you think users expectations are really starting to change and evolve in a positive way?
Lenox: Users are expecting more now, which I think is great. The first mobile phone research study that I did at Samsung back in 2005 was with a group of 18 to 22-year-olds. I was absolutely astounded at how technically savvy these people were. Those of us who have been working in the technology industry for a long time understand hardware and software and what’s client side, and what’s up in the cloud. We understand the perimeters of software relationships. But I was amazed at how these young people understood all of that as well, were well versed in it, and yet weren’t actually working in the industry. They were college students and were just playing around with HTML on MySpace. Our primary consumer has been raised on technology and is a lot savvier than the devices out there can actually accommodate.
That imbalance makes for some exciting possibilities. If we put something into the marketplace that’s kind of cool and let the consumers do something with it, it will emerge and it will evolve. We need to allow for more of what the world is looking for, more social input from the consumer—an open source type of approach—rather than clamping things down and keeping access restricted. We need to allow users to play because they’re going to take what we give them and use it in a different way than we expected—in ways that no use case scenario could have come up with, that no ethnographic study could have predicted. That’s really exciting.
Wood: Sounds like the beginnings of a manifesto, Kim. I’m with you! This may be a politically charged question, but I really want to ask you what has been your favorite device to design for up to this point?
Lenox: It doesn’t exist yet. There are too many limitations right now in the marketplace that prevent us from actually releasing what we want to.
Wood: Okay then, what types of devices do you use most frequently?
Lenox: Funny, I’m somewhat of a Luddite. I don’t have cable television. I don’t have the latest and greatest of home entertainment systems and that sort of thing. For my phone device, I had a Sidekick 2 for quite a while. I bought it in 2004, and I had a black and white version before that, which provided the best experience out there at the time. They got the service and experience right—offering a pleasurable user interface design with your data being stored server-side, up in the cloud. It was designed by Danger down in Palo Alto—one of the first device manufactures to really design around the user. Thinking about that device now in 2008, the user interface is not that compelling. But when you think about it seven years ago…
Wood: It was revolutionary.
Lenox: Absolutely revolutionary. The experience was limited somewhat by the hardware. It was targeted for a younger generation and not a business user. I probably should have had a Blackberry for the type of work that I was doing, but I didn’t like the user experience. So I cobbled together my email, my contacts and my calendar. I had two sets of calendars, one on my Mac and another one on my device. I managed those within the limitations of the devices not talking well with each other. There was a piece of software that kind of patched it together, but even then, I never bothered buying it because I read about too may problems with it.
So I was a Sidekick user from 2002 to when the iPhone came out. That’s a long time.
Wood: Really long! That just goes to show you just how much user experience can really influence both your purchasing decisions and your behavior in terms the applications and services that are available.
Lenox: Right.
Wood: We’re willing to jump through hoops just to make things work because they are vastly superior to anything else on the market at the time.
Lenox: The Sidekick was pleasurable to use. I switched to the iPhone because it’s also pleasurable to use. The subtly of the animation, the transitions, the movement—all that is actually enjoyable without being gratuitous. They did the right amount of informative animation (something is shrinking down because it’s disappearing). Of course, the iPhone has a lot of limitations. I’m still struggling because I upgraded Tiger on my Mac and I haven’t been able to sync my calendars since, which was the whole reason that I got the iPhone in the first place! Hopefully Apple’s MobileMe will solve my problems soon.
Lenox: About designing for products that I’m interested in: for me it’s more about designing for the experience, trying to solve problems, and unearthing unmet needs. Those are the things that are exciting to me. It doesn’t really matter what the hardware is at this point. It’s about figuring out how to make life easier and more pleasurable day-to-day.
Wood: Kim, thank you so much for taking the time to call in today.
Lenox: It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.

This article was originally published on the User Interface Resource Center (UIRC).

post authorTimothy J. Wood

Timothy J. Wood, Tim Wood is currently the director of user experience at EffectiveUI, an award-winning provider of rich Internet applications and breakthrough interactive experiences. Prior to joining EffectiveUI, Tim was the creative director for design innovation and advanced development at Eastman Kodak Co., where he received international recognition for creativity and design excellence. For more than a decade, Tim has consistently focused on radically transforming business through user experience. From Web services to consumer electronics and mobile devices, his passion for design has fueled an inherent desire to innovate and promote progressive methods of interaction design.

post authorKim Lenox

Kim Lenox, Kim Lenox is a senior interaction designer at Adaptive Path. With over a decade of experience in software design and development, she is a strong believer in the power of user experience design to improve our daily lives. Kim's primary focus is working with clients as a researcher, trainer, and designer for mobile, devices, and application software. Professional Background Before joining Adaptive Path, Kim led interaction design projects for Samsung Electronics America, where she researched and designed interfaces for next-generation and near-term consumer electronics products such as handheld devices, appliances, and home entertainment. Before Samsung, Kim worked as a freelance designer, developer, and producer of interactive media for a variety of mediums, including CD-ROMs, interactive kiosks, websites, DVD interfaces, interactive TV, and children's handheld devices. Her past clients and employers include AT&T, Bolt Peters, Excite@Home, LeapFrog, NewLine Cinema, Organic, Palm, Samsung, UPC/Chello, and a variety of bubble start-ups of dot-com lore. Kim is a member of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) and a founding member of the Interaction Design Association's (IxDA) San Francisco chapter. In her previous life, she was a fine artist and professional photographer. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography back in the day of film canisters and chemicals from San Jose State University and in the early 1990s created a video installation that was part of a two-person show at San Francisco Camerawork.


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