What if we could build a better smartphone?
This was the somewhat ambitious question I and the other three members of my project group for INFO608: Human-Computer Interaction asked ourselves before embarking on a semester-long, mock user experience research project in the summer of 2018.
The mission of SMRTFUN was to attempt to rebuild a smartphone, both hardware and software, from the ground up in order to better serve a more diverse range of potential users. Our goal was to retain the quality and power of smartphone market leaders while incorporating design and interface elements that were more inclusive and customizable for individual users based on their own unique needs.
Design Brief / Client Presentation
Qualitative & Quantitative User Research Methodology
User Experience Design
Wireframing & Prototyping
The current smartphone market is famously dominated by two major companies, Apple and Samsung. And though Samsung offers a slightly wider range of smartphone model options, the Galaxy models and the Apple iPhone models reign supreme.
Their ubiquity has its benefits and is well earned by the quality of their products; but it is not without its drawbacks. UX pioneer Don Norman said it best:
“One device simply cannot work for everyone. Even such simple tools as pencils need to be designed differently for different activities and types of people.”
Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things
If even the humble pencil requires different designs and iterations to meet different user needs, surely something as complex as a smartphone would as well?
A smartphone market ruled by just two major phone models from two major brands implies that there are a lot of smartphone users out there with devices that weren’t created or optimized their their needs in mind.
A few of the broad user groups we identified as being potentially under-served by the Apple/Samsung market saturation were:
Users with small hands
Users with lower levels of technical experience or comfort
Users with physical disabilities
Users for whom a smartphone is their primary means of internet access
Smartphone super-users, such as online content creators
So how could our one smartphone model hope to correct this imbalance, knowing that no one device can meet every need? Again, Don Norman had the answer:
“The best solution to the problem of designing for everyone is flexibility…fixed solutions will invariably fail with some people; flexible solutions offer a chance for those with different needs.”
Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things
Identifying ways to maximize the flexibility of the design was our guiding concept and chief consideration as we progressed with our user research and prototyping.
We assembled a design brief outlining the goal of our product and researched the physical and technical specs of three smartphone market leaders: the Apple iPhone X, the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, and the Blackberry Key2.
Our comparison matrix considered seven key areas: Display, Camera, Design, Hardware & Performance, Battery, Cellular & Connectivity, and Features & Accessibility.
Using the information from the comparison matrix, we were able to establish a baseline of current smartphone features and technical specifications which we used to inform our own design down the road and also to help us develop a more targeted user questionnaire.
Though we did not include them in our direct comparison tables, we made special note of two additional smartphone models: the Jitterbug Smart 2 and the Motorola Moto Z3.
Both phones serve a narrower user niche and contain unique smartphone features outside of most mainstream smartphone options.
The user-friendliness of the Jitterbug Smart 2 and the custom hardware modification options of the Motorola Moto Z3 provided a great deal of inspiration as we progressed in our designs.
In order to proceed with our design, the team agreed that we needed users to answer three core questions:
Do you like your current phone?
How do you use your phone?
What do you wish your phone could do?
Our primary research instrument was a thirty-question anonymous online survey, created using Google Forms and distributed via social media to a diverse range of respondents.
The survey contained four sections:
Current smartphone usage and preferences
Short answer section asking users to describe their workflow for completing basic phone tasks (adding a contact, making a call, etc.)
Favored or desired smartphone features, both hardware & software
General demographic information
In addition to the questionnaire, each individual group member was charged with conducting additional research using a different research methodology (interview or observation).
The survey information was collected anonymously; each of the group members distributed the survey link on their social media profiles and we collected 27 responses from a range of different age, gender, brand preference, and technological comfort level demographics.
As anticipated, many respondents felt strong brand loyalty to either their Apple or Samsung product and indicated that they would be unlikely to select a phone outside of that spectrum.
For those who were willing to try a new phone, customization, better or more relevant settings or apps, and ease of use were the three elements that, if done well, might entice them to try a new phone.
Reasons Why Users Would Consider Switching to a New Smartphone Brand
Users were also asked to select the top three tasks or functions for which they used their phone the most on a daily basis. Direct communication (meaning calls, texting, emails, and other forms of messaging) and indirect communication (interacting on social media, forums, etc.) were, unsurprisingly, the two most highly rated use-cases, followed by entertainment, travel, and productivity apps (including alarms).
Most Common Uses for Smartphone
Users were also asked to rank the hardware and software features they’d most like in a new phone. Some options were current standard features while others, such as solar powered charging, were beyond the current features scope of most current smartphones.
Top Three Hardware Features:
Long battery life
Solar powered charging
Top Three Software Features:
Programmable buttons / easy task access
Camera access from home screen
These findings indicated that users valued customization options, ease of use, and maintaining all of the power and quality of the best smartphones (battery life, durability, etc.) when selecting a phone. The challenge now would be designing a phone that could meet these needs for a wider range of users than the standard smartphone.
Although we wanted to design a smartphone from scratch, our research (and common sense) indicated that it was important not to completely reinvent the wheel. We needed to strike a balance between the familiar best practices and innovations that would allow a wider range of use-cases.
SMRTFUN still needed to look like a smartphone, and there were still some immutable concepts (pinch to zoom, return to home screen, app icons, etc.) that needed to be preserved while developing additional features and functionality that better met user needs.
Customization options were highly desired among respondents, so it was with that in mind that we landed on the idea of adding four additional buttons, two on the front and two on the bottom of either side of the phone, which users could program to automatically open apps or perform certain functions, such as recording audio or video, taking a photo, etc.
In early discussions, we had discussed a move backwards to a physical slide out keyboard, but our research indicated that most users didn’t consider a physical keyboard a priority or necessity. We briefly toyed with the idea of designing a phone with a built-in kickstand/pop-socket and reserve battery pack based on our user research, but this option did not allow much room for customization either.
This is where we drew on inspiration from the Motorola “Moto Mods” technology—instead of a standard phone with or without a physical keyboard, we could design the phone in such a way that allowed for modular, interchangeable physical tools and features.
Users could then select the physical features that were most important to them (keyboard, kickstand/pop socket, better camera zoom lens, etc.) and physically configure the phone as desired.
The software design was even trickier to design with both ease of use and customizability in mind. With such a diverse range of potential users in mind, we realized that trying to design a single operating system (OS) to serve all users an intuitive, inclusive, optimized experience would be an incredibly tall order.
As we sifted through the data from our survey and began to more fully develop our potential user personas, we struck on our biggest breakthrough for the project: the idea of a three-tiered phone OS.
During the initial phone set-up process, users could select their desired tier from a list the same way they’d choose which default language to use. They could change tiers at any time by reconfiguring their preferences in the Settings menu, and their logins and preferences would stay in place even while moving between tiers.
Tier 1 would be the Beginner level for users who might not be entirely comfortable with smartphones but who still want or need to use them. This OS design would be designed with ease of use and legibility as the top priorities and we were inspired by the Jitterbug Smart 2 interface as a starting point.
Tier 2 would be the Intermediate level for users who might be transitioning from an iPhone or similar model and who prefer a more standardized “walled garden” interface, but would offer an additional level of customization via the phone’s programmable buttons.
Tier 3 would be the Advanced level and would allow users total control of their interface. It would offer customizable widgets as Android does while also extending the option for users to design or program their own widgets and processes.
To keep within the scope of the project, this was the operating system level that we most fully fleshed out and ultimately presented on.
Our group brainstormed different user segments and each group member developed a user persona and a use case based on that segment. Our four users were:
Maya Cheong, smartphone super-user and professional creative
Arthur Greenhorn, smartphone-shy retiree
John Taylor, working professional and intermediate smartphone user
Gavin the Graduate, recent graduate and heavy smartphone user
I created user persona Maya Cheong to help demonstrate the utility of programmable buttons for a phone super-user, particularly one in a creative profession.
Workflows & Prototypes
To keep the project within the scope of the assignment, we created a hardware prototype and decided to focus only on the Basic interface for the software prototype. Our team used Balsamiq to create our workflows and prototypes.
We decided to focus on primary functionality:
Initial phone configuration / user interface selection + prototype of Basic SMRTFUN user interface
Taking a photo & viewing the photo in the gallery
Adding a new contact
Placing a phone call
Configuring one of the customizable buttons
To successfully complete the class, we were charged with consolidating our findings and our project and prototypes and presenting our design brief to other members of the class.
Because each group member was taking the course remotely, each of us recorded voiceover narration for our respective slides before combining them and uploading them to be played in class by our instructor.
We were available via conference call for class Q&As after the presentation was complete. Many of the questions were centered around our possible next steps, both in terms of design iteration and testing and in developing and testing prototypes for the Intermediate and Advanced user interface tiers.
Unfortunately, the scope of the assignment forbade us from exploring those other options at the time—but if any of us ever end up in industrial design positions, who knows what could happen?
Although many of the individual components of this project (user persona creation, user surveys and workflow mapping, competitive analysis, etc.) were tasks I had worked on before, this was my first opportunity to work through all of the steps in the UX design process for a project that was expressly centered around user experience research and design.
It really was this class that confirmed for me that the exciting field of UX research and design would be a natural fit for my skillset and well worth exploring upon graduating from my graduate program.