OEMs, designers and carriers are all searching for that special
user interface that attracts, romances and captivates the audience.

User interface (UI) is a fancy name for how a human being interacts with and controls a piece of technology. On a mobile device, the UI is affected by limitless factors, including keyboard, touchscreen (if it has one), software and operating system, the speed of the network, the devices’ processor and on and on. A designer might tell you, in a rather Zen way, that the user can identify a successful UI when she doesn’t know she’s using one.

Madhava Enros, interaction designer for the User Experience at Mozilla and one of the developers behind the company’s new Firefox mobile browser, is downright poetic in his description of the way a UI should work. “The UI has to dissolve into behavior…There are a lot of different lists out there. It has to be clear, learnable, forgiving of mistakes. You want a UI to be a good partner to the user. You want it to anticipate what the person needs.”

The mobile device poses a unique challenge for designers. Because of the limited screen space, timing the availability of certain features within the context of the user’s needs is incredibly important. The software is expected to be one step ahead of the user at all times. “All of our controls live outside of the main screen,” he says. “We’re focusing on what a person needs at any given time and getting rid of what they don’t need at any given time.”

User Interface 'THE' Holy GrailOf course, Enros can’t help himself from bringing up the iPhone. He says Apple’s device is at least partially responsible for user expectations of the mobile Web experience. “I think that people do expect to see the Web the way they’re used to seeing it on a PC. It used to be that with WAP browsing you got a special version of the Web, but now everyone thinks you should be able to see the whole Web.”

Enros isn’t the only one who credits the seamless melding of the iPhone’s intuitive, multi-touch screen with an easy-to-use Web browsing experience as the key to the iconic device’s success. It’s probably not going overboard to say that the iPhone has single-handedly changed user expectations for high-end smartphones while simultaneously driving data usage in an unprecedented manner.

User expectations and driving usage are two distinct portions of the UI design process. Jared Spool, CEO and founder of User Interface Engineering (UIE), says that for a long time, the carriers were entirely in control of the user interface, tailoring the experience solely to drive usage of their products and services. The results usually amounted to lackluster user experiences.

“It has to meet the needs of the business and it has to meet the needs of the customer ... The carriers have dictated lots of things, removing lots of great features, in order to achieve uniformity of support. That’s ideal for the business, but not necessarily for the end user,” Spool says.

Jared Spool
Spool: Early adopters exercise a certain amount of tolerance for design flaws.
But Spool notes that the iPhone’s success as an exclusive device, designed independently of the carrier, has changed the OEM/carrier relationship and in turn, the overall quality of the end-user’s experience. “Up until the iPhone, the carriers were dictating the features, and the features they were dictating were all aimed at carrier revenue… There was no movement towards creating a coherent user experience,” he says.

In a recent article, “Deriving Design Strategy from Market Maturity,” Spool describes how early adopters exercise a certain amount of tolerance for a design’s flaws when a new category of technology emerges and proves its value. Spool says most OEMs exercise a kind of pack-everything-in strategy that many technology companies go with in their initial designs just to get the technology out there. Quick time to market may mean more calls to support, but it also means big savings in R&D.

However, Spool acknowledges that the iPhone was really an exception to this rule, citing Apple’s famed attention to detail and the special exclusivity that happened with what was then Cingular. Spool said that after Verizon walked away from the iPhone, Cingular was willing to take the risk. “Cingular at the time...they were on their way out. They expected increase in support costs, but it was worth the gamble. When you’re not in first, you can take those kinds of risks.”

The rest is well-known history. The iPhone provided the industry with at least a starting point for what was possible in the way of a Web-centric consumer-targeted smartphone. Since then, OEMs have been courted by carriers as they choose between attempting iPhone knock-offs, or stripping its features and attempting to create niche markets.

Spool says paring down smartphone features is a good place to start when trying to identify a niche market. “Large percentages of your users are not using all of the features that you’re putting into the devices. A small player comes into the market and kidnaps the market by creating a prioritization of those features they want to capitalize on.”

A recent survey done by Wirefly, an independent online shopping site that deals in wireless plans and handsets, shows most consumers don’t use the fancy features on their phones anyway. The opt-in Wirefly survey of more than 2,391 American customers revealed that despite the millions of dollars spent by major U.S. cell phone carriers highlighting new advanced features and functionality, three out of five consumers (64 percent) are less concerned with high-tech features than they are with the basic form factors, such as the size and color of the phone.

So why not take the smartphone apart and focus on those features that are most sought after? That’s exactly what Frank Meehan, founder and CEO of INQ, a small OEM owned by Hutchinson Whampoa, has done. INQ has achieved great success in the U.K.’s mid-range social networking handset market.

At the core of INQ’s handsets is an attempt to facilitate some key features that Meehan identifies as the core usage areas for the social networking set. He says that 65 percent of the 700,000 devices they’ve sold are used by active users of Facebook, and 89 percent of those devices are locked into a data plan. “We saw that wherever we sold data, those people wanted Facebook or social networking, or e-mail, maybe some local news and sports and Skype.”

And that’s exactly what users get with the INQ handsets. Because of a relatively low-end processor and optimizing software, the INQ handsets come pretty cheap (carrier cost is less than $200), and they live somewhere between the feature phone and the smartphone. By changing the UI via software, the INQ phones are on their way to redefining, or at least broadening, the definition of a smartphone. There are few feature phones that can multi-task, are widget capable and allow seamless, real-time access to Facebook, IM, e-mail and Skype.

Keith Higgins
Higgins: Cloud-based services will continue to transform the handset.
But what’s interesting about INQ handsets is they provide a cost-effective targeted user experience, while also making the carriers happy. While these handsets drive data plans and usage, they’re not sucking up bandwidth the way an iPhone does. “A lot of operators have blocked data-heavy apps. The advantage with these devices is that it’s very much centered around light usage,” Meehan says.

As if there weren’t enough influencing factors involved in designing the UI, Keith Higgins, vice president of worldwide marketing for Aricent, a company that acts like a contractor for the development of UIs, said that UI design is about to undergo yet another revolution.

“Cloud-based services will continue to transform the handset from a phone to a multi-purpose, ultra-mobile computing device,” Higgins says. “With this increased density of onscreen information, device designs must better incorporate higher resolution displays and finer UI controls, as well as strike the right balance between physical buttons and onscreen soft keys to optimize the user’s experience.”

Higgins says that cloud-based services will lead to increasingly sophisticated applications, which in turn will offer the end user a higher degree of personalization. He says it’s not entirely unrealistic to imagine the consumer being given control to tailor their own UI. “It’s a very exciting time if you look at all that’s happening…I think we’re still very early as far as what’s possible,” Higgins says.

CEO: Ease of Use Gets Top Billing at INQ

Frank Meehan is founder and CEO of INQ, a small OEM owned by Hutchinson Whampoa. So far, INQ has sold 700,000 devices since it launched in November. Its devices currently are available on the 3 network in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Hong Kong, Australia and Italy.

Frank Meehan

Wireless Week: Why do you think INQ’s handsets have gone over well with consumers?

Frank Meehan: INQ spent two years creating an all-new mobile platform that allows deep integration of communications applications like e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, IM and Skype. For the consumer, this means simple and fast access to the services they love using online.

We removed all the clicks and puzzles you have to solve to get e-mail, IM and other social networking applications working on most mobile phones, with the exception of the iPhone. We also focused on giving customers the same always on, multi-tasking, auto log-in features that they are familiar with on their PC or Macs.

WW: Were you worried that a lack of brand recognition could bury the project?

INQ handsetsMeehan: Well, Nokia, BlackBerry, et cetera, were all unknown brands when they started, and look at them now. We think Apple has made all other mobile device brands look dull, and there is a tremendous opportunity for a new brand that focuses on delivering affordable social mobiles for everyone. The great interest and take-up of INQ devices so far shows we’re very much on the right path.

WW: Have you thought about expanding your offerings to include a demographic that reaches beyond the social networking set?

Meehan: The high usage of e-mail and IM, 30 percent and 50 percent of the INQ customer base, respectively, shows that the handsets are used for far more than just social networking. INQ focuses on what people really want most of all on their devices – easy access to their core services like e-mail, IM, Facebook and Twitter.

WW: Going forward, what do you want consumers to think of when they think of an INQ handset?

Meehan: This is really easy to use. I’ll definitely look at getting the next INQ.