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May 2006

Looking back on CHI: Design drivers for developing interfaces for portable electronic devices

Users of portable electronic devices must obviously deal with many constraints due to the characteristics of the devices themselves, such as screen size and limited data storage capacity. These aspects of interface design are relatively known and documented but what about the context in which users are using these devices? This is the question which concerned Akseli Anttila and Younghee Jung, Nokia (Finland), researchers whose work was presented on April 28 at CHI 2006.

The results of two studies were presented: one conducted in 2000 with users aged 16 to 23 from California and the other in 2004 with users aged 20 to 49 from Japan, Korea, and England.

This study is quite unique because of how the data was collected. Researchers combined different techniques borrowed from the field of ethnography. The test subjects were asked to keep a daily Media Journal in which they detailed how they used their portable electronic devices throughout the day. Another technique consisted of having the test subjects take digital photos of their environment in order to put together a visual profile of their personal universe. They were also invited to put together a collage of those photos to illustrate their perception of how their portable electronic devices affect their lives. Interviews and focus groups were then organized to discuss the data collected throughout the study.

These methods enabled the researchers to collect a large amount of data without having to follow each test subject on an individual basis, throughout the duration of the study. This would have been impossible because of budget and logistical constraints.

In addition to the few cultural differences observed during the study, Anttila and Jung identified some basic truths about user contexts that were applicable to all groups observed and that should be taken into account when designing interfaces and developing content for portable electronic devices.

Here are the most important design drivers:

  • Participants used the media on their portable electronics to avoid boredom
  • The cellphone was the portable electronic device most used by participants
  • The mobile telephone was used during mini-breaks between two activities (for example, on the bus to go to school)
  • Users want to be able to stay alert to their surroundings (their attention is shared between the device and the world around them)
  • Test subjects played different roles within their circle of friends: they acted either as facilitator, distributor or consumer of media.
  • Users are frequently interrupted and how to best manage these interruptions is an important consideration.

Other important results of this study: subjects don’t want to have to pay to navigate content but are willing to pay to download a media element, whether it be a ringtone, a specific song or a video.

To someone who is familiar with the portable electronics universe, there’s nothing new or surprising about these design drivers, however, in this case, the findings are supported by a study conducted using the recognized and respected ethnographical method.

Information system developers must find inspiration in these types of studies when they start to develop a new product. The Scandinavians are known for applying these principles to their work and the success of their designs only proves they are justified in doing so.

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