Applying user-centered design to mobile application development

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User Centered Design


  • COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM July 2005/Vol. 48, No. 7 55

    Digia was among the firstcompanies to develop third-party software applications that can beinstalled in Symbian smartphones by service providersor end users [3]. In 2001,Digia was searching for new

    product ideas for the nascent smart phone market. At the same time, the User Experience (UE) Groupwas established in the company and we began to worktogether with software engineers to transform product ideasinto final products. The first product we worked on was thenavigation software for Nokia Communicators known asGenimap Navigator, which utilized a Global PositioningSystem connection and a map database on a network server.

    B y E E V A K A N G A S a n d T I M O K I N N U N E NIllustration by Lisa Haney

    Applying User-CenteredDesign to Mobile Application DevelopmentTwo case studies demonstrate the need for mobile usability testing methodsgiven the challenges of the mobile software market.

  • 56 July 2005/Vol. 48, No. 7 COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM

    When mobile phones started toinclude cameras and MultimediaMessaging (MMS) capabilities,we discovered in a Contextual

    Design (CD) study [1] that users would also like toedit the images on their mobile phones. For example,they would prefer to send their digital images viaMMS rather than using another method. The secondproduct we designed was an application called Image-Plus, where users can, for example, add a text balloonwith a message to the picture and send it directly fromtheir mobile phones.

    In this article, we discuss the User-CenteredDesign (UCD) process we used for the GenimapNavigator and ImagePlus products (see Figure 1).Genimap Navigator is presented here due to itsmobile context of use and ImagePlus due to its directmanipulation interaction that was new to the phonesat the time it was introduced. Both products havebeen adopted by the market. Genimap Navigator waslicensed by Genimap, which is selling and distribut-ing the product under its own brand. ImagePlus islicensed by several mobile phone manufacturers andalso sold directly to end users via the Web.

    For each project we used a slightly differentprocess (see Figures 2 and 3). For Genimap Naviga-tor, technology development was performed firstand UCD came to the process after the concept andinitial requirements were already determined byproduct management and the customer. In theImagePlus development process, we were able tostart at an early phase making a Contextual Inquiry(CI) study on end-user needs before setting theproduct targets and requirements. Both projects hadmajor time and cost constraints, which affected theselection of the methods and the willingness tomake changes, based on the usability recommenda-tions. These projects were the first UCD projects inthe company, so we sometimes faced organizationalresistance against our usability design activities. Weuse these two examples to examine what worked,what did not work, and what we would do differ-ently in retrospect.


    Technology development for the Gen-imap Navigator started several monthsbefore Digias UE group was estab-lished and brought into the project.

    Product management had set the high-level require-ments with the customer (licensee) and technologicalpartners. There was no chance to conduct any userneeds study. We were expected to create the userinterface (UI) specification for a pilot product run-

    ning on the Communicator. This pilot productwould be used by the customer organization and fieldtest users before committing to a commercial prod-uct.

    Since the pilot implementation project hadalready started, we had to create the UI specifica-tions as quickly as possible. To guide our designs, wehad feature requirements from the customer and theUI style guide for the Nokia Communicator. Wedecided to have a three-day UI design workshopwith engineers and make a quick paper prototypetest with co-workers at the office. The designseemed to work for co-workers so we documented itin the UI specification document. This design wasnot completely followed by the project engineersbecause they had already started implementationwhile we were still working on the document.

    At this point, our feeling was that we and our cus-tomer did not know enough about the real needs ofthe end users. We decided to use pilot testing to getreal user-needs data. After the pilot product wasready for testing, 20 participants used the pilot ver-sion for three weeks and kept a diary of their experi-ences [7]. After the test period, the diaries wereanalyzed and our usability specialist interviewed theusers. This provided us with the facts about theimportance of the features during actual use as wellas the usability problems in the product.

    The pilot study revealed the needs that arise fromthe mobile context of use were not supported by theproduct. For example, Genimap Navigator has ayellow pages service search for locating servicesbased on a text string. In the pilot test we discoveredthat users wanted to know about the location of thenearest taxi station, but the service search providedthe location of the taxi owners home or office. Theservice was not context-aware at all. It was also dis-covered that the limited context of services was oneof the main reasons why users considered the ser-vices not useful. Information and service needs vary,not only according to the location but also accord-ing the user and the usage situation [6].

    Based on the pilot test results, we revised the UI ofthe commercial version. We provided access to thethree most frequently used features from the applica-tion command buttons, and moved the less-used fea-tures to the menu, since we were not able to convincethe customer to omit them. To confirm the designchanges, we conducted a one-day paper prototypetest with three end users. We also reported the ser-vice-related usability problems to the customer.

    Finally, when the commercial version was com-pleted and delivered to customer, we organized ausability test with the real product to get feedback

  • for potential future product ver-sions. Again, we did not have alarge budget for an as-yet unclearbusiness case, so the test was con-ducted in a laboratory setting, not in mobile envi-ronment. The usability test revealed severalproblems in the product, but improvement recom-mendations were too late for the delivered product.


    Parallel with the Genimap Navigatordevelopment we convinced companymanagement there is a process verysuitable for undertaking front-end

    research for product ideas. We conducted a two-month CD study, in which eight persons from UE,engineering, and marketing participated. The studyfocused on mobile messaging among professionalsand teenagers and included both CI and conceptdesign for several applications.

    One of the concepts from the study was an inte-grated image or multimedia message editor in thephone. The visual and emotional communicationbetween teenagers prompted this idea. When thefirst Series 60 camera phone with MMS (the Nokia7650 model) was introduced, it did not have imageediting capabilities, so the company considered theconcept an idea worth developing.

    In addition to inquiry findings, we examined var-ious PC image editing software to gain more under-standing of the features and interaction. We easily

    created a long feature list by compiling the basicimage editing features of the PC software. Then wefocused on designing the basic user interaction usingthe Series 60 UI style. We decided to apply the directmanipulation concept of a PC-based mouse to thephones joystick key. We tested the design proposalwith a paper prototype and iterated the basic menustructure and editing tool selection to improve theUI. After the paper prototype test we documentedthe functional and UI specification using User Envi-ronment Design (UED) notation [1], which alsoincluded interaction design proposals for all therequired features.

    Project management used the UED overview toestimate implementation effort for each feature.Business and time-to-market calculations requiredthat the project was completed within half a year,therefore we had to eliminate some features. Basedon the findings of the earlier CD study, we decidedto create a simple PowerPoint-like application forinformal multimedia messaging rather than a full-featured Photoshop-like application for seriousimage editing.

    We defined usability requirements for the maintasks and used these to create a usability verificationplan. Due to the small budget, we decided not todevelop a UI prototype for usability verification, butinstead used the actual software implemented ineach increment. During the development period, theUE team concentrated on refining the interactiondetails especially for direct manipulation tasks

    COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM July 2005/Vol. 48, No. 7 57

    Figure 1. GenimapNavigator and


    The most important aspect of the designprocess is to provide the user with the real usage context.

    For mobile phones this means users need to be able to touch the

    buttons and see software that feels like it is actually working.

  • resizing, rotating, or movingof inserted icons, textboxes, and frames. Soon we noticed that interactioncopied from the PC mouse did not work with thephones joystick. One of the project engineersinvented a better way for resizing and rotating,which proved to be suc-cessful in usability tests.

    We organized twousability test rounds thatcaused several changerequests to bring directmanipulation to therequired usability level. Alot of effort and iterations were required to get awhat-you-see-is-what-you-get experience when cre-ating a cartoon-like text box on top of the image. Itwas also determined by Ketola that many rounds ofiteration are o