by CalebApril 22, 2010

Perspective: IDEO's Robert Suarez on Mobile and Human-Centered Design

In order to further our understanding of the behaviors developing around mobile technology, we have been reaching out to experts around the world for their unique insights. By doing this, we are able to escape ourselves and become exposed to new perspectives.

Robert Suarez is a Senior Portfolio Lead in the Consumer Experience design (CXd) group at IDEO. With a background in User Experience Design and Human Factors Research, he has experience working on generative, evaluative, and experiential research programs to better understand and develop insights about human behavior in the environment in which people live, work, play, and learn.

What is your background and relationship with mobile?

I’ve been working in and around the mobile space for 12 years with clients such as Nokia, Microsoft, and Electronic Arts.

My relationship with mobile started with researching the first X Games event to understand how Gen X and Y relate to the devices they carry with them. Next, I took an early look at personalized mobile services for Cingular. I then dove into mobile gaming and “future vision” programs for Nokia and others. Now I’m working on new payment systems, mobile marketing strategies, and wireless health.

Have you noticed any change in the way we interact with mobile devices?

In some regards, yes, but in many ways, the value proposition has stayed the same: Mobility connects one person to another.

Looking deeper, we’re seeing a transformation in the ways people communicate. A few years ago, successful mobile devices and services started delivering very personal communication and content experiences, from weather reports and horoscopes to traffic, news, and sports updates. IDEO’s work with AT&T/Cingular was an example of this.
Today, users are pushing and sharing thoughts, feelings, and information with others. The constant exchange enables compelling experiences, but also creates confusion. We’ve moved from a clear voice on the other line to a distorted abundance of data. Meanwhile, bloated user interfaces, highly varied operating platforms, and carrier confusion are adding more noise to the system than ever before.

This has created new opportunities in using physical gestures as interactions. The best gestural interfaces build on well-established physical interactions. Wireless bump technology, for example, lets two people simply touch their phones together to exchange contact information. Cognitively, this makes sense: It’s the digital equivalent of a handshake or a fist bump.

To give another example, setting your phone screen-down on a table signals to others that you are ready to listen (and are not checking your inbox). The act communicates your intention. Manufacturers have picked up on this signal and are using it to automate phone features, such as silencing the ringer or activating the speakerphone during meetings. This concept surfaced in an internal IDEO project years ago and the technology is now available to support features like this.

Regardless of the approach, mobile designs need to be personally desirable, economically viable, and technologically feasible to succeed.

Where is mobile interaction design headed and why?

Developers and interaction designers have gotten good at “productizing” services for mobile. People can find great product experiences in mobile games, media, tools, and utilities. To continue mobile’s momentum, we need to consider non-visual interactions and pixel-free interfaces, and practice a completely integrated hardware/software design process. Along these lines, I find inspiration in anything from old tractor controls and classic car dashboards to the relationships between the goodies you find in a Japanese bento box.

Have you observed any patterns in the problems we are using mobile technology to solve?

Not long ago, I was on a team that did research around mobile experiences in a developing country. After a few observations and conversations, it became very clear that people in emerging markets rely on their mobile phones to rise above the often-dysfunctional infrastructure of the place where they live. Mobile devices are a beacon of hope: The government might fail them, the education system might fail them, but this one connected device can access the world’s knowledge and help them catch up to their more developed counterparts.

Around the world, people look to mobile devices to solve their most difficult and challenging needs. In India, for example, the phone provides a platform for personal expression through SMS. In the Philippines, mobile technology provides the most trustworthy form of payment and finance

Recently, IDEO has been focusing on how something as personal as the mobile phone has the ability to change behavior. In many cases, a mobile phone is the only device that accompanies a person throughout his or her entire day, giving it great potential to influence behavior. Devices can learn with users, too: They’re adaptable and able to collect data and recognize patterns.

Everything from feedback loops to something as simple as a regular SMS reminder to exercise can shape the way we live. Small behavioral changes — eating a little less, walking a little more, connecting with friends and family in small but meaningful ways — can translate into profound changes at a personal or a societal level.

In a similar vein, designers and developers have also realized the power of appropriate data visualization around daily spending. As people become more aware of their expenditures, they are beginning to track where they spend their money, leading to different purchase decisions. Those four-dollar daily lattes really do add up. This is small, meaningful change at a personal level, and very significant at a societal level.

Context being so important to mobile phone use, do you see certain spaces as more mobile friendly? How is mobile technology being approached differently in say, private and public spaces?

Mobile context goes beyond the notion of physical space. Cultures and demographics dictate varying levels of mobile friendliness. For instance, younger people don’t know life without the Internet, computer, or mobile phone, so to them it seems that everything is mobile-friendly. The same goes for urban dwellers in South Korea and Japan: Ride a train in Seoul or Tokyo, and you’ll find most everyone using their mobiles for personal entertainment.

Public spaces are obvious areas for exploration. Retail and public transit environments are rapidly integrating mobile technologies. For example, apps like Shopsavvy and Google Shopper let shoppers scan an item (using a barcode, QR code, or image recognition) in a store aisle to get product information, including prices being offered by other retailers, allowing for a more informed purchase decision.

Private spaces offer a different challenge. Socially, it’s often unacceptable to use a mobile device or service at, say, a dinner party or during a meeting. But people still communicate and entertain themselves in these environments, usually under a dining or conference room table. Changes in using mobile devices in private spaces will evolve as social norms do.

Generational differences provide another perspective on the public vs. private divide. The current assumption that information technology is negatively affecting Gen Y is flawed, or at least incomplete. This group has grown up around unprecedented access to information, and as a result, is more educationally informed, socially active, and accepting of others. On the other hand, Generation X and the Baby Boomers largely spent their developmental years passively in front of a TV. Gen Y development involved very active interactions with a seemingly infinite world of information. I encourage older generations to learn more about the tools and attitude of Gen Y in order to continue to grow socially and intellectually.

Thoughts on how the iPad will be used?

The iPad to me is about in-home mobility. Instead of trying to tackle multi-screen convergence, the iPad addresses the simple fact that people use their phones and laptops on their couch, in front of the TV. (Which, coincidently, is where I’m writing this.) It will be interesting to see how the iPad’s use evolves in hospitals, auto repair shops, and retail, but I think the home offers many areas of opportunity for new experience design.

Layering data over reality has huge potential. However, the current on-the-go AR experience is not ideal. Do you see any alternatives and what are they?

Alternatives to Alternative Reality? I guess that takes us back to reality! I think AR technology has some very appropriate uses (leaving notes, thoughts, reviews, and images for others to find, comments about a piece of art, a historical location or other meaningful place, etc.). However, the current apps that use AR are not providing new capabilities. If I want to know where to get a decent meal, a list of restaurants, maps, and reviews are certainly acceptable, and AR is not necessarily needed. Currently, it’s easier to understand abstract representations through the written word rather than rely on alternative reality.

Eventually, AR technology will catch up, and developers will find new ways to use it. But I do fear the potential visual spam that may result. Can you imagine looking into your screen to find 12 layers of ads and arrows floating around? The situation could be similar to neon signs, which were once seen as a great new technology to grab attention, differentiate, and direct. Now, take a look down a busy urban street at night, and all you see is neon noise.

On the flip side of potential info-overload, there are great opportunities to create new ways of helping people filter and curate their environment — in a way that keeps them informed without being overwhelmed.

The mobile device is part of a growing ecosystem of screens. Interaction is everywhere. How do brands wrap their heads around this and design immersive transmedia experiences with this in mind?

Technical challenges certainly exist around multi-screen convergence. Again, an integrated hardware/software design process can help. The first step toward creating a consistent experience is to develop a thoughtful set of human-centered design principles.

These principles can act as the foundation for all services and design activities, no matter what the platform, helping steer and evaluate concept development, iteration, and implementation. This ensures the creation of human-centered concepts, for which technical solutions should then be explored. But because most companies are tech-driven, development usually happens in the opposite order. The company then jumps through hoops to create a branded connection with people, which is difficult. With a human-centered approach, branded behaviors or brand moments leave a lot of room for exploration: Designers can find new ways to support a brand beyond the static visuals by creating actions, activities, and moments that resonate with the company’s mission.

These actions, activities, and moments are often physical, like the closing of a clamshell phone or the pinch-to-zoom functionality that everyone associates with Apple. Sound design, or sonic mnemonics, is another area for transmedia brand resonance. Remember sitting on an airplane a few years ago — landing in Brazil, India, China, or anywhere in Europe — and hearing the Nokia phone startup sound ring throughout the cabin as everyone turned on their phones? This is powerful brand resonance. The mobile phone is an inherently audio device, and there are currently very few trademarked/protected sounds. IDEO has integrated sound design into its design process, and we now have a sound designer in house.

Finally, what developments in mobile do you personally have an eye on?

I’m attracted to anything that has large-scale sustainable impact. I look around IDEO and am inspired by mobile innovation in energy/clean tech, behavioral change, wireless health and financial services. Mobile as a platform has the potential to provide systemic solutions to very significant problems.

Any favorite apps?

For me, it’s less about the app itself and more about what people do with them. I believe the best mobile experiences are generated by passionate users. They take simple technologies and build new amazing experiences, which can then be shared with others. We’ve seen artists turn a simple paint program into beautiful artistic creations, worthy of magazine covers. We've read SMS books and poems. We’ve seen people use barcode scanner technology to inform consumers of products’ carbon footprints. We’ve seen SMS short codes used to collect millions of dollars for human relief efforts. People create their own experiences, and the apps are just the underlying technology.

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  • April D.

    So, I'm just trying to understand. You guys basically interview companies who provide strategic marketing services, correct? You don't actually provide any of them. Do your parents pick you up after you finish doing this incredible work each day? I was thinking that it would be amazing if you could learn from these people who donate their valuable time to educating you, and then use that learning to actually do something yourself! WDYT?! Then you could write a book report on your own agency!!!! Or, would that be too challenging for you? Let me know how I can help! You guys keep up the great work! IMPRESSIVE STUFF!

  • Caleb Kramer

    April, these interviews are a simple way to gather insight as well as provide for the community.

    If you really do want to learn about what we do, you can email: caleb.kramer[at]

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