As an interaction designer working in the mobile space and as someone who follows Apple’s products with interest, the iPhone announcement has been something that I have been eagerly anticipating ever since rumours of its existence started to circulate. Given Apple’s reputation for innovation, I was excited to discover whether Apple could bring some fresh approaches to tired old mobile device UI paradigms and the announcement has certainly not disappointed. Not only was the much-rumoured full touch screen present, but here was a genuinely disruptive UI that was optimised to finger gestures, one that incorporated several sensing technologies and that brought the graphical elegance of Mac OS X to the mobile device.
Apple’s introduction of a solid-state scroll wheel to the iPod in July 2002 helped to stimulate a debate on the use of touch technologies for mobile phones. Capacitive sensing technologies brought the promise of adaptable UIs that could dynamically change touch controls to fit different contexts and thereby remove the need for physical buttons, evolving into concepts such as Synaptics’ Onyx phone. It is fitting therefore that the concept has reached its full realisation in the iPhone. For the first time on a mobile device, we have seen multi-touch input put to use to allow users to intuitively zoom the UI without the need for zoom buttons or other controls. Steve Jobs said during his Macworld keynote to much cheering that multi-touch gesturing is part of what provides the magic to the iPhone and that it has been patented, but it is worth noting that Bill Buxton, one of Human-Computer Interaction’s father figures, has been encouraging exploration into multi-touch input for over 20 years, and the technology has been demonstrated to impressive effect already in this video by Jeff Han.
Another strikingly intuitive interaction in the iPhone’s UI is in the use of the device’s accelerometer to detect the orientation of the device and to rotate the UI accordingly to allow users, for example, to view a landscape image fullscreen by simply rotating the device to a landscape orientation. This is a classic example of how Apple humanises high technology to cut away needless interaction and provide highly accessible and delightful user experiences.
Redefining the rules of operator engagement But, speaking as a designer of mobile devices who has had to trawl through reams of operator requirements, perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the Macworld keynote was to see how the iPhone is pushing operators to meet its design vision rather than the other way around and refuses to be tied to requirements can befuddle the UI and lead to an incoherent user experience. Stan Sigman (CEO of Cingular) revealed that Cingular had entered into a contractual agreement with Apple two years ago without ever seeing the product, based purely on the strength of the design vision. This is unheard of – Apple have truly struck a blow by mobilising the value chain in their and the end user’s favour. It remains to be seen if other manufacturers will be able to follow suit.
Since the iPhone’s announcement, reactions to it from people I have spoken to and from across the web have been varied and interesting. Some have been unfazed by the hype and argue that the device contains nothing truly new or innovative either technically or in the UI. However, to have this view is surely missing the point. When it was released back in 2001, the iPod was not particularly revolutionary in terms of its specifications either, as other mass storage MP3 players were already on the market. The innovation came in its commitment to delivering an uncompromised design vision by focussing on the total user experience of the product. The ripple effect caused by the iPod’s success on raising the profile of user experience in the industry has been truly significant. Hopefully, the iPhone’s announcement will also bring about a change in attitude that will allow UI designers to unleash their creativity.