Rachel Hinman – Creating Great Mobile User Experiences

Sean Carmichael

February 10th, 2012

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Mobile is greatly influencing the user experience community. It’s challenging traditional approaches to design, but also bringing with it a host of new opportunities. Being a user experience practitioner in this changing environment is a bit scary. Yet coupling existing skill sets with the constraints of designing in the mobile space makes for an exciting world full of possibility.

The transition from designing for the desktop to designing for mobile can be a daunting one. Rachel Hinman of Nokia had her own experience with this challenge back in 2005 when the mobile world truly was a scary place to live in. Back then, the mobile web was little more than an afterthought. The experience of using the web on a mobile device was painful. With advancing technology and the advent of the iPhone and Android devices, mobile is becoming easier for users. Rachel considers that personal feeling and concreteness to be one of the exciting things about working in the mobile space.

The very nature of mobile offers opportunities that the desktop doesn’t, but also brings with it problems you don’t encounter on the desktop. Rachel thinks that it takes some “unlearning” to position yourself in the mobile context. Embracing the constraints of mobile and taking full advantage of capabilities such as voice and built in cameras are key. This allows you to leave the desktop mindset and design for the context.

Rachel will be presenting a full-day workshop at UX Immersion 2012 in Portland, OR April 23-25. Find out more details about the UX Immersion conference.

As always we want to know what you’re thinking. Share your thoughts in our comments section.

UX Immersion 2012 - Agile/Mobile

Recorded: January, 2012
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Full Transcript.


Jared Spool: Welcome everyone to another episode of the SpoolCast. I’m Jared Spool and I am your host for today.

We have with us Rachel Hinman, who is going to be speaking at our upcoming UX Immersion Conference, which is going to be April 23-25 in Portland, Oregon.

And Rachel is going to be doing a fabulous workshop that will help everyone, who is just getting into mobile design understand exactly what they need to do and how they need to approach the problem of designing great experiences for mobile devices. Rachel comes to us from Nokia and we have her here today.

Hi, Rachel!

Rachel Hinman: Hello!

Jared: Hello! You’ve been working in mobile now for a really long time, right? You were one of the first to really start designing in this space that I knew about.

Rachel: Yeah, I started my career in mobile in 2005. I had just gotten a job at Yahoo and, at the time, Yahoo was really interested in figuring out how to get Internet content on mobile devices. This was way before the iPhone was around or Android phones or Windows Mobile phones, so getting Internet content on a mobile device was a pretty difficult experience, difficult user experience. I was hired to help them figure that out and help them make that a better experience for their users.

Jared: And so back then, it must have been hugely challenging to do this. The browsers weren’t on every phone and the phones that had them, the browsers were really crippled in what they could and couldn’t do, right?

Rachel: There were a lot of sort of pain points for users at that time. There was definitely issues around the browsers and there was also this really big chasm between smartphone users and sort of basic phone users. And there was also sort of, people knew the Internet access was potentially a feature for their phone, but they weren’t even sure if their phone was capable of doing that because that language really wasn’t in people’s sort of mindset at that point.

I think another big problem that we saw, was that data plans was something that was a huge issue for people back then, as well. So even people who did understand and “get it” that they could get Internet content on their phone and were interested in it, then they would get these horrible bills because there really wasn’t a lot of clarity around how much it would cost and what the pricing was, what was driving the pricing. There were a lot of really significant user experience hurdles for folks in those days. My, how times have changed!

Jared: Yeah! Yeah, I remember back then having this little LG flip phone. We had a Verizon business account and they gave us six months free of a data plan, just so we’d get hooked on it.

I remember trying to use it and it felt so impossible because it wasn’t a smartphone. I had to do everything through typing in the letters with the number pad, so if I wanted a “C” I hit the “1″ key three times. Just typing in a website was like this major, major effort.

Rachel: Yeah, I have this great video clip that I remember from one of the research studies that we did where we asked the participant to… She had mentioned how one of the things she had done is that she would look up movies at blockbuster.com to see if a new title was available at the rental store and I asked her, “Could you demonstrate to me how you did it?” It was seriously like a four minute video clip of her typing in on T9, www.blockbuster.com and then, waiting for the page to fully render in the browser. It was a great clip because it really communicated just how something so simple that we take for granted on a PC, is so very challenging in the mobile world.

Jared: So it must’ve been, you know, here you are, hired into Yahoo and you’re tasked with making a great experience in those conditions. That must have been really scary because nobody knew how to do that back then, right?

Rachel: Yeah, I was really terrified, I would say, for the first three to five months of my time there. Because my experience before Yahoo had really been in the web — when I say web, at that time it was more the PC web — and I felt really comfortable in that space. I felt comfortable designing websites that were really for the PC context.

I had gone to graduate school at the Institute of Design and learned about user research and all that stuff, but I really didn’t have a lot of specific knowledge around mobile. In fact, a lot of people at that point didn’t. I think that I had done a project or two in my graduate program that involved mobile devices and I think that is why I got the job. But the first three to give months of that job, I was just really terrified by the fact that I didn’t really know a whole lot about mobile. I really didn’t know how to — I guess I would say — engage with it, if that makes sense.

Jared: Yeah, I mean at that point, it was really a different thing. So it took you a good long time, at that time, to sort of get comfortable. What were some of the things that stand out that were like “Aha!” moments for you back then?

Rachel: Well I think even knowing how to design for a small screen like, what are the design constraints? What are the typical design constraints? What’s the screen size? You know, I think with a website, you have a sense of how browsers work, and how page loads work, and sort of how to create a web page that, you know, it was of the medium of HTML and it would work. You know, it wouldn’t really choke the browser or be really difficult for a user to download or be really difficult to construct and build.

I think I didn’t really know a lot about that stuff and I got really caught up in sort of the technical parts of it. I think that that was probably for me, one of the things that really terrified me the most. Yeah, I would say that was the thing that probably terrified me the most. [laughs]

Jared: As you started to work in it, how did you start to get so you weren’t as scared of it and terrified any more? What sort of happened to get you there?

Rachel: I think, for me, one of the things that really kind of kicked me into it and really got me excited about it was doing user research because I was seeing firsthand how people were experiencing the stuff that was currently being built for mobile. I saw how poor it was. I just realized — here I am — I’m almost paralyzed in terms of my design skills, or being able to sketch out ideas and start to be able to put them together and build them.

And I’m seeing what other people have done and how really horrible it is for other people and I’m like, “I can’t do any worse.”

That was what caused me to just realize that I have these skills. I can empathize with users. I can draw and sketch. The technical skills that I don’t have, there are plenty of people within my group that I can look to, to help me with that. I realized after going out into the world and talking to people and seeing some of the broken experiences that they were having, that it was [inaudible] of me not to just jump in.

I found that to be just really something that made me just get beyond my fear.

Jared: It’s interesting that you said that the things that got you beyond your fear are basically, proven time-tested usability and user research techniques — just you know, sitting and actually watching people, seeing how bad the status quo experience was, realizing that you could sketch out your ideas and put them in front of folks and see if you could incrementally improve that experience over what was out there. I mean, that’s not new. That’s not new to mobile. There’s nothing mobile-specific about those things, right?

Rachel: Right, exactly. I felt like it was also interesting because going out into the world and talking to people, observing them and observing how they were using their mobile devices was something that was surprising that more people in the organization hadn’t already done that. There were some really significant issues that they were trying to solve and they were struggling with, and were trying to find good solutions to, but going out and actually watching people, and sort of understanding how they understood their mobile devices, was not something a lot of people felt comfortable doing.

I think from a user experience perspective, that ability to empathize with the user and observe that and sort of be able to come up with design solutions based on those observations and those insights, is something that like you said, it’s a tried and true, proven skill that sort of applies to a lot of things.

Jared: Let’s fast forward to today. Now, you’re working at Nokia. You’re sort of neck-deep in mobile experiences all the time, right?

Rachel: Yes.

Jared: We have the iPhone has come along and the iPhone 2, and the iPhone 3GS, and now the iPhone 4. We’ve got Android phones, and last I heard, Nokia has some awesome new phones running Windows Mobile 7. And so there’s all sorts of new experiences today. Does all this stuff make it harder or easier, than what you were dealing with way back in 2005, you think, for people who are just getting started?

Rachel: Well, I think it’s a kind of a combination of both. I think it’s easier because I think, you know, mobile’s not this sort of side thing, side interesting thing, it’s really something that’s I think become front and center, both in the user experience world, as well as the business world, technology world and it’s something that people are a lot more aware of.

That’s definitely a big change. I think that awareness and excitement around it — you’re not the mobile team of maybe three or four people kind of cobbling something together that not very many people use — there’s a lot more people now doing pretty sophisticated things with their mobile devices.

There’s a visibility now, and I think, a user group now, just in the general public that’s a lot greater than it was seven years ago.

But I think in some ways there’s kind of a… I don’t want to say that there’s a dark side to that. But I think one of the things that makes that challenging is, there’s a lot of noise. I mean I think that an image that comes to mind is — I use it in my book — was this image of the Oklahoma Land Rush. You know it’s like all of those horses running! There’s a sort of fervor around it. I think that energy can be not always the most productive for people.

I mean, some people work really well in that kind of a space, around that kind of energy, but not everyone does. I think in that some ways that can kind of get folks into trouble.

Jared: Say a little bit more about this “land rush” thing that’s happening.

Rachel: Well, I think people just feel like mobile is really hot right now and it’s just kind of like the Land Rush. They want to figure out their place in it. They want to get their piece of that opportunity. I think people are just sort of rushing in and trying to figure that out.

And I think, you know like I said, the positive side of that is that sort of optimism and sense that anything is possible is there. I guess I try to embrace that positive part of it. Like, “Anything’s possible! Infinity and beyond! Hooray!” It’s a nice thing to be around.

Jared: It is! What’s really fun for me is, I see clients who get really excited about the possibilities of mobile and start to say, “Oh, and we can give them status updates on where things are. We can let them check the progress of their deliveries. We can skip things in the user experience. They don’t have to check in with us anymore. They can now just do it on their phone and go straight to the gate or just take off.” Those things become simpler to imagine because they have so many experiences to compare to.

Whereas back in 2005, I think it was hard to imagine all the things you could do with your phone. It was much more “sci-fi-ish” back then.

Rachel: Yeah, I think that’s one of the things that has been really exciting about the last I would say two to three years of being involved in mobile. Is, I think, like you were saying, with the release of things like the iPhone and the Android phones and touchscreen devices, as well as tablets, I mean I feel like there were a lot of conferences and academics and people in research labs, who were talking about ubiquitous computing, but it’s almost like these devices and tablets have really become an almost gateway drug to what’s possible. Right?

It’s not something that’s this sort of wonky, abstract thing that people can’t relate to any more. The ability to access information from anywhere, from almost any context, it’s really sort of allowing people to experience that firsthand and make that type of experience concrete and more tangible.

And so it’s exciting because it’s no longer this kind of weird, abstract thing that most people can’t relate to, it’s something that is a lot more near and dear to them. They can experience it. They can get glimpses of that future.

Jared: Yeah, I mean if you’d asked me in 2005, what would be some of the neater apps, I wouldn’t have said,”Well, I’ll just point my camera at my W-2 form and Intuit’s tax product will read the form and fill out my income tax 1040 based on what’s right there.” But that’s done now. Then once you realize, “Oh, if we can do it that,” then Walgreen’s realizes that, “OK, well, I could just point the camera at a prescription bottle and make it a refill request.” All of a sudden, all this stuff just happens. It’s like, “Oh, that’s easy.”

So it’s almost like the palette of colors we have to paint with has just gotten hugely bigger.

Rachel: Yeah. That’s a great way to put it. It really is this sort of green field. I think that it’s almost like this golden age now, where these sort of wonky things that we thought would be so impossible, it’s like, “Wow, it’s really not.” It’s not impossible anymore.

Jared: So, given that, and all these cool things are there, there are still some challenges that people today deal with on a regular basis. What are some of the challenges that you’re seeing when you talk to folks who are trying to design for mobile today?

Rachel: Well it’s interesting, because I think a lot of times when I talk to people, a lot of the fears that people have are the same fears that I had when I first started, which was, I got really caught up in the fact that I didn’t have any experience in mobile. I got really caught up in the sort of technical aspects of it that I didn’t completely understand.

I know that those are valid fears. I’ve experienced them myself, but I also have experienced firsthand I can move up and out of that. Because most people, if they’re involved in user experience and have some sort of user-experience projects under their belt, they have developed some skills that will serve them very well in designing mobile stuff, mobile applications, mobile websites and whatnot.

It’s really around sort of recognizing that and having confidence in the skills that you have, and the contribution that that can make to whatever mobile projects you’re working on and for your team. I think that confidence issue is definitely one challenge that I see a lot of people having.

And the technical stuff, I think that that’s becomes a weird thing too, because when people ask, “Oh, should I make a native application, or a web-based application? Should I make a mobile website? Should I make an Android application? Should I make an iPhone application?”

To me, those are important questions to ask, but I think it’s really more of a timing question. I see people asking that question right away, like at the very beginning of their design process. I just feel like that’s not really the right time to be asking that question.

The right time to be asking that question is further along, after you’ve allowed yourself to explore and see what might be possible, and just let yourself explore what could be possible, explore what mobile experiences might make sense for your users, and then make your decisions, your sort of execution decisions, based on those ideas.

Jared: All this technical stuff, it sounds to me like, while it’s really important, what I hear you saying is that a lot of the issues that come up when you’re designing, there’s a way to do it most of the time, and if not, you’ll find it out pretty quick. So don’t worry about it too much. Chances are you have a group of people around you who are going to be able to guide you through the, “Oh, that’s easy” or “Wow, that’s going to be really hard.”

But the things that make a really good experience typically are not things that are technically difficult to do. Is that true?

Rachel: One of the things that I think is really important to remember with mobile is that even a beautifully executed bad idea is still a bad idea. Right? Execution is important, but it’s really around what your idea is.

I think one of the things that’s super exciting about mobile is the fact there’s still so much about it that we don’t know, and we don’t understand. And that’s why I really encourage people to allow themselves to explore that preliminary blue sky idea space, and give themselves a generous amount of time to do that, because there’s really a lot of room in mobile user experience to innovate.

I think it’s important for everyone to allow themselves to just take that time to come up with a bunch of crazy ideas, and really save the execution decision making part of the project for a little bit later in the process. Because who knows who’s going to come up with the next new interesting idea, right?

Jared: Yeah. Some of the coolest stuff in mobile has been really out of folks that you wouldn’t think of as a particularly innovative organization or group. I mean, take the prescription bottle thing from Walgreen’s. I think before that, if you had asked me, “Who are the top technology innovators in the world?” Walgreen’s wouldn’t have come to mind.

Same with the folks over at Bank of America. I think it was Bank of America. Who was it who made it so you can take a picture of your check and deposit it without having to be at an ATM?

Rachel: I think it was B of A, but I think actually, I want to say it may have been something government oriented, because I thought that the first people who were doing that, it was designed for folks in the military.

Jared: Oh, yeah. I think I might have heard that, too. But even so, neither of those organizations you would put at the top end of technology innovation. It’s not like they had some special incubator, or some think tank that was coming up with this stuff. It was just a bunch of guys that, “Hey! What if we took a picture of it? What could we do with that picture?”

So it’s sort of that playfulness that I think really makes mobile stuff really, really interesting.

I’m curious. You spend a lot of time helping people, and you’re writing this book for Rosenfeld Media called “The Mobile Frontier.” What are some of the traps that you see folks running into when they start, that it’s like, “Oh! Dude! You should be reading my book! You should come to my workshop, because you would so not have done that.”

Rachel: I almost think of it more as unlearning. But I think one of the things I see a lot happening with people is that it’s very difficult to recognize and be conscious of the fact that a lot of how we think about computing experiences and technology today is really based on the PC experience and the context of the PC.

So a lot of ideas, and even solutions that people come up with are very much sort of entrenched and tied to that legacy.

And I think it takes some unlearning to recognize that mobile is just a very different context to design for. There’s limitations to that that can be somewhat frustrating for designers, but there’s also a lot to it that’s kind of, like you were saying, taking a photograph of something and using that as a way to trigger an interaction. That’s something that you really don’t see a lot of with the PC.

Voice is another one, another input that has been explored somewhat on the PC, but mobile’s really taking that baton and running with it. I think also just playing around with information, information access in a different context. What does that mean? How do you depict information? How do you convey it in a way that is glanceable, is not annoying, is valuable to a user in a variety of different contexts?

Those are things that become interesting design questions for mobile, that I just don’t think the PC has ever really explored. I think that it’s that unlearning of the PC, and really allowing yourself to kind of cast off that anchor and explore a different way of doing things that really becomes a challenge for people.

Jared: This getting away from the PC. Are there tricks that you’ve been teaching people, to sort of divorce themselves of that thinking?

Rachel: One of the exercises that I tried kind of early on in my career and I was just so surprised at how excited people got as a result of that exercise, was… You know, a lot of times at the beginning of any project, you’ll have a brainstorming exercise. I think there’s a typical scenario for that brainstorming exercise, and that is, your team sits together in a conference room, maybe have a bunch of hash sheets, and you come up and you start brainstorming ideas. That’s the sort of scenario.

I was working on a project, and we were thinking, “Hey, instead of sitting around this conference room, let’s actually get out into the world and start coming up with ideas that way.” And it was actually sort of, we could have termed in “brainstorming in the wild,” but people going out into a variety of different mobile contexts, and using that as sort of fodder and inspiration for their ideas.

And I think what the result of that is is that your ideas can actually have a kind of empathy and sensitivity to some of the contextual issues that you encounter when you’re designing for mobile.

Even some of those challenges just become this sort of inspirational fodder for a kind of clever and interesting way to solve a problem that someone might have, or just think about access to information in a completely different way.

So I think that it’s that idea of getting out of the static context, is one really great way to kind of shake yourself out of, “Wow, I’m not designing for this sort of, I’m sitting at a computer with a keyboard.” Put yourself in a typical user’s environment and try to come up with some ideas.

Jared: Are there other traps that people run into too?

Rachel: I’d say that I’ve really found that prototyping is… I think for any user experience activity has been evangelized as really important to prototype, but I think in mobile, it’s like, three or four times more important to really give yourself the time and the space to prototype your ideas. I think for the PC, it’s really considered a luxury, but I think for mobile, it’s just, it’s essential to really just bust out and really get your ideas on paper, and find a way to really test out your ideas early and often.

Jared: What is it about mobile that sort of forces your hand on the prototyping thing?

Rachel: I always think of the design process you think about it in sort of four phases, like discover. You’re sort of in that big idea space and come up with lots of ideas. Then there’s that define, which is the second phase. It’s where you say, “OK, this is what we’re going to make, this idea.” Then you develop that idea, and you fine tune the design. Then you deliver. That’s sort of the fourth phase. So it’s discover, define, develop, and deliver are the four phases of design process.

I find that the place where things really fall off the rails for a lot of folk when they’re new to mobile is it’s really in that develop phase, where you’ve actually taken a couple of design ideas, or one design idea, and you start to develop it. It’s really because people lack the skills to make really good, educated decisions, because they’re new to the design space.

Something that maybe sounded really good in their head, or maybe like there was an interesting drawing, or a few rough prototypes of it, once you really start to develop it, you start to see some of the flaws. Then it just becomes like a pain parade till the end of the process, because you just really didn’t have a great idea that you could develop and deliver on.

If you start to prototype those ideas at the very first stages of that design process, in the discover and define phase of a design process, I just really prototype the heck out of all of your ideas. I find that it helps you make those decisions better. You’re not just relying on an idea in your head, or a really rough idea that you maybe lightly sketched out, or made a really rough prototype of. It’s like, if you vigorously kind of pursue that idea, and embodying that idea in a prototype, it helps you make better design decisions.

Jared: Well this has been really interesting. I’m really excited to see your workshop at the UX Immersion Conference, and the book, “The Mobile Frontier,” is coming out, and I know you’re going to be doing one of our Next Step Virtual Seminars with us, that we do in conjunction with Rosenfeld Media, that sort of celebrates the book and talk. We’re going to be talking to you a lot.

Rachel: Will be exciting, yeah. It’s going to be a fun spring, that’s for sure. 2012 is going to be a good year.

Jared: It is, it is. And it’s just in time, because I think this mobile thing is finally about to take off.

[laughter]

Rachel: I’d say.

[laughter]

Jared: Yeah. I predict all sorts of people will be using their phones. [laughs]

Rachel: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know, I’ve talked to a lot of people lately, and I’m super excited for the future and what’s happening, because I think there’s just so much possibility, and so much space for innovation and invention. It’s like I said, I’ve been in this industry for seven years, and I’m still excited by the possibilities of it.

I just see a lot of designers who are intrigued by mobile, but I can also sense that sort of hesitation and fear that they have. I hope that people just are able to move beyond that sort of hesitation and fear, and just jump in, because it’s a fun place to be. It’s where the action is.

Jared: Well, at the UX Immersion Conference in Portland in April, you’re going to be helping people get over their fear, with your full day workshop. I think people are going to really love it.

Rachel: Yeah, I do, too. I promise there will be no trust falls.

Jared: No trust falls. OK. Excellent. Well, Rachel, thanks for spending the time with us.

Rachel: My pleasure. Thank you.

Jared: And if you want to see Rachel, you’ll want to come to Portland, to the UX Immersion Conference. Again, that will be April 23-25. You’ll also want to be checking out her book that’s going to be coming out from Rosenfeld Media later this year, called, “The Mobile Frontier.”

That would be an awesome way to get a great introduction into how to design for mobile. I want to thank everybody for listening, and as always, thank you for encouraging our behavior. We’ll see you next time.

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