Four key trends for designing better mobile devices

Sue MarekBack in the early-to-mid 1990s, when a new wireless phone debuted all the focus was on the size (it had to be small--the smaller, the better), the shape (was it a flip-phone or a candy-bar shaped phone?) and the battery life.  Those three items were the key differentiating factors among the various cellular handsets, and that was what consumers evaluated when they went to their cell phone carrier and purchased a phone and a service plan. 

Fast-forward 15 years and consumers today are looking for much more than a small phone with a long battery life. In this post-iPhone era, the mobile device is evaluated by consumers in much the same way they select a personal computer. The device must have a sleek, streamlined design, it must be fast and functional--and perhaps most importantly, it must provide them with value in their everyday lives.  

Meeting those types of consumer demands isn't easy, particularly for manufacturers that have long been focused on the technology inside the phone rather than the design and streamlined functionality on the outside. But that's where firms such as Product Development Technologies come into play. PDT is a global product development firm that provides industrial design research and development for some of the big wireless manufacturers. Although PDT is cagey about its customers (it has non-disclosure agreements with most of its clients), it says it has helped wireless firms such as Motorola and Qualcomm design cutting-edge solutions.

I recently spoke with Tim Morton, design director for PDT's Austin, Texas, office about what PDT believes are some of the emerging design trends for 2010 and beyond. Morton said PDT advises its clients to pay close attention to how consumers use the products in their everyday life. "Manufacturers need to understand how people use devices. Are they using it on the train or in the office? What are they doing with it? What do they value?"

Morton added that product design will become even more important as wireless becomes embedded in all types of devices, like mHealth devices that will monitor patients in their homes. "These types of products, in particular, have to be intuitive to your needs. The information must be accessible," Morton said.

As far as future trends, PDT's insights seem fairly straightforward.

  • Focused function. Customers want products that meet their basic needs. They don't want unnecessary functions, save those for a niche audience. 
  • Meaningful product design. The economic downturn has caused consumers to rethink their shopping behavior, so they are more thoughtful about what they purchase. The product must offer meaningful value to a consumer or it won't succeed.
  • One click or no click. Consumers want instant gratification and are less tolerant of device complexities. Products must be designed so they are intuitive to the consumer's needs and environment. This trend is particularly applicable to mobile phones, says Morton. As an example, he said that mobile phone users only started sharing content with each other (sending photos via MMS) when it became a one-click solution. "Every person struggled with sharing content on their device with someone else," he added.
  • Authenticity. PDT says that consumers want high quality, long-lasting products with a modern aesthetic. Faux materials are out.

PDT's trends may seem obvious, but that doesn't mean they should be ignored. We've witnessed first-hand how products that miss the boat on design and functionality and end up being relegated to the wireless phone junkpile. --Sue