Designing for mobile devices: an interview with Jason Furnell

Gerry Gaffney Interaction design Leave a Comment

Download (mp3: 7.2MB, 20:29)

Transcript

Gerry Gaffney:

My guest today has been involved in website design for some time but in recent years his focus has moved to content delivery for mobile devices.

He’s been working with Ericsson for three years in Australia and Sweden. He has a degree in architecture from The University of Sydney, a Masters in Design from the University of Technology Sydney, he’s currently completing his Masters Degree in Architecture at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

Jason Furnell, welcome to the User Experience podcast.

Jason Furnell:

Thank you for having me, it’s my pleasure.

Gerry:

Now, you’re interested in both traditional architecture if I can use that term and in information architecture. Why?

Jason:

I guess because I really feel they’re the same thing. I mean, you’re sort of dealing with defining functional places and ways of getting between those places and there’s a poetry of movement sort of involved with the whole thing and I think all spatial design sort of comes down boundaries and connections and that’s the raw material you deal with if you’re building bricks and mortar, and if you’re dealing with sort of virtual space so, yeah, when I sort of get bored and think; “God I hate being a geek,” I sort of think back to that and it kind keeps me interested.

Gerry:

The poetry of movement sounds like a very aesthetic or high-flown thought for most people who’d be involved in developing online content of any sort.

Jason:

You know, it’s kind of what it’s about. It’s the experience of moving through information or moving through places where you might be able to do things and if there’s something a little bit delightful about it, then all the better. You know, it’s not form follows function, kind of factory aesthetic, I think it should be more than that./p>

Gerry:

So you’re talking about emotional design, that sort of area as well.

Jason:

Yeah, but also keeping an eye always on the fact that people move through whatever you’re working on. It’s not a discrete page-by-page kind of experience that it feels like when you’re designing it. There is a real sequence and flow through it so if you can try and put some poetry in it… you know, this is the language the architects use so it’s good to apply that idea I think.

Gerry:

I guess a lot of the stuff in information architecture has derived directly from the traditional architecture world as well. I guess if we look at things like patterns… Do you use patterns or have you looked at any pattern languages or those sorts of things?

Jason:

Yeah, that’s what I’m looking at the moment, you know templated design just makes things a little easier and it just stops so many moving parts and if you can get down things that are functional and reusable then you can concentrate on how those sequence together rather than on designing the elements themselves. It didn’t work in architecture though. [Laughs.]

Gerry:

Well, it’s funny isn’t, it because it’s a very old idea in architecture but it appears to have not been applied all that much.

Jason:

You’ve always got the kind of specifics of site and the annoying movement of the sun. Every site has different conditions and so while the patterns are good if you’re building in the middle of a field most of the urban design doesn’t really allow you to apply the patterns in any really economical way.

Gerry:

Whereas you think they’re more applicable in the online area?

Jason:

Yeah… I think they’re more applicable but I think the evolution of usable patterns is a bit more exciting then applying them… They tried it with architecture and I think it’s going on now. I think it’s an exciting thing to design patterns and to try and work out new ways of doing something.

Gerry:

Aren’t they sort of contradictory saying you know, designing patterns and thinking about new ways of doing things, aren’t patterns all about re-applying old ways?

Jason:

Well, my thing about patterns is they usually tackle… the better ones tackle difficult like navigational problems that I haven’t come across personally, so some of them, the map navigational patterns, like the Yahoo! pattern library deals with more complex ways of navigating then the classic hyperlink have to deal with.

Gerry:

Now, I think when I first met you several years ago now, you were moving from sort of a graphic design background or graphic design role into information architecture and into user experience design, and now you describe your real job as defining vision and providing a leadership role. Is that an actual progression for you and is it one that you’d recommend to others?

Jason:

I’ve recently been getting more interested in how people move through career paths in design, and you know, saying that’s what’s happened to me I’ve just realised I’ve just been a chameleon who’s followed whatever people think is most important. When I was a Graphic Designer, or at one stage I called myself an Art Director it was brochure-ware and the look and feel was more important and the cool factor was there but there wasn’t much behind it and then I kind of morphed into what I thought was an information architect when people realised that, you know, usability was more of an issue and then as the menu navigation paradigm kind of broke down and in-page navigation became more, well to me, more the way people use, or it was recognised that’s the way people really want to use sites, and I call myself a UI designer because then you’re not worried about the menus you’re just worried about what’s in-page. And now I guess what people are realising is that it’s not just the page to page thing that’s important, it’s the entire experience and the entire experience actually linking it all together is more about a vision for a better way of doing things, and you know, it’s about tying things together rather then designing discrete little elements.

Gerry:

And do you think industry is more ready now to listen to people who’ve got let’s called it loosely a user experience design or user interface design skill set then they were three or four years ago?

Jason:

Yeah, I think particularly if you’re placing yourself as a kind of a proactive leader in terms of vision I think that’s a more desired role than one that is a bit reactionary. That’s how I see usability it’s a little bit reactionary and a little bit, you know puts up some pretty strong boundaries around what it’s prepared to do and not to do. So, that’s why, I think that leadership role thing is more interesting. That was one of the things that I really learnt you know coming from Sweden is that you can get a whole bunch of brilliant engineers together and without some vision of… and a simple vision of what they’re trying to achieve, they can flounder, great minds can be put to waste.

Gerry:

And how do you both create and communicate that vision?

Jason:

Ah…

Gerry:

I just thought I’d ask you an easy question, Jason.

Jason:

[Laughs.] Well, just by stringing together pretty high fidelity wireframes that describe the kind of the sequence of events that will occur for someone trying to do it, and also I think strangely more and more it’s about being able to put some pretty clear business benefits around how this particular piece of functionality is going to be good for everyone, for the customers and for the business. So, part of it’s about just what is the sequence, what is this thing going to look like but also what’s the idea behind it and why is it worth doing.

Gerry:

So this presumably implies that you’re going to be working fairly closely with marketing and business development people in that sort of area too?

Jason:

I don’t really work with marketing a lot at the moment but definitely with business development. It also reflects where I’m at which is I’ve been working for a long time with a big complex product and trying to add new bits of functionality to it and resell what it does all the time, which is a constant battle but I’m really interested in the whole leadership… I think design is kind of a leadership role and you know again, I get back to the bricks and mortar thing about architects that they really do… you know, there’s plenty of consultants in the building industry that can do everything that architects do, but the one thing they kind of add to it all is a vision of what this huge thing is going to look like and what’s driving the whole design and, I think that’s a core thing.

Gerry:

Jason, many people who have been delivering applications and content in what we might call that sort of traditional media or traditional online media now find that they need to design for mobile products. How did you find making that transition?

Jason:

Look, it was an accidental one and it came out of really doing associated designs for the web. To be honest, when I first started doing it I thought; “Wow I’m going back by about five or six years,” to when HTML didn’t do much and everything was about the menu structure and not what’s in-page because it’s kind of funny the mobile is… there is no separation between the menu structure and the body of the page. There is only the body menu kind of thing. I think that the only challenge is kind of really trying to figure out how to balance the needs of navigating and promoting in such a tiny space really. The technology is, you know it’s backwards if you’re doing anything on the classic web now then you’d be yawning a little when you saw the functionality of mobile browsers.

Gerry:

I guess in many ways at that time the mobile handsets unless you spend a lot of money, the user interface that you got was pretty primitive really wasn’t it?

Jason:

Yeah, it was shocking you know they did bitmap graphics and you know, and lists of menus and lists of menus and lists of menus and if you were lucky you might be able to download a ringtone or a wallpaper. That’s when SMS ruled, but they’re getting a lot better and the whole convergent promise is happening so yeah it’s more interesting what you can do within the browsers and they’ve got new sort of ways of navigating the tiny space so that you can move around large pages and rich media capable so it’s getting more interesting.

Gerry:

I guess to step backwards you think about, you know, delivery of online content on mobile devices got off to a very bad start with Wireless Access Protocol or WAP. Can you remember that and you can remember why that was such a dismal failure despite the telcos getting incredibly excited about it?

Jason:

The kind of media that it supported wasn’t all that interesting. Once you got past personalising your phone there wasn’t much more to do.

Gerry:

So, what’s different about content delivery on… I guess we’re talking 3G nowadays or 3.5G, is it just more hype or do you think it really means something?

Jason:

Well, the size of the pipe that sort of run into your handset I know that’s the wrong metaphor [laughs], but it makes a huge difference, being able to stream a video is not hype it’s the bandwidth and it’s the browsers on the phones are getting better so the line between what you can do kind of on a desktop and on your handset is getting thinner, the line between them is getting thinner.

Gerry:

So you think it’s a bandwidth thing primarily?

Jason:

Yeah I honestly think, you know, the WAP gateways were so bad and they’re getting better. You can watch a streaming video without a glitch on a 3G network.

Gerry:

Jason, I still can’t walk down to the local tram stop and find out on my mobile device when the next tram is coming.

Jason:

There is a service called TramTracker but…

Gerry:

But doesn’t it just give you the scheduled time of the next tram?

Jason:

Yeah.

Gerry:

Which is fiction anyway.

Jason:

True, look, location based services haven’t really worked, because the truth is they can’t really locate you that accurately, but I reckon, you know, this is just my guess, but that GPS handsets will change that.

[Note: Robert Amos was another interviewee on the User Experience podcast. He wrote the TramTracker app for iPhone, and it does supply real-time information.]

Gerry:

Have you read William Gibson’s Spook Country?

Jason:

No.

Gerry:

He talks about locative art where, depending upon where you are you can see various things that have been built for delivery just on those locations.

Jason:

No. [Laughs.] I’m seriously badly read.

Gerry:

No, that’s one I think you’d enjoy, it’s actually a good thriller as well.

Jason:

Lara’s here and she’s saying; “We’ve got his books here,” so…

Gerry:

It’s great, I left my copy in Ireland because I’d finished it and it’s pretty thick.

Jason:

Lara, don’t shake the book at me please.

Gerry:

[Laughs.] Hit him over the back of the head with it, Lara. [Lara says something.] What’s that; “He never reads books,” is that what she says?

Jason:

She gives me the crappy fiction ones. [Laughter.]

Gerry:

I can only hear bits of what Lara is saying but clearly she’s trying to educate you to little avail.

Jason:

That’s right. [Laughs.]

Gerry:

Now, Jason, most of the people that I see using the internet on mobile devices are geeks, you know we might kid ourselves that that’s not the case but it is or else they’re people for whom there’s a very strong business driver for constant access. Beyond those sort of niches, how do you see the mobile internet evolving?

Jason:

Well, it’s about the kids, you know, and every time you get on a tram they’re doing something on them, sometimes it does feel like the geeks but I think it’s all of the kids and you know social networking is going to drive amazing usage as well.

Gerry:

So we’re all going to be wandering around on Twitter saying exactly what we’re doing at any point in time so that people who really care enough about us can know about it?

Jason:

Yeah, and I think the social networking stuff is, you know, getting back to that architectural thing, is really interesting the way it’s kind of redrawing the boundaries between public and private and allowing a sort of overheard kind of conversation rather than a direct one, and you know the plague that is Facebook is really interesting in that way and I think it will happen on mobiles too that way with presence… That’s the other interesting thing that I think architecture and this has is that architects spend a lot of time trying to define that boundary between public and private and there’s a lot of pain and excitement about different ways of doing that, and I think it’s happening on the online space and will continue happening in more subtle and kind of sophisticated ways with crowding and overheard conversations and it’s… I don’t know how much time you’ve spent on Facebook recently, but it’s [laughs] it’s an exciting kind of concept I think.

Gerry:

You’ve stated in your blog that one of the big attractions of mobile content for telcos and providers is that unlike the internet, it’s not free. That sounds very cynical, tell me about that.

Jason:

Yeah, look, it is a bit cynical but I was thinking more about… cable I think is a good example of where you have the same services as normal TV but a bit more bandwidth and a few more choices and suddenly you can smack another price on it, even with ads, so I think IPTV and mobile TV and other sort of on-demand or other sort of rich media services like that will just be another way of rebuilding the internet but with a price tag this time. I mean I hope I’m wrong, I really hope that you know the internet doesn’t turn into this geek space that people hear used to exist, but yeah I can see IPTV being like cable, a kind of rich place that costs you more money for the same sort of services.

Gerry:

Tell me about the work you’ve been doing with Ericsson, I believe you guys use the Agile development methodology there is that right?

Jason:

Well, when I went to Sweden it was a real focus because I guess they’re moving from being a provider of telecom grade services to competing with media companies and so for them they’re really having to deal with the challenge of competing with more agile people, and not just in a development sense but in the normal sense of agile, so yeah they are taking on Agile programming as a way of doing that and I think it’s really exciting for anyone who’s in usability, interactive design, user interface, whatever you want to call it because you become the centre of the definition process, and if you position yourself properly you’re the translator from the business requirements through to the technology people. I think it’s really an exciting way of doing development and because it’s sort of demonstration, you know you do demos as the focus of an Agile round, you’re right there defining what the demo ambition is and then kind of you know, help guide people towards fulfilling that ambition. I think the waterfall kind of shoves us a little too early and a little too late, it’s more difficult to position yourself as a centrepiece of the whole thing.

Gerry:

So what sort of cycles are you running, six-week or eight-week cycles or something like that?

Jason:

Well we were aiming for two-week cycles… To be honest a lot of the engineers who were involved with the process that I was in found it uncomfortable. It seemed like some people really embraced it as; “Wow this is the way I’ve always thought it should be,” and others just thought it was a complete mess and; “Give me some clear requirements and let me do know six months of analysis and I’ll get back to you”. But I think it’s exciting.

Gerry:

And you think it’s inherently more efficient by the sounds of things.

Jason:

Yeah, I think a lot of the times with big projects the customer only ends up using 10% of what you build, they’re fearful of not getting what they want so they throw so much into the requirements phase, and don’t do the prioritisation that really needs to be done, they never do, and that kind of stops that from happening because you know, you just need to talk about what you need right now in the next you know, few weeks. It just stops the over-engineering of requirements.

Gerry:

Many people who are designing for traditional media will find the idea of mobiles pretty daunting and I guess a lot of people are having to at least consider the mobile spaces. Do you have any advice for them, are there any resources or books for example they should be checking out? Knowing you’re such a great reader, Jason. [Laughter.]

Jason:

That’s right. I think my message is just keep doing what you’re doing well and you’ll be able to apply it to the mobile spaces, bring along what you’ve been doing to any other interactive spaces. The same rules apply, the same vision for how to do it better is needed, so keep doing the good work you’re doing.

Gerry:

Well, Jason Furnell, thanks very much for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

Jason:

Thank you, it was grand.

Published: September 2007

A note on the transcripts

We make verbatim transcripts of the User Experience podcast. We then edit the transcripts to remove speech-specific elements that interfere with meaning in print (primarily space-fillers such as “you know…”, “um…”).

Gerry GaffneyDesigning for mobile devices: an interview with Jason Furnell

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *