The important role of user research

XVII.1 January + February 2010
Page: 48
Digital Citation

FEATUREUser-research-driven mobile user interface innovation

Jay Yi

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According to Strategy Analytics, Korean mobile-device manufacturers captured more than 45 percent of the North American market during the first quarter of 2009. Samsung Electronics has remained a top seller since 2008, currently holding a 26.3 percent market share. LG Electronics holds a 19.6 percent share, while Motorola trails with 18 percent. The importance of Korean vendors is increasing; not only have they become leaders in certain major markets, but they are also the only companies to report increased total handset sales during this global economic slowdown.

While success stories about Korean handset designs and user interfaces (UI) are well-known, the activities and UI strategies of Korean telecommunications companies are rarely reported to readers outside Korea.

South Korea has three telecommunications companies: SK Telecom, KT, and LG Telecom. The market size of South Korea (about $20 billion) is smaller than that of the U.S. (about $160 billion in 2008), but competition for new services, user interfaces, and technologies is very tough. The Korean market is important for global players because it is the first place where most new devices, mobile technologies, and services are commercially launched.

A notable mobile user interface design success story involves mMessenger, a mobile instant messenger platform that pxd, a Korean user-interface consultancy, and SK Telecom have been building since 2005 (see Figures 1, 2).

back to top  Mobile-Messaging User Research Reveals Opportunities and Risks

By 2005 most carriers had deployed or had expressed interest in deploying mobile ports of existing instant-messaging services, such as ICQ, AIM, MSN Messenger, or Yahoo! Messenger. SK Telecom also offered a mobile version of a PC Internet messenger called NateOn. The mobile instant messenger seemed likely to bring in more revenue than SMS, since teenagers in Korea frequently have conversations via SMS. However, the outcomes of the first and second versions of NateOn Mobile were not particularly positive. Before SK Telecom proceeded with developing the third NateOn upgrade, they asked pxd to conduct user research in order to discover why the main target audience (young people) did not like the idea of real-time chatting.

After two weeks of journaling, we conducted contextual inquiries and interviews with 12 users (see Figure 3). Our research revealed that for users in their teens and twenties, two or more consecutive messages sent and received (a so-called conversation) accounted for 95 percent, while messages sent without reply ("singles") made up less than 5 percent of all messages. This "conversation" rate is higher than those among English teens studied in 2000 (66 percent conversation [1]). Among Korean youth, one conversation typically comprised an average of 7.8 messages.

Our study confirmed the common belief that the majority of SMS usage by young people consists of conversational or threaded messaging. However, when we scrutinized the situations in which these messages were actually sent or received, we found that only 6 percent of situations were "absolutely effective" for real-time chatting, and real-time chatting was "possible" in only 24 percent of the total communications situations. This explained why conventional MIM would not be successful as a replacement for SMS. The lives of young Koreans were often not conducive to intensive real-time chatting; they were in class, walking around, or at work—in many cases unable to focus on a conversation. In addition, users could not decide at the beginning of the exchange whether a conversation would be real-time or fragmented (intensive or intermittent). Further, it was usually not clear when the conversation was completed. Since these Koreans could not determine the type of conversation in advance, they were also unable to decide which tool to use (SMS or MIM); as a result, they tended to always choose the familiar SMS as the default option. Our analysis led us to believe there was a need for a communications tool that could support various types of conversations.

We came up with six user requirements from the Green Label of the Affinity Diagram, based on 320 pieces of user data (see Figure 4). The six requirements are as follows:

  • (a) Must be able to communicate without being tied up in a conversation
  • (b) Fees must be reasonable
  • (c) Benefits must outweigh inconvenience
  • (d) Must be able to select the appropriate mode of communication
  • (e) Must be able to play with friends via cell phone
  • (f) Must be able to store messages effectively

Conventional MIM failed because it could not meet user requirement (a). The MIM users, waiting for a reply, had to keep their cell phones up and running to receive any response, while SMS users could put the phone away and forget about the message while doing something else.

In addition to the Affinity Diagram, we created personas based on our collated user data (see Figure 5). By analyzing behavior patterns for SMS and MMS usage, we learned that users in their teens or twenties can be grouped into three categories: "culturally talkative," "born to talk," and "not to talk."

First, we discovered that most teens are "culturally talkative." Since the entire group exhibits a strong preference for conversation, individual differences in the levels of preference are insignificant. They reported having many conversation partners and frequently met up with these people in the offline world.

When these teenagers reach the age of 20, individual tendencies start to become apparent. They are divided into two groups. One group is classified as "born to talk," as they are desperate to have conversations all the time. The other group is characterized as "not to talk"; they prefer maintaining relationships with a few select individuals instead of just making conversation for the sake of it. They become partner-oriented, and they like to keep digital conversation at a minimum to maintain their relationships. They find text messaging exhausting and converse only with a small number of people.

We chose "Not to talk" as our primary persona, because we felt that if we could satisfy this persona, we could probably meet the needs of the others. "Not to talk" individuals do not like to text message, and most work in front of a PC, where instant messaging is just a mouse click away. However, they still want to communicate with a small number of friends using their cell phones. They prefer to have conversations that consist of only two or three messages, and SMS group conversations give them a headache.

back to top  Innovative Mobile User Interface and Service Strategies

Based on our research, the Affinity Diagram results, and the needs and pain points of our primary persona, we developed a new conversational messaging tool that consolidates various types of conversations. These include both short-interval (intensive) and long-interval (sporadic) messaging. The tool fills the gap between SMS and MIM.

The new messaging tool is "mMessenger"—it combines the strengths of SMS and MIM. Imagine a 25-year-old "not to talk" named Tracey. Unlike with existing MIM solutions, Tracey does not have to register a screen name or password for initial use, nor does she need to find out her friends' screen names to add them to her buddy list. mMessenger takes advantage of a standard SMS feature, namely, telephone-number-based communication. Tracey can use mMessenger instantly without any registration hassle, since her telephone number is her ID. She can send messages to anyone whose telephone number is in her cellphone contact list without the cumbersome process of adding a buddy.

Users with mMessenger on their phones can still communicate with standard SMS handsets, since the mMessenger server automatically transforms the message into SMS. Customers can simultaneously send and receive messages with two or three friends, individually. In addition, with a threaded messaging format—considered novel at that time (Apple announced its threaded SMS format for the iPhone in 2007)—they can read the conversation conveniently.

Our research suggests that a user like Tracey encounters a conflict: She does not want to be tied up in a conversation, but she does need to communicate effectively. The design of mMessenger solves this problem. The user can send a one-way message as well as engage in two-way conversation when necessary. After we developed the UI of mMessenger, we conducted usability tests and focus groups, both of which confirmed the effectiveness of the new UI.

On the business side, the client (SK Telecom) was very satisfied with the new mMessenger user interface. SK Telecom has high hopes for its new services-based business model, which is now a key focus area. Since the mMessenger commercial launch in 2006, the number of users has been increasing despite the fact that SK Telecom does not advertise this service for the mass market. pxd recommended that SK Telecom not spend money on advertising until the number of users reached a critical mass; if network services such as MIM are over-advertised, early users will be disappointed due to the paucity of other users with whom they can talk. After they have been disappointed once, it is very difficult to change their attitude.

mMessenger's user interface was recognized internationally; in 2008 it was nominated for the IDEA Award in the interactive product experiences category [2] and short-listed for the Global Messaging Award in the user experience category [3].

back to top  Korean Handset Manufacturers and Telecommunications Companies

As demonstrated in the case of mMessenger, user research is the key in choosing not only the right user interface design but also the right strategy. Stakeholders in major Korean mobile companies such as Samsung and LG Electronics see the user interface as their No. 1 priority.

When voice communications were the main service for the mobile industry and Korean mobile manufacturers followed leading companies like Nokia and Motorola, technology and quality of voice communications were important. As soon as they achieved a certain level of technological sophistication, Korean manufacturers shifted their focus to the design of products. However, as data communications surpassed voice communications in importance in most developed countries and Korean manufacturers began to lead the market instead of following it, they realized the importance of UI.

In order to be a top seller in tough markets such as North America, they needed more than stunning design and a balanced portfolio of phones. They learned that UI itself can be a key strategy not only for smart phones but also for all other feature phones. This is why Samsung and LG Electronics focus on user research to understand the unmet needs of mobile users and to satisfy their customers with impressive and unique UI. LG Electronics recently founded its Insight and Innovation (INI) research center, which identifies new business opportunities, new product designs, and new marketing strategies—all based on insights gained from user research. INI investigators use cutting-edge qualitative research methods and segmentation approaches to better understand target audiences. For example, INI researchers visited Indian homes to study the local lifestyle, eventually developing home appliances that are optimized to Indian culture. The "Stars of India" brand line resulted in a 100 percent increase in LCD TV sales and a 30 percent boost in cell phone sales.

User research is the key in choosing not only the right user interface design but also the right strategy. Stakeholders in major Korean mobile companies such as Samsung and LG Electronics see the user interface as their No. 1 priority.

Telecommunications companies in Korea also recognize UI's important as a sales point. As average revenue per user (ARPU) from data communications is rapidly increasing concurrent to the reduction of voice ARPU, they must understand users and UI. SK Telecom created its HCI (Human Centered Innovation) team to focus on human behavior research and help transition its telecom-infra-oriented revenue structure into an innovative service-oriented revenue structure. SK Telecom recently launched a new service called "Pajama5," based on user research that the communication patterns of Korean girls are limited to only four or five very close friends.

Korean companies are using many qualitative research methods, including contextual models, personas, focus groups, home visits, and central location testing. They are working to introduce innovative products and services to both the global and domestic markets based on user research. Most of today's methodologies and UI development processes are imported from the West, and Korean companies are still optimizing these approaches to match local workflows. Following the dramatic growth of the Korean mobile industry, Korean companies will no doubt wish to develop their own methods in the future.

back to top  Acknowledgment

I am grateful to Seok-Moo Kang and Byungwoo Yang at SK Telecom, who worked with us on the mMessenger project. They showed true partnership.

back to top  References

1. Grinter R. et al. "Wan2tlk?: Everyday Text Messaging" CHI 2003. Ft. Lauderdale, Fl, 2003.

2. IDEA;

3. Global Messaging Award;

back to top  Author

Jay Chaeyong Yi is the founder and CEO of pxd (, a user interface consulting firm that offers digital products and services strategy, user interface design, and graphic user interface design. He holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Seoul National University and a master's in design from Carnegie Mellon University. He and his colleagues apply their interdisciplinary understanding of technology, art, and business to simultaneously formulate business strategies and professional design implementations. He teaches user interface design at Yonsei University. Prior to founding pxd, Yi also worked at Samsung Electronics for six years.

back to top  Footnotes


back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. The mMessenger tool for cellular phones.

F2Figure 2. mMessenger in action.

F3Figure 3. User research.

F4Figure 4. Data consolidation: the Affinity Diagram.

F5Figure 5. User modeling: examples of personas.

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