As the world knows, the Chinese economy is in a stable development pattern, developing rapidly and growing every year. China is a vast land rich with resources and a huge consumer base. The telecommunications market has been growing into one of the most successful industries in China. In 2005, 88 million handsets were sold in the Chinese market, which dominates more than one-tenth of the global market for mobile handsets. Because of the obvious opportunity, many handset manufacturers are starting to investigate the Chinese market and Chinese end users to determine what kind of handsets are preferred.
Chinese taste in handset design is clearly affected by China's great history and culture. The Chinese people are conscientious, serious, diligent and hardworking. The majority of Chinese consumers like things with connotation: Designs symbolize feelings and attitudes and hold deep meaning. Even a small embellishment may convey a profound message. From clothing and personal style to handsets and interfaces, this tradition means that design reflects meaning and attitude. Chinese consumers appreciate commodities that look magnificent and distinguished, and could establish the feelings of wealth, health, and longevity to them.
People in China like handsets and they are eager to own one they find appealing. The general public purchases the handset not only to facilitate communication, but also to access entertainment, to use it as a sign to show his or her confidence, and to reflect social status. Consumer-level users expect their handset to have an interesting and distinctive visual design in addition to its basic features. Higher-end users expect the interface to be more technical and informative, and its style to reflect a more upper-class attitude.
In my group, we work on about five customization projects each year. Each full-custom interface for a particular handset employs around 2000 images. A project generally takes about two months to complete. The design group stores deliverables on a server in four folders per project: flowcharts (wireframes of interaction design in PDF); OSG (visual composites including PNGs, BMPS, and GIFs); sketch maps (BMPs and JPGs); original design files (Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Visio)
The OSG folder contains more than 40 folders representing the application inventory for the handset. Where there needs to be multiple versions of a single application, that application folder will contain more folders. This hierarchical arrangement of folders and assets makes sense to our engineers, and they are easily able to find and correctly identify them. Each customization project starts from new concepts; currently, we do not modify existing images and reuse them, although we have plans to start inheriting some of this production work from project to project.
The main visually styled elements of the handset include the idle view, main menu, controls, and some special interfaces. The special interfaces refer to those that do not participate in the general design scheme (they do not call on standard system resources but instead have a custom layout and custom buttons). These special interfaces are generally more visual than the remainder of the user experience, and include a media player, DC/DV, picture editing and browsing, a calculator, a world clock, telephony dialer panel, games, power on/off sequences, and all kinds of animations for in-place effects and transitions. It is these special interfaces where the designer's skills and efforts are most visible.
Wallpapers. The idle screen's wallpaper is the item that users in China often use and care about most. The idle screen is more desirable when some particular and "cool" pictures are attached. Users enjoy selecting images of themselves or their loved ones, or downloading images (very popular in the South of China), or natural scenery; some popular images symbolize wealth and happiness.
Icons. Main-menu icons should be designed carefully. The general process is as follows. Icon concepts are first sketched on paper. Once the concepts are confirmed, the outlines are drafted in Adobe Illustrator. More detail is added to the outlines. Next, a single color is added along with further details. Still working in Adobe Illustrator, shading and more color is added. Final details are added as the icon is brought into Adobe Photoshop where optimizations are done for the handset. Another popular way to create icons is model and render concepts in 3DMAX after the initial outlines are drawn; these, too, are moved to Adobe Photoshop for finalizing.
Designers need to be very patient and continually improve their skills during the design process. The detail involved in icons usually represents many layers, and sometimes a single icon may use several dozen layers. Layers are preserved so that the icon is flexible and can continue to be modified.
All icons should have a consistent style; for example, the light source should be consistent, with shading always applied in the same direction. Icons should be consistent in terms of overall style and level of detail.
Power On/Off Animation. The demand for visual richness in the power on/off animation is very high because this sequence is the first and last interface users see. It presents the brand to the user and should be harmonious with the whole design style. A good power on/off animation is very demanding on the designer, requiring a rich and colorful imagination and outstanding visual-design skills. This sequence should have striking novelty power in a visual sense. A metaphor for the power on/off animation is the beginning of a film: It needs to grab the user's attention and set the stage for the next interaction. Because of the importance placed on this sequence, it is typically discussed at length with the design team at the beginning of the project. Early on, the designers brainstorm approaches to the topic and the realization method, with the following realization work mainly focused on building up scenes and topics in 3DMAX. Then these scenes are rendered until a whole entity is formed. When visual design scenes are completed, the sequence is brought into Adobe After Effects for finishing touches, including nonfigurative lines or effects.
Where Are Custom Designs Headed? The richness of variety available in handsets is continuing to grow. Currently, design concepts are expanding to satisfy broad market needs for handsets for children or older users in China. Whoever fills this need first will clearly own the hope of success; Chinese designers are now starting to study designs that will appeal to these users and attract them to handsets.
About the Author
Chris Ben has one year of experience in industrial design for mobile phones, and more than three years of experience in UI design for mobile handsets in China. Chris is the visual design manager for PalmSource, China, an ACCESS company located in Nanjing, China. ACCESS Co., Ltd., is a global provider of mobile-content delivery and Internet-access technologies to the beyond-PC market.
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