XIII.4 July + August 2006
Page: 58
Digital Citation

Review of “Mobile Interaction Design by Matt Jones and Gary Marsden”, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., ISBN 0470090898, $60.00

Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson

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As a designer of mobile interaction and a manager of the process in my company, but also an instructor in interaction design and information systems management, I look for books that balance the academic perspective with the practitioner's perspective. I particularly treasure readability, applicability, and high value for the time I spend absorbing the message of a book. If I can't find a message within the first 50 pages, I'm likely to give up. I have good news: Buy This Book.

It doesn't even matter if you're in the field of mobile design. The general design advice and summaries of methods and techniques you'll find here are more consistently practical and condensed, and at the same time professionally voiced, than the contents of any other text on HCI I've seen in the past several years. In fact, I'm surprised that such a pragmatic text comes from two academics; but then, you have to read the book to understand how much practical experience these two have, which gives them their practitioner's perspective. And they even apologize, right up front in the preface, for the abundance of their personal opinions. No apologies necessary! For those of us who have similar stories of trials and tribulations, we'll be able to pick up useful bits and pieces knowing contextually that some of their advice will work, and some is less generalizable. To the student of design for mobile devices, there is no better-qualified source of real-world experience to temper the sometimes dramatically excessive academic exercises expounded in other summative HCI texts.

This book is divided into three main sections. Part I: Introduction, Part II: Developing Effective Mobile Applications, and Part III: Design Gallery-Directions and Guidelines. Each chapter concludes with a Summary, Designer's Tips, and Workshop Questions. These sections make the text extremely useful for educators and classroom use, and are also useful for generating work-group discussions for a practicing user experience group. No doubt if you are already engaged in this field you will have issues with, or additions to, these sections. The authors often approach design from an implementation perspective; visual design, an extremely important aspect of mobile design, is rarely fully addressed. The academic underpinnings show through in the general process flow the text promotes: Do meaningful research with users, then prototype your task sequences, then perform some manner of evaluation. For real-world development, requirements come from a great many directions—there is often no time for prototyping—and user testing always takes a backseat to quality engineering/product testing. In this respect, Mobile Interaction Design presents a somewhat idealistic approach that fits the lab better than the commercial product-development environment. But note that a laudable perspective of this book is that mobiles aren't exclusively about task-based thinking qualified by standard usability. Mobiles and design for mobile devices is about new and different input and feedback techniques, a generally younger user community, an extremely broad range of uses for fun and productivity, and very close relations with marketing colleagues. This text presents an outstanding collection of classic technique, recent and relevant research, and a touch of real-world products (both handsets and applications).

If you are new to mobile devices and mobile design, Part I: Introduction presents many of the issues and objectives that form the delta between design for high-powered, large display, keyboard-capable systems and small-screen, low-powered, non-QWERTY keyboard devices. From input techniques such as Fastap and T9 for numeric keyboard input and The Twiddler for chorded text entry, to audio feedback, haptic feedback, and gestural interfaces, the authors provide a general introduction to the issues of designing for mobiles. Chapter 2 discusses mapping of controls to the interface, always a significant issue with handhelds. Not that there aren't issues to quibble with: We see yet again another laudatory treatment of the iPod (this time based on the consistency of left/right mappings to a circular control) without going into any of the awkwardness and confusion of its many modes. Chapter 3 discusses designing for mobile services, drawing on past successes in mobile design, and taking care in balancing what is conceivable with what is possible, always the handbrake applied to the mobile designer's imagination lest we spin wildly (and uselessly) out of control.

Part II: Developing Effective Mobile Applications provides a useful refresher on everything you think you already know about classic interaction design. Basics of interaction design, task analysis, prototyping, and evaluation are covered here with a bias toward HCI standards, with the refreshing optimism of adventurers into a not-yet-mature area of experience design. Examples tend to be from Pocket PC-based projects in the wireless handheld market area, and Symbian-based projects with a soft-key focus in the mobile phone market area. The authors draw on case studies and recent articles, notably from <interactions> magazine, to illustrate their points.

Part III: Design Gallery—Directions and Guidelines discusses menu structures and icons in terms of the underlying data structures in Chapter 8. As a summary of extant techniques, this is quite serviceable, and introduces the authors' investigation into the B+ Tree interface as an alternative to menus. A discussion of key presses as the metric for efficiency fails to discuss simply reducing the number of menu items from the beginning. Chapter 9's treatment of display characteristics is a good introduction to the variety of conditions under which mobile designs need to succeed. The treatment of browsing and searching focuses on the design of the content, rather than the application to view the content, making the book useful for Web designers as well as those of us designing application software that runs on the device. A short discussion of Web rendering technologies points out that browsers do more than follow the content developers' instructions; they have to behave quite cleverly in the handheld space. Happily, the authors conclude that yes, mobiles do have a role as information appliances. Proceed to Chapter 10, an in-depth examination of storing and organizing information on handhelds, with the ever-present issues of metadata and sharing. This chapter seems to be an extension and correlation of the search discussion in Chapter 9 and the data-structures discussion of Chapter 8; it focuses on how to find interesting content and display it, with an interesting excursion into SDAZ (Speed Dependent Automatic Zooming). Topics I hoped to see addressed are perhaps destined for another book: discussion of digital rights management, downloading and managing mobile content, interactions with desktop companions, making display compromises based on processor speed, refresh problems, or available storage space, all of which cause designers to invent new and unusual methods that are different than what you are accustomed to on your desktop. It is clear that practitioners who are building shipping products aren't writing papers about their work, or there would be more examples in the literature from which to draw.

The final chapter of the book deals with issues that no text on mobile interaction design should omit: community, culture, and what the authors term "communitization"—making a user experience customizable by a community. On what better note to end than a call to arms? The authors note that projects discussed in this chapter "are just scratching at the surface of how to create mobile technologies with the potential to radically improve the quality of life for huge numbers of people." This exposes their deeply held belief that this is what we should be doing. And their final note is ominous: "Maybe it is not too late to undo the future..." You'll have to read this really excellent text to see what they mean.

In summary, Mobile Interaction Design is an interesting mix of classic text and technique evolving to form practical advice for the next generation of computing experiences: the ones you can hold in your hand. Whether you are a beginning student or a practicing designer of handheld user experiences, this book deserves a prominent place on your bookshelf.

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Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson
PalmSource, Inc., Sunnyvale, California and <interactions> magazine

About the reviewer:

Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson is senior director, product concept and user experience, for PalmSource, Inc., an ACCESS Company, in Sunnyvale, California. She also teaches interface design at the University of California-Santa Cruz, and software project management at the University of San Francisco. She is also co-editor-in-chief of <interactions> magazine. PalmSource, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of ACCESS Co., Ltd, is the Company behind Palm OS, a leading operating system powering mobile devices and phones. ACCESS is a global provider of mobile content delivery and Internet access technologies to the beyond-PC market.

To submit a book review, please email Gerard Torenvliet at


Gerard Torenvliet
CMC Electronics
415 Leggett Drive, P.O. Box 13330
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K2K 2B2

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