Universal user interface

Thinking about the cellphone developed by Motorola for emerging markets made me look for any progress on the development of the interface. If indeed these phones are to truly penetrate where they are needed, a major hurdle to be overcome would be the literacy levels at the base of the pyramid. And even if they were literate, would they necessarily be literate in English or the Roman alphabet. I’ve heard that Motorola has a Hindi interface for some of their phones in India, but what about those that don’t read Hindi. What if the interface itself could move beyond the need for any one particular language or script altogether? What if it were universally icon driven?

So I decided to see what was out there and currently happening.  This post from Small Surfaces, where the author cites a research study conducted by Nokia titled "Understanding non-literacy as a barrier to mobile phone communication". Interesting that the Nokia site has this study under "Blue Sky". And while the insights derived from contextual research are rich and deep, this little disclaimer places the work in context,

This article presents conclusions from a number of studies by
researchers in Nokia Research Centers in Tokyo, Beijing and
Helsinki in an effort to understand the communication habits of
non-literate people, and how we might improve their communication
experience. Please note that this research does not imply the
development of products and services proposed in this article by
Nokia or its partners.

Microsoft Research has this initiative to fund external research in the area of ‘digital inclusion’ which includes this,

Design appropriate user interfaces addressing challenges in literacy and for novice
users of technology.

This is obviously current and I don’t expect results since the date they announced the proposals selected to receive funding was the 10th of February 2006. Their Research lab in India is also doing some work in text free user interfaces.

MediaLab Asia has a list of projects here that cover the gamut of interfaces from multilingual to those for the mentally challenged. I also came across a lot of university sites and research work, but nothing that is either ready to be launched or already in the market. I could be wrong, not having done an extensive search, but while it looks promising that firms are exploring the area, such a functional interface would open opportunities beyond mobile communication into an entirely new arena of being able to provide access to the rest of the world. Hey, I can dream can’t I?

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6 Responses to Universal user interface

  1. niblettes says:

    I wonder if the solution is in eliminating features and functionality–making a dumber phone rather than a smarter phone.
    Perhaps solving the language barrier problem is so important, so valuable, that it out weighs all the other nifty functions built into cell phones these days?
    Perhaps stripping the communication between the user and the device to the absolute minimum is the best way to mitigate language barriers regardless of the users language?
    Perhaps the global phone has one feature (connectivity) and only 12 buttons that do nothing but dial out. If you can count to 10 you can use this phone. Such a phone could function on a much simpler carrier service as well, further simplifying the entire infrastructure.
    (I gave up on cell phones quite a while ago (I like to keep at least one foot off the grid), but i think I would buy a number of these dumb phones for safety: one in each vehicle, one in my travel bag, a couple around the house just in case something happens. I’d give them away as Halloween candy, and they’d make great stocking stuffers!).

  2. Niti Bhan says:

    I heard that the Motorola phone in the previous post *is* a stripped down phone with just the basic features. This is just me wanting to take it a step further – not necessarily for hte non literate but also if indeed a textless user interface could be developed it would allow just ONE interface across all the countries in the world.

  3. niblettes says:

    In past projects I have tried to use the IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission – http://www.iec.ch) equipment graphic symbols standards. I usually end up frustrated because they are so rooted in electrical-engineering and often so incredibly arcane and arbitrary that a most people simply cannot decypher these odd hierogpyphics.
    Maybe we need to invent a kind of visual esperanto? I wonder what visual symbols are already crossing linguistic and cultural barriers? Is there a core of visual communication elements for consumer products with enough critical mass that they could provide a decent foundation to build on?
    I also wonder if the need to make functionality clear across languages and cultures might also restrict functionailty from becoming too abstract (abstractions being very difficult to represent inconographically)? Such a restriction might have positive side-effects like naturally enforcing product simplicity.

  4. niti bhan says:

    http://art.webesteem.pl/9/wyman_en.php was what I stumbled over when trying to find the originator of the symbols developed for the various sporting events at the Olympics – you know the man skiing, man running etc? Those I think are a better starting point for the development of something like this rather than technical symbols which, as you rightly say, are rooted in arcane equations etc

  5. Param says:

    Having used the Motorala phone that’s being discussed (albeit, briefly), I can definitely vouch for their apparant lack of empathy towards to their users. It’s a really difficult phone to use. The screen area is so small and dull that one really needs to squint hard to be able to read the stuff on the display. And my parents had a real hard time getting accustomed to this (I would imagine there would be several other first-time users of mobiles that may want to buy these kind of phones). There’s many other issues with that phone, but I guess I’ll save that for a detailed post sometime. 🙂
    I feel these types of ‘volume based’ products are significantly cutting corners on the usability/design of the products. And this will definitely become a differentiator sometime in the future.
    What manufacturers don’t seem to recognize is that ‘low cost’ doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t invest in good design practices to really understand and identify the right design goals; and to then solve these design problems for the target audience. I’ve seen, from past experiences, that ‘low cost’ has inevitably has a connotation of ‘let’s-not-spend-time-thinking-about-this’ or ‘let’s-just-churn-this-out’. On the contrary, low cost products should be even more particular about user research & design ‘coz that can have a significant impact to deciding what really goes into the product and whether something is needed or not at all.
    I liked the idea of stripping down the features/complexity of these ‘low-cost’ phones. And speaking of using a universally acceptable visual interface, I would actually think voice activated software is the way to go (again, not sure how much work has already been done in this space and whether it is feasible with current technologies or not). But, for a person who is illiterate, I would think, having to just talk and activate features would be the easiest thing to do rather than figuring out what button/icon to press.
    Here’s an interesting read which makes me believe that this sort of approach will be technically feasible very soon (if not already done): http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,1895,1915071,00.asp
    Rgds,
    Param

  6. niti bhan says:

    Voice activated systems *would* indeed be the appropriate solution – then again though comes the question of customization to the local language. Were a universal icon system available it would be possible to use it across language and literacy barriers, no?
    But your point is valid – when designing low cost products, the cost should be considered one more design constraint and designing something useful and usable within that constraint, rather than simply cutting corners in functional details and experience. I have a link to this here http://www.nysscpa.org/cpajournal/old/14979931.htm that makes some good points about cost control at the design stage rather than at the production/manufacturing stage.

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