Good product strategy – A new key layout for Mobile Phones doubles text messaging speed

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That’s what our mobile phone users want — faster, quicker way to hash out text messages.

The layout on this new phone AX490 by LG adds the basic numeric keys but surrounds the edges of those keys with alphabetical ones. Depending on the mode in which you are using the phone you can quickly do what you were intending it.

I think this is a brilliant innovation, because this helps to create a smoother user experience when using the phone.

In fact this is a technique for building good products. The idea is that the user interface should unfold more details only based on the scope of the application.

This concept avoids Feature Creep and awkward user experiences which results from presenting 200 options to a user when he/she only wants to use 3 at that moment in time. Only give them more options the moment the user will expect to receive them.

The methodical technique to use with this concept is to create a user experience map:

  • What is the current scope of the area that the user is exploring
  • What is the user trying to do within that current scope
  • How would the user like to do what he/she is trying to do
  • How would the user not like to do what he/she is trying to do
  • How does the user transition from this scope into a more detailed, or less detailed scope (e.g. from one application back to the main screen)

This concept is crucial to learn for people who wish to become good product designers. This concept is embedded in what makes the iPhone great (it only shows you interfaces based on what you’re doing), and it should be embedded in your next big product venture.

Note: Osama A. is a product design consultant

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  • Muhammad Asif Razzaque

    Yes the layout may be different or interesting but is it really adding value? My take is that this set will not be popular (unless there is a decent price incentive) and shall be taken out of production in a few months or earlier.

    Here is why I think so:

    1. Product Look: Over-crowded looks never leaves a complex impression on users mind. With this mind-set the users usually do not opt for such designs or the products don’t get the minimum market share and are killed.

    2. Conventional Feel/Outdated: Products of the future have fewers panels and control with multi-function programming. The relevant feature of the punch pad or joystick is activated for ease of use.

    3. Intelligent SMS Editors: We have them already. I think started with Nokia 3310 years back. You just punch the keys that would result into a word and the dictionary picks the nearest match that majority of times is relevant.

    4. Learning Systems: The era is that of user-interactive-self-learning systems. Even the intelligent dictionary linked to the SMS text editors store new words and offer them the next time.

  • Muhammad Asif Razzaque

    Infact I have not seen any genuinely innovative and solid user-experience enhancing NPI by LG in the cell phone category.

    Usually LG takes the prototype of others and simply maneuver the layout, aesthetic design and add a few gimmicks. But never have I ever seen LG coming up with an experience-winner killer-set.

  • Muhammad Asif Razzaque

    The worst part of the new kep pad design is the expectation/burden on the user to develop maneuvering capacity amongst 44 physical keys.

    – 26 alphabet keys
    – 16 numeric and special character keys
    – 2 call receive/drop/power on/off keys

    I think this is going to be a big flop!

  • Well, here is why I think this works.

    1- Good ergonomics. Human beings have a unique ability of allowing their eyes to filter out everything except what is relevant to their task at hand.

    e.g. Put your hand in front of your face, then your other hand behind the first one — you will notice that its easy to switch back and forth.

    Now look at the picture and imagine — “I’m writing an SMS” …. “I’m making a call”. The eyes switch on context. They do not notice the other keys.

    This is the same technique btw that helped Microsoft create the new Office 2007 UI.

    Secondly, one of the potential problems is the feel of keys pressing down when they are cramped up together so much. I happen to know that a patent was filed recently to overcome this, so perhaps this phone licensing that technology.

    2- Back to basics. Yes the future is an LCD-driven high-end phone which can smell your breath to realize you’re hungry and automatically turn on the microwave at home by the time you get there.

    The trouble with LCD-driven interfaces that change on context is (1) non-tactile feel and (2) for some users, an experience which changes completely to take them OUT of context, rather than put them IN.

    This is a problem with Wiki software — click on one page, then another, then another, and soon you are lost wihtout any idea where you are. This is a reason breadcrumbs were invented for websites.

    The other things — intelligent learning dictionaries that can smell your breath etc — those add bloat, power consumption, and major cost to the equation because you typically end up adding a dedicated DSP to the phone mechanics.

    This phone, on the other hand, can still be manufactured cheaply — the only major difference is more mechanical keys.

    So you get blackberry style ease of use on a simpler phone

    3- No intelligence
    Personally, I cant stand “the software figuring out what is right for me”.

    * I dont want the dictionary to guess what I’m typing
    * I dont want MS Word to keep suggesting formatting changes
    * I dont want my automatic transmission to guess which gear / speed / situation I am in.

    I want to do what I’m trying to do — in each of the cases above there is a good chance the “calculator” will get it wrong, and get it wrong frequently enough to be intrusive.

    As soon a product becomes intrusive, I have an incentive to jump to another product that is less intrusive, but rather “lets me do what I’m tryign to do — my way — but more easily”.

    As in one that actually facilitates me, rather than suggesting its own things.

    Surprisingly (or not) many people thing of things this way — the product should let me do what I’m trying to more easily.

    Most companies mistake that to believe “That means there should be more automation, fewer clicks, and eventually should let humans sit around which robots live their life”

    A simpler approach is to first study the sequence of manual step people WANT to take (not have to take because of poor UI etc.) Do they want a manual transmission just to get more control over when gears are changed?

    I think in this way this phone becomes more empowering for a customer without being intrusive.

    That’s my take on this phone as a good product.

  • Muhammad Asif Razzaque

    I am writing an SMS / I am making a call

    AX490 by LG: The eyes shall however have to process contrast (shape+color+tactile-feel). This is an additional process burden.

    Nokie/Conventional: Known is the simple fact that starting with numeric key 2 there are 3 alphas in sequence till num.key 9. In dictionary mode all you do is to write what you want and most of the times sentences comprise a popular list of words simply shuffled in sequence. Means that the dictionary auto-fills are mostly correct and altenate words available at one push of a button. Very convenient!

    Ergonomics: (

    Physical: Mobile Phones they are popularly called due to their “mobility feature”. Used more frequently while on the move, standing in bus/tram, driving a car (handsfree in but still majority is conventional).

    Second almost all, except intrigued kids perhaps, use one hand to dial or write sms. he LG-AX490 has keys so widely and awkwardly spread that it will be quite a “palm-tiring” and “finger-bending” task to especially write an sms unless one uses both. That is a value depletion actually.

    Cognitive Ergonomics: User-interactive learning makes it even more “user specific” and permits the user to get more efficient in his/her own specific style everytime they use the tool. E.g. Aslam yaar how are you. Abey kahan ho tum? One written and accepted by user resides in the dictionary list and the next time comes as a priority option. This is efficient, puts lesser burden in terms of physical and mental challenge and lets the user do things the way they want to!

    At the end of the day the market performance of the product shall show choice of the customer.

  • You just touched upon a very important point.

    Which is that all of your points, and wikipedia articles — while perfectly valid from a marketing strategy pov — talk about what has already happened, rather than what should happen.

    People who build products based on “Well its been shown that people like thinner phones, hence we should be thin too” are the reason the cellphone and consumer electronics industry has been stagnated by me-too designs and poor innovation.

    It is also the reason 90% of all IT and web businesses in Pakistan follow a Xerox-the-large-american-web-company strategy to make a localized ebay, amazon, etc rather than actually creating value.

    The reason you hire someone like me and pay him over $450/hr is when you want to make the iPhone.

    I.e. when you dont want to look at what’s already been done, but what should be done that the people aren’t telling you — what product will disrupt existing models

    I would recommend the book “Unleashing the killer app” which describes how to frame the mind for this perspective. It was written when companies were first beginning to think about their online strategies in economic value, but the same rules apply to think of all disruptive technology.

    I still hold that this LG phone can shift things — if for no other reason but polarization (which is also a product design strategy) — but naturally the market will be the ultimate deciding factor here.

  • Muhammad Asif Razzaque

    Osama when you say “Well its been shown that people like thinner phones, hence we should be thin too”…it actually means providing people what has been proven to be of “popular” choice. Or the way you have earlier put it “the way I want to do it”, “the choice of the customer” etc.

    That’s what product desiging is all about, knowing end user’s preferences. Yes, finding out the latent preferences that may completely out-date the existing models by way of providing users a whole new design of doing things and deriving greater value never has been in dispute. That however requires a whole lot of industrial infrastructure/technological integrattion than simply coming up with a new life-changing design. There are technology, economic, infrastructure, awareness level, distribution/retail & lifestyle considerations that must be taken in before stirring up any such situation.

    IPHONE is a whole different level and a totally different business design, which has not been fully emulated by anyone in the industry, globally. You know that better than I do.

    I think it is the progress & development of the systemic design of the wider environment in which such a new-orbit-product shall have to find its place. The point is would the gate keepers (monopolists/giants) permit that before they think that the current designs have achieved their full maturity and their profits have started declining. This also is directly related to the consumer awareness level and the pace with which the lifestyle requirements and absorption for new-exprience-products validate success of such NPI.

  • That’s just what I mean Asif.

    Product Design is NOT about looking at user preferences — that is how marketing will define products.

    In other words, if your competitors make a thin phone (RAZR) which is successful, you will try and make a thinnER phone (Samsung) to try and outsmart them?

    How does that differentiate your product, guarantee its success, and steal market share away from competition?

    It doesnt. User preferences give some security in terms of “what are people already buying” but still not guarantee that your me-too attempt will succeed.

    Product Design that will differentiate yourself in a competitive environment (iphone etc) starts by asking “What are people NOT able to that they want to?”

    That is something that marketers are fundamentally unable to find out because it is an economic / value-chain question — what are the transactions costs of doing what the user is doing + the cost of switching to something else VS the benefit of the other thing?

    Again, “Unleashing the Killer App” and “The innovator’s dillemma” are two books that can help frame this perspective.

  • If Product design was only looking at user preferences, consumer web applications like youtube would fundamentally not exist.

  • Muhammad Asif Razzaque

    User experience has both the aspects of “tried and tested” (thinner is better) and “wish it could do that also” (camera/mp3) or “wish it could do it that way aswell” (rotatable cam view for self-imaging).

    “Developmental Research” and “Innovative Research” must go hand in hand. Both the trends are necessary. One helps in bringing about improvements in current designs and enhancing value. The other helps in re-creating or re-defining values and their satisfaction. This where takes societies forward also place them on totally new levels/orbits.

    Developmental Research thus more frequent and “Innovative Research” lesser in happening and is kept in labs even if achieved for the returns over the previous investments to mature.

    One thing common in both however, they are both driven by “user experience”.

  • Muhammad Asif Razzaque

    “User Experience” is a default in being only developmental or innovative.

    Yes the “not have been done” are less frequently tried or slowly introduced for economic reasons and also of the industrial perception of the end users absorption and acceptance pace.

    Running ahead of the consumer may not be fruitful in terms of ROI and neither would running after. I think running with the consumer hand in hand is the best deal.

  • I’m sorry Asif but I dont agree. Running hand-in-hand is not a good deal and the 2001 consumer electronics industry crash is testament to that.

    It is not enough to say “People want laptops, so lets build those”. A Camera / MP3 player is not going to let you differentiate yourself.

    I am sorry but this line of thinking produces no value in products — although they do make “safe” products with a “reasonable expectation of return”

    Also I strongly disagree that running ahead of the consumer is not fruitful in ROI — if that were true we wouldn’t have telephones, televisions, cars, electricity, etc etc etc.

    Now that said, yes in the incubating phase of an idea ROI is very hard to find — however that is WHY you product design consultants like me who can clarify long-term ROI from a completely unheardof concept or product.

    Again, I dont work or think from a marketing perspective because that is safe but only has marginal ROI — in a competitive environemnt such as consumer electronics marginal ROI is not feasible.

    Good product design understands how to create economic value for consumers — that can include user experience design, value-chain management, operational efficiency, financial tricks and more.

  • Muhammad Asif Razzaque

    Actually there is no disagreement on the “Innovative Research”. Research always runs ahead; that what it is. There is no disagreement on that.

    I am simply advocating for a consumer-maturity-deterministic-approach that would ensure (to a measurable extent) that a new-experience-product would not bounce back simply because the consumer base was not ready at large. That’s what determines your P&L optimization whether now or in future.

    We know that there a lot of technological advances in terms of possibilities and even prototypes that are not commercially released but kept for the right time. Or that new technology design is used where it would give the expected returns i.e hi-tech industrial products. The customer based here is pretty determined and profiled and ROI clearly visible. Thus the quicker the NPI.

    When we talk retail, we talk about not a handful, ever welcoming advanced customers because the prodution capacity requires a certain minimum (that is pretty large) for justified cost optimization and “profit margins”.

    I think its got to do a lot with technology management. At the industrial scale since the users/customers are themselves at the edge of technology and its output it gets easier to innovate. However when we talk masses, minority of advance users (quick maturing) makes this a big question mark.

  • Muhammad Asif Razzaque

    I think the dispute is over who “regulates” or “decides” if the consumer is ready for the next leap?

    Should the developer/investor focus on the ROI over the previous investments/products to mature and till what time.

    Or the customers should dictate a cut off/end of life for a product that has not recovered its ROI.

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