SXSW 08 panel: Life after the iPhone

The lights were dimmed way down low in this packed Tuesday 10am session. In line with the majority take on mobility’s best way forward, the environment was attuned to take account of the user context and experience (the morning after the night before…) 😉

Scott Jenson – Mobile UI Manager, Google
Karen Kashansky – UX engineer, TellMe
Loic Maestracci – Dir. Marketing, Groove Mobile
Kyle Outlaw – Senior IA, Avenue A Razorfish
Chair: Kate Ryan – Ten Digital

The scene was verbally set by the chair Kate Ryan – we’re here not to discuss technical roadmaps, but to explore how user experiences (and Rich Internet Applications for the mobile web) may change in the future because of the impact of this product in the market.

Saying “mobile” doesn’t cut it anymore, Karen Kashansky stressed. Is the person walking; driving; is it noisy where they are; are eyes available? Kashansky came at the topic as someone who has been designing voice-driven user interfaces for twelve years.

Now she wants to take that step further, and sees a lot of potential for voice-in and voice-out on handsets in the wake the iPhone. If you’re driving, you might just want to hear the list of Indian restaurants, not see it. It’s all about context – user experience (UX) professionals need to take care that we’re designing for the right experiences.

Rip it up and start again…

Kyle Outlaw remarked that the iPhone marked the onset of an era of disruptive mobility. Traditional design processes and deliverables are becoming extinct, he said. Instead of wireframes and siteflow we need to get our hands dirty and experiment a lot more. More R&D is required too.

Repeated reference was made through the session to the iPhone’s flaws – taking too many clicks to make calls, and terrible for SMS being the principal agreed drawbacks. But these were counterbalanced by what Google’s Scott Jenson termed its “sheer audacity”, with the lack of scroll bars, menus, and the visual voicemail cited as breakthroughs.

But the idea of the iPhone as the “web in your pocket” is a misnomer, reckoned Jenson. What it’s about is seamless mobility. We don’t want to read the newspaper on the iPhone, we want web-enabled iPhone apps that anyone can easily connect to.

“It’s the beginning of the end of perpetuating the myth that the mobile is another desktop platform,” he said.

iPhone ripple effect and pain points

Kate Ryan asked: what’s the impact of the iPhone on design?

Jenson countered that you need the rethink the whole mobile process. There will be significant innovation but it will be driven – in terms of monestisation – by pretty boring stuff. Maestracci noted that on the new Sony Erriscon model the media player is a dumber version of the PS3. Kashansky rated visual voicemail on the iPhone.

Ryan then canvassed the panel for examples of good design on mobile. Kyle Outlaw observed that the iPhone stripped the phone down to its essential features [if you take a US-centric approach and haven’t been texting daily for 8 years like most Europeans!], contrary to the “featuritis” trend, and those features were very well done.

What will be the iPhone killers? Kyle cited the Sidekick (T-Mobile US-only handset), while it’s a little too big it’s got a better keyboard and is a messaging machine! Another panellist flagged up the PSP Slim with Skype on it. Also they were very interested in what’s going on with mobile and VOIP.

Jenson observed that in some senses the iPhone has gone too far, for example it’s the worst SMS experience, which is not good for Europe. In limiting its features, the iPhone pays a price.

Kashansky stressed that we need to look at who will be using this phone and then slim down features to suit what different types of people need.

Testing trends and development challenges

Responding to query about openness, Maestracci said open access as provided by Google Android or the iPhone SDK opens the door for designers to build apps. [But stories have also since emerged that Apple plans to patent iPhone haptics, as Bryan Rieger of Future Platforms told the audience at Chinwag Live: Real World Usability in London on April 22nd – a barrier to generalising the new user experience surely?]

Kate Ryan – how does the need to design for mobile change UX (user experience) professionals’ jobs?

Kyle Outlaw – rapid prototyping; early and often; the need for agile over waterfall development models as we go into this area where standards aren’t fixed.

Kashansky – UX professionals need to think a little more creatively about how they test things. Eg synching mobile with gaming devices, or web, IPTV, and GPS.

Jenson – people more as producers of information, not just consumers.

Maestracci – richer applications, shift from text based to media / interactive video-based; an input device not just an output device.

Outlaw – mobile used to be seen as one channel among many but now mobile is emerging as a multichannel device. VOIP application development will be big. Ribbit is developing VOIP widgets for mobile.

UX & multiple inputs: drivers for seamless mobility?

Kate Ryan asked: what is the mobile killer app? Outlaw said: searchable luggage. Kashansky wanted a “mobile device as a shell to access my info in the cloud; so for example when I get into my car, I interact with my device via my steering wheel.” Jensen’s answer was twofold: unlimited broadband and a battery that doesn’t die quickly. Maestracci cited music, but also being “always connected”.

Outlaw pointed out that in terms of development for iPhones, the approach is more like smart phones, so the approach isn’t handset-specific. Outlaw and Jenson had different thoughts on the long-term viability of SMS.

Groove Mobile’s Maestracci remarked that the thing about the mobile phone is that it’s an always connected device – SMS was the first push technology for the phone; now we have Blackberry and email. The open platform can really expand the possibilities of the phone.

Audience question: stylus inputs – is it going away or will it be integrated with iPhone-type design?

Jenson explained that he worked at Symbian for quite a while [stylus central!]. Using your hands feels more personal and less geeky, he said, and you can lose the stylus all the time. Plus, if you design for the phone, you want to have multiple input points on the screen at any one time. At the same time, he admitted, he can’t get to grips with the keyboard at all.

Platform and apps as a stepping stone

Audience question: the Safari iPhone browser makes it easier for iPhone application developers. Is this the start of a trend – “optimised for iPhone” – and will this diminish the opposition and make the iPhone ubiquitous?

Jenson replied: “to me the iPhone is a webkit”, it’s just raising the standard of mobile browsing; and Motorola are adopting the new Opera Mobile browser, which is a really good browser. In turn he advised: “don’t just port your website; you still have to re-design it for the mobile.”

As with the iPhone SDK, developers will be able to do VOIP apps, Kyle Outlaw added. Outlaw is also developing Food Ninja for restaurant reviews.

While there were slightly fewer mobile-specific panels this year, mobile was integrated into a broader range of panels instead, which is as it should be I guess. But appreciating the impact of mobility and scanning its horizons still requires the kind of deep focus provided by this session.

And a week after SXSW whaddya know, on March 18th along came an M:Metrics report that the iPhone Hype is Holding Up – also covered in the New York Times.

[UPDATE: Google’s Scott Jenson is speaking at MEX (Mobile User Experience) in London, 27-28th May 2008
MEX Blog updates here

Plus there’s a great short interview with Scott by MEX’s Mark Pawlowski here:]


Continue the session discussion on the dedicated Ning social network site (requires Ning log-in)

More coverage of this session:

New Media Buzz – Michael Leis of Emerge Digital
In Transit – Mark Danielson
Media Guardian PDA blog – Jemima Kiss

Older general posts on the iPhone that are worth checking out:

Russell Beattie – i-dot thoughts
Mobhappy (Russel Buckley) – 2007 predictions, the final one
Mobhappy (Carlo Longino) – Is The iPhone Any More Attractive To Developers Now Than It Was Two Days Ago?


7 responses to “SXSW 08 panel: Life after the iPhone

  1. Nice article — and thanks for linking to our live blog coverage of the event. It was an awesome panel that still has me thinking.


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  3. Thanks Michael, and in terms of the thinking – me too!

    It was a little disjointed in terms of swerving around a lot, but, overall, I think it could have gone on all day. Definitely one of the best SXSW panels I’ve been to in my three years of attending.

    Props to whoever suggested the panel topic to the organisers 🙂

    PS. I’ve updated to the post to credit you as author of the related session post.

  4. Very kind of you.

    That is the detraction to panels:because of the conversational nature, you lose a lot of the meaning. Which was why my live blog execise turned out so well — for me anyway. It forced me to create a kind of written record and look back at what was said, what stuck out as it was happening.

    A lot of panels felt like they were a total waste — until I went back to the blog entry and saw how much concrete, thought-provoking ideas actually got laid out there.

    Thanks again,


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