Our Head of Development Chris Montford shares his thoughts on what the iPhone X technology means for the future of the smartphone.
So as head of development at Somo you coordinate both iOS and Android teams.
Yes, and I have both an iOS and Android device. On one hand, I don’t want to show any favoritism to one of my native app teams. On the other hand, what’s even more interesting for me is that when you own a certain phone you are automatically immersed in its OS ecosystem, and that ultimately ends up shaping the way you look at things. So I want to keep a wider perspective than simply concentrating on a single approach to technology and design.
Great, so I think you can provide a slightly more neutral point of view. What do you think about the new iPhone X UI and the absence of a home button?
I think we all agree it is brave for Apple to remove something that has been part of the core phone experience since its inception. However, each new version of iOS has always had something new for users to learn; there has always been an element of incremental change of their own user experience. If there is something that we can learn from this it is Apple’s ability to evolve their products, introducing new features and gestures quickly and smoothly. For instance, users did not take much time to get used to the new control panel’s swipe gesture when Apple introduced it.
There are certain elements of the new iPhone X UI that I still want to explore more in detail. It’s interesting for example that when you unlock your phone with Face ID you still need to swipe to access your home screen. Or the different design choices and behaviours that differentiate the scroll down of the notification panel and the control centre. Another example is that with a normal iPhone - with the home button - you can scroll and switch between apps, and that is a gesture that has come and gone and nobody really announced it. So with every new Apple product generation there is an element of discovery as to which gestures work for you and there is never a definitive list of things that you can do. And despite the fact that there is no user manual users seem to absorb innovation quite quickly.
What are your thoughts on the new screen?
I am really interested to see how it performs in the long term, because Apple has stayed away from OLED tech for years. The first quick impression on Apple’s take on the OLED screen is that it feels less saturated than the Samsung Galaxy one. It seems that Apple has been really careful about the screen coloration. But it’s not just aesthetic. I am sure the choice of the new screen tech was dictated by many different needs and considerations. From an industrial design perspective, for instance, the OLED screen is thinner and has contributed to keeping the phone profile slender. Not to mention that it also allows more space to be allocated to the battery. All in all, one of the reasons why I decided to have an iPhone X is that this seems to be the screen technology to have.
I confess I am a little bit of a geek when it comes to these things and I loved when Apple presented the teardown and showed how they beautifully combined all the components, and how the screen wraps around and underneath itself. That’s how they can get it so close to the edge. From an industrial design perspective it an interesting choice, considering that Samsung took a different approach and wrapped the screen down the sides. These little details sometimes make a big difference in the user experience and that fascinates me.
Another technology that the iPhone X now embraces is Face ID. What are your thoughts on this?
I definitely agree with what Carl said about Face ID making authentication completely transparent. In addition, I am intrigued by the prospect of having a face recognition technology embedded in millions of phones. I do think the potential of this technology goes far beyond authentication, and therefore can open up several new scenarios. We can already see a simple and yet powerful application of it with the Animojis. Facial muscles and expressions can now be tracked and used to send personalised animated emojis, creating a new powerful form of expression and communication. Many other traditional industries can benefit from the ability to instantly understand facial expressions and customer feelings. The service industry, for instance, can potentially use this technology to redesign the customer service journey around real time tracking of customer feelings. Similarly, this technology can be adopted to train service staff and improve their non-verbal communication and delivery.
What do you think about potential privacy concerns? If adopted at scale, this technology can give companies like Facebook and Google access to our emotions, and therefore even more power to influence our lives. They have already collected so much information about us. And are able to influence our behaviours in a much deeper way than anticipated (e.g. Facebook impact on the latest US elections).
Yes, absolutely. This technology is so discrete and frictionless that it can run in the background without us even noticing. When I use my webcam I can see a green light on the top of my computer and I know that the camera is on. But there isn’t any icon signaling that Face ID is collecting data.
This actually reminds me of the location tracking incident that Apple had to face when the technology was first introduced in 2010. A year later two researchers found that the iPhone was logging user location data in a cache file stored and easily accessible on all phones and Macs. This episode brought out serious privacy concerns and Apple was accused of abusing user trust. It was a turning point for Apple. Since then the company has completely changed attitude and become a champion of user privacy, providing users with various ways to control what they share with apps and brands. There is also an icon - a little arrow on the top of the screen - that now tells you when location data are activated.
The introduction of Face ID may present similar challenges, as users are not able to see when the face recognition is activated. There is an API that makes Face ID function accessible for other apps. Snapchat, for instance, has already tapped into it to make their filters even more responsive. So this can potentially raise new concerns.
We mentioned you are both an Android and iOS user. Most of the new features introduced in the iPhone X were already mature technologies, previously adopted in other Samsung or Android phones. So to what extent do you think the iPhone X is re-defining the future of mobile?
I want to take a slightly more critical look at the evolution of the mobile space. The market has quickly become more mature and now the choice of a phone is almost “tribal”. Consumers are split between the “Apple camp” and the “Android camp”, while switching has become more difficult. More than 80% of iPhone users upgrade to the next generation of iPhones (check this Consumer Intelligence Research Partners report). Customers have a strong sense of belonging to one platform, as they have invested in the ecosystem, bought their apps, got used to the nuances of the OS experience. And that creates barriers to switch. So I think this may even stifle innovation to some respects, as you know that switching ecosystem is more difficult for your customers. So where is the root for innovation?
According to many analysts, one of the reasons why the Windows Mobile OS failed is that they tried to reinvent the way people interacted with each other. In iOS and Android you need to open a specific app for each communication method that you want to use (voice, messaging, email, photos and video). Windows bet on a different interaction paradigm as a differentiation factor, trying to bundle all these channels and just focusing on the fact that a user was trying to communicate with a certain person, no matter the channel. And that was such a departure from the other mobile experiences that it created further barriers to adoption. This makes me think that we may have got to a point where it is difficult to disrupt the core elements of the current mobile experience. There is so much inertia in the market that the major tech companies are not incentivised to introduce significant innovations in their operating systems.
Likewise, it is harder for industrial design to be a differentiation factor. The rapid evolution of technology is making devices smaller and smarter. Mobile is disappearing. The Watch 3 is now able to manage phone calls and voice is becoming a viable input method, thanks to Siri. Phones are becoming only a screen. So it is increasingly difficult for industrial design to remain a key differentiation factor. How do you create that iconic style when you have only a screen that goes edge to edge? It will be interesting to see where industrial design goes from here.
One of the traditional challenges in the Android ecosystem is that the fragmentation of devices makes it difficult to keep the experience consistent across all the different screens and formats. Now even the Apple ecosystem is becoming more fragmented, with different device generations and screen sizes marketed at the same time. What is your take on this?
I kind of agree with that. One of Steve Jobs’ mantra was simplicity of the product range. When he returned to Apple he simplified the product portfolio so that products could only be mapped on two dimensions, desktop vs. laptops, and consumers vs. professionals. Today Apple seems more focused on covering market segments’ needs in a more granular way, hence a product that costs £1000 and aims at capturing value at the top end of the market. It seems convenient that they are trying to have a price point from £500 to £1000. And this conflicts with that clarity of strategy that Steve Jobs brought to the company.
What are the key takeaways for brands and service companies?
Firstly, there is the immediate impact. This device is set to cover the top end of the consumer space, so are our apps ready for this device, will we be able to keep our best customers engaged? Can we design UI and features to make the best use of the new device functions.
I have got an iPhone 6s plus at the moment and there are still global service companies with large user bases that have not yet adapted their apps to an iPhone plus screen. As competition increases the attention to the user device and specific experience will become more and more important. And I think that the discussion with Zeina and Graham from our Experience Design team has already touched upon many of these elements of UI and UX.
Secondly, there is the ability to capture the innovative elements of the device that are here to stay. And this is about rapid actionable innovation; it’s the ability to rapidly think about potential use cases, prototype and test. What new APIs are available, what hasn’t been done that we can try. And how can we use the new core elements of iOS 11 such as Machine Learning or ARkit to make the experience on the iPhone X better.
We conducted usability testing to gauge user reactions to the new iPhone X gesture interfaces and replacements with a cross-section of iOS and Android users. Check out the results…
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