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June 5, 2009

Mobile gesture design at Nokia – developing a new dialect of interaction

LONDON, England – The recent shift towards including innovative sensors into mobile devices has given birth to a new dialect of mobile interaction and communication in the form of physical gestures – the rise of accelerometers has already facilitated the adoption of a handful of instinctive solutions to common tasks otherwise reserved to the realm of a series of button presses, whether it’s flipping your phone face-down to silence it on the Nokia 8800 or turning a device into a landscape position to rotate the image onscreen on the Nokia N86 8MP.

The field of mobile gestures is a fascinating one that Nokia is keenly exploring and researching, with explorative designers Younghee Jung and Joe Macleod on the frontline. Last week we had the opportunity to chat to them at The Inside Story design day in London about their ideas on mobile gesture design, the research they’ve been doing, and the tools that have been developed to help test how well future mobile gestures might work.

Click through to watch our video interview with the duo, in which they talk about the creation of the gesture phone prototype that they use to explore this new dialect of physical interaction designed to let you perform tasks and communicate in very new ways.

With gestures it’s easy to label it as a gimmick or a trend, but the reality is these aren’t cold-blooded replacements cannibalizing traditional interfaces, but rather natural and optional alternatives. For example, just because two people working in London might naturally default to using Bluetooth to share a photo, in rural Ghana the gesture of an intricate handshake and pressing two phones together to transfer content (a la Near Field Communication) might be the more suitable option here, and hence the gesture in this scenario suits the task in a place where Bluetooth mightn’t be front of mind or even seen as an option.

This is a concept that Younghee and Joe have a great deal of first-hand experience in researching. As part of their fieldwork they ask people from many countries and a broad spectrum of cultures to play out scenarios of how they might perform a task with a gesture that feels natural to them, using simple plastic mono block phones as props.

They set out a series of tasks for people, such as silencing a ringing phone. Sure, the flip-to-silence gesture is already alive in a number of devices, such as the Nokia 8800 and N97, but it was great to hear examples of some of the physical gestures people suggested in their research. A few of my favourites that Younghee and Joe mentioned were people wanting to squeeze the phone to shut it up, while others put their index finger over their mouth to shush it or simply covered the phone with their hand. The strangest, but my pick of the bunch was simply staring at your phone with a rather annoyed look, as if it were a naughty child that needs to be quiet.

One of the most interesting points discovered during the design process is that there must be a metaphorical or physical relationship between a gesture and a task. A form or emotional and rational alignment that is enjoyable and socially appropriate, as Younghee and Joe explain it. So, for example, if you’re giving something to someone, the concept of gravity comes into play, as typically in the physical world you drop an object into someone’s palm in the exchange process, so this movement, and the fact that gravity dictates that the giving hand is above the receiving one, could be applied in similar mobile data transfer scenarios. It’s not that this is the answer, but rather this is the sort of thinking that helps guide Nokia’s designers towards solutions.

Once a collection of potential gestures are agreed upon, they’re then taken out into the real world and played out using a smart gesture phone prototype (see video to hear Younghee and Joe talk about it’s creation).

It’s certainly an area of design that I’m keen to witness develop and evolve. And of course there are a bunch of interesting questions and debates that gestural interaction raises. Such as personalised gestures. Could we (or should we) be given the option in the future to create and evolve a custom set of mobile gestures to suit our personal behavioral habits, or should we work towards a shared and recognized lexicon of worldwide gestures as it were? What do you think?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below. But while you mull that over, watch our video with Nokia designers Younghee Jungand Joe Macleod below.