Overcoming the Challenges of Smart Feature Phone UX Design

KaiOS Technologies
Jul 10 · 5 min read

By Tina Chen, UX designer at KaiOS

As a UX designer focused exclusively on smart feature phone design, I’ve had a fun ride over the past two years. Now some of you may ask, “What is a smart feature phone?”

A smart feature phone powered by KaiOS is an affordable phone without a touchscreen, yet still allows users to access the internet and apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Designing for such a phone is similar to designing for a smartphone, yet at the same time it can be so different. Not making sense? Let me elaborate.

The core UX principles such as clear navigation and legibility remain the same, but the ways to achieve them are a lot more challenging when so many limitations exist, such as a considerably smaller, non-touchscreen and RAM as low as 256 MB (yes, MB!). In my opinion, good UX is about striking the best balance between giving the users what they want and what we can. It may not be the most ideal, but it is the best feasible solution.

I’ve encountered some interesting challenges along the way, and the first one is navigation.

1. Navigation

All navigations are done by pressing on a directional pad, which means users aren’t able to simply tap a certain item they wish to select that is, say, at the center of the list. Instead, they need to start from the top of the list and press their way down. A slow scroll like this means content that is not on the first page view may be overlooked until the user is proactively looking for something. It is important to order the content so that the critical information is shown first. Equally essential is to keep in mind that new functions have better discoverability if they are placed on the first page view. Two ways to compensate for this limitation is to leave a bit of the content at the bottom of the page or indicate the total number of items toward top of the page.

2. Small Screen

KaiOS smart feature phones have a relatively small screen; therefore we’re always trying to eliminate redundant information and seeking ways to make more space. One way to achieve this is by removing the header from apps that have just one purpose: Music (plays music), FM Radio (plays radio), Audio Recorder (records and plays back), and Video (plays Video). Apps like Settings, for example, can’t use this solution because they bundle a lot of functions and users need to know where they currently are.

After we removed the header from Music, we were able to show one more song!

3. Input

Because there is no touchscreen, input can also be chaotic. While currently there is no better solution to dramatically improve the letter input experience, we try to lighten the load wherever and whenever we can. For example, users can use the directional pad to select symbols, but each symbol is also mapped to a number on the dial pad. That way, users can simply press the number of a hard-to-reach symbol like 9 for instant selection instead of having to navigate over from the number 1.

4. Performance

Hardware limitations can result in issues like longer app launch time. Our clients have requested that we meet certain launch time criteria. This is sometimes just impossible to meet for apps with a lot of content to load on a phone with a low hardware spec. One example is the Calendar app, which needs to check if online events are in sync. We were able to solve this by adding an entry screen that shows today’s date and day of the week, while loading content simultaneously so that the launch seems seamless.

5. Target audience

Sometimes the challenge doesn’t come from the hardware itself, but rather the target audience. KaiOS phones target emerging markets; consequently, most of the users are using the internet for the first time and likely don’t have an established email address. Without a personal email, an account must be created using a phone number, which generates OTP (one time password authentication sent via SMS) with an added cost to the user and requires multiple procedures to sign in. If the user changes their phone number, this results in an even more complicated user authentication and data migration.

When signing in with the phone, users need to go through OTP to ensure the number they’re currently using is theirs, which incurs cost for the user. The OTP SMS then triggers a series of procedures that are prone to error and hard to follow, causing a once-simple email flow to become complicated and costly when replaced by a phone account.

The practice of recycling phone numbers also creates challenges. Phone number recycling describes a user with a phone account changing to a new number, therefore leaving the original number to be reassigned. When this happens, how does the new user sign up with that number? Without a valid phone number or email address, password retrieval becomes problematic because there’s no secure location to send it to. Some possible solutions to this issue include using security questions, requiring an alternative phone number to send the reset code to, or having a call center to verify user info and reset password.

Surprisingly, the best part about designing for smart feature phones is actually these challenges and limitations. They force you to go wide and deep with different explorations, as well as really understand both the software and hardware in your product to ensure that your design is feasible. I look forward to sharing more smart feature phone stories in the future!

Design at Kai

Behind-the-scenes stories from the UX Design team at KaiOS Technologies.

KaiOS Technologies

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KaiOS enables a new category of smart feature phones and IoT devices that require limited memory, while still offering a rich user experience.

Design at Kai

Behind-the-scenes stories from the UX Design team at KaiOS Technologies.

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