Quick aside: If you didn’t know already, I’m an avid photographer. When the opportunity arose to take on a photography-related project while working at Sony, I nearly jumped for joy.
Sony’s QX100 is a new type of camera that combines the 1" sensor of a high-end Sony camera with the body of a small camera lens. The QX100 pairs with the PlayMemories Mobile app, which allows you to control the camera remotely.
Without a clear market fit post-release, my team was brought on to research the future of the QX100 and mobile photography. As a new category of camera entirely, we proposed running a usability study to explore the types of users we could target and how best to design the experience for them.
In four short months, we had run internal evaluations, finished the study, and proposed an updated design for the camera and app, which was later integrated and shipped.
I led heuristic evaluations on PlayMemories Mobile and the QX100. I also partnered with our lead user researcher, Jenny Fredriksson, to coordinate usability tests and user interviews.
Jenny and I shared the responsibility of developing personas, creating collateral for engineering, and proposing recommendations for implementation. After we concluded the study, I pitched a redesign of the app experience based on our findings.
For this project, my UX team partnered with the camera engineering team who developed the QX100, in Tokyo. As a decentralized design team, and without a common language — as my office was in the US, not Japan — it was initially difficult to convince Tokyo to dedicate resources to the project.
Why the camera was special
The camera itself was dead simple to operate and a joy to use on its own (in my opinion). Armed with only a shutter button and zoom functionality, and no LED screen or other controls, I likened it to using a 21st century Polaroid.
So why wasn’t it successful?
Once paired with an iOS or Android device, PlayMemories Mobile made the experience sluggish. Designed for Sony’s α line of mirrorless cameras and dSLRs, we assumed that the app’s controls were overly complex for the simplistic nature photography experience the QX100 conjured up.
In my design process, I emphasize user research and interviews as much as possible as a starting point. I love getting deep into people’s heads, understanding their everyday problems, and brainstorming solutions wherever possible.
Being able to iterate while collecting feedback is also key to making sure your solutions are better than what currently exists.
The heuristic evaluation I conducted before our interviews let us pretend to be users — I tested the product informally in my daily life and formally against Nielsen’s 10 Heuristics for UI Design.
Using the evaluation as a means of framing the interview process, we discovered the aspect most fraught with trouble: pairing to the PlayMemories Mobile app and controlling the camera through it.
Relying on our large database of previous participants, we screened folks to find those most interested in mobile photography, and/or people who were actively using their smartphone or another camera in day-to-day life.
Trying to simulate real-world camera use as much as possible, we invited our participants to setup the camera and the app using their own phones in our Usability Lab, designed to look like a living room.
We observed participants while running them through a set of common tasks: pairing the camera to their phones, shooting bursts of fast-moving subjects, trying to focus on something close by, and then syncing the photos back to their phone. We also allotted time for unstructured play with the camera/app, so users could freely narrate their thoughts and frustrations.
Iterate, iterate, iterate
Our cyclical design process let us reevaluate our findings throughout the interviews. As an exploration, we were free to iterate on the experience and test new ideas live with our participants, to get immediate feedback.
As the engineers in Tokyo had never been part of a usability study, we offered to livestream the interviews online so they could watch in realtime. After the first few days of interviews, the engineers were struck by how enlightening it was to watch users struggle with their product.
Consequently, the project manager in Japan offered to dedicate an engineer from his team to our study, and within a week we had a new member on our team, Hironaka-san. Hironaka-san was instrumental in bridging the language barrier and translating between research, design, and engineering.
Jenny and I documented our findings in a spreadsheet, ranking usability issues by severity and adding recommendations when possible. We shared and recapped our findings on a weekly basis with the engineering leads in Tokyo.
We developed several personas to help categorize the problems we encountered. We used these personas to validate our own assumptions, and to better illustrate the design process for our engineering counterparts.
Sample Persona: Shirin K.
Shirin is a mother of two, in her late thirties, and focused on creating and printing as many photos of her boys while they’re still young. She was recently gifted a dSLR, and loves shooting with it, but will rely on her iPhone when it’s more convenient.
- Goals: As a mom, she wants action shots of her children, high-quality photos for printing albums, and an easy experience that lets her share photos with family quickly.
- Problems: Her dSLR takes great photos, but is heavy and often gets left at home. Her iPhone is much more convenient as it’s always with her, but its camera isn’t up to par for her standards.
Our original assumption was that dSLR owners and hobbyists would be the most interested in a high-end complement to their smartphone camera, but we were pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming enthusiasm from casual photographers and folks who didn’t own a camera of their own, other than a smartphone.
Some of the biggest problems we uncovered:
- smartphones needed to pair with the QX100’s dedicated Wi-Fi network, but this Wi-Fi network rendered the smartphone unable to connect to the internet, and unable to share photos synced from the camera while using it
- pairing the camera regularly took 10+ seconds, even when using NFC to connect
- PlayMemories Mobile would often crash and lose connection with the camera, making users lose their photos in the process
- PlayMemories Mobile had a significant delay in previewing the camera’s viewfinder, which made it difficult for users to control the camera
- the app was unfortunately littered with a gratuitous amount of grammatical and spelling errors, due to poor translation from Japanese
- users had to wait 1–2 seconds for a captured photo to sync before being able to take more photos, which slowed down the experience even more
- photo management in PlayMemories Mobile was messy and practically non-existent, and duplicated iOS/Android’s native capabilities
- while a 2MP preview of all photos was automatically synced, videos had to be manually synced, causing users to think videos were never saved
Developing alongside engineering
With an open line to engineering, we could rapidly test our concepts and worked through the technical constraints behind implementation for many of our recommended updates.
By the end of the study, we had planned and prioritized their upcoming releases to PlayMemories Mobile, and helped them strategize hardware updates to the future QX series cameras.
Newer version of the PlayMemories Mobile app became less reliant on digging through menus and settings, and more like the point-and-shoot nature Apple had proven successful on smartphones, so we considered the study a big success.
As a result, engineering in Tokyo also began integrating a more research-based approach to their own development process.
I also sketched out concepts for a visual refresh of the app, with a more holistic user experience. My concepts centered around making the app more similar to the iOS Camera app, while baking in complex functionality like being able to identify scenes, suggesting the manual camera settings that best fit, and educating users on how to use specific controls.
Had we more time, we could have flown to Japan and tried to either a) run a similar usability study to learn about the Japanese market, or b) educate the camera division more about the research and design we were conducting.
The few months we had with Hironaka-san were ultimately the most productive, and I feel that were we onsite, we could have iterated through the app’s at a much faster clip, and helped plan for the updates to the QX line of cameras with them.
If you’re interested, my redesign proposal can be found here. Thanks to Jenny and Hironaka-san for being such great partners.