Another year has come and gone, and while it might look like the mobile landscape hasn’t changed much in the past 12 months, with large-screen smartphone still very much front and center, we’ve seen a few initiatives across the industry which should definitely impact the user experience of your own products and apps in 2020.
Some of these initiatives revolved around the redesign of the physical smartphone form factor itself, while others came from a better understanding of how people use their devices. A third category, perhaps more importantly, was born from the ethical implications of the use of technology across different demographic and social tiers.
Today, I want to look at some of these initiatives, and especially what they mean for UX research and design in the twelve months to come.
Let’s jump right in!
Foldable devices and multi-screen interfaces
On the technology side, the most prominent change we’ve seen in 2019 is the return of the foldables. Samsung and Huawei announced their take on shape-shifting devices at MWC, and finally managed to release these products just about as the year comes to a close.
LG, Microsoft, and Motorola presented their take as well, the former two using two separate screens in a clamshell configuration, while the latter opting for a reimagined version of their best-seller from the early 2000s: the RAZR mobile phone. In fact, Microsoft doesn’t even have a product ready for release in this category, targeting the holiday season of 2020 to join the race.
Apple, absolutely in character, is still mum on any development on their part, but it’s not too far fetched to envisage them jumping on this bandwagon in a year or two when the technology is sufficiently mature.
Where does this leave us?
Speculations aside, we could well ignore this trend when designing the next generation of the user experience for our mobile products, as the underlying platforms themselves will most likely deal with a dynamically changing screen real estate, but we’d be missing a trick.
Instead, we can look at optimizing the user experience for the following scenarios:
- Multi-tasking and interaction with other apps : Copy & paste and drag & drop immediately come to mind here, but also context-awareness, if allowed by the OS
- Ability to provide different views on the same data : For instance, a calendar on one side of the fold, and a daily view on the other, much like a real agenda
- Targeted / focused input methods and interactions : Especially for content creation apps, it’s easy to imagine an app-specific Apple-esque Touch Bar with common shortcuts and tools on the lower screen of a vertically foldable device, alongside or instead of the default touch keyboard
On the flipside, not all apps might benefit from a foldable-centric UX design and I can see how a forced implementation might come across as gimmicky. Nevertheless, for those experiences which might benefit from the extra screen real estate, this is definitely a trend to bear in mind.
More and more gestures
In the past year or so, iOS and iPadOS have seen a complete shift towards gesture-based system navigation with the home button disappearing or being made obsolete on all newly released devices. Even the lower-tier iPad and the iPad Air, the last bastion of larger bezels accommodating a physical home button, can nowadays be navigated entirely through gestures like their Pro cousins.
Android has also been going down this path, with gesture-based navigation appearing in Pie as an alternative to the common triad of soft-keys of generations past. And the latest iteration of the OS, version 10 (what happened to the dessert-inspired names?), only expands further in this direction.
This creates a challenge for the UX design of third party apps, which now have to accommodate system-specific gestures and the mental shift those might bring to the end user.
To be ready for the next wave of updates coming in 2020, we might want to rethink gestures which are app-specific, especially in the context of how they interact / interfere with their OS-wide counterparts to confuse or, at the other end of the spectrum, delight the user.
In particular, swipe gestures should be reviewed, especially those from the edge of the screen.
AI assistants and voice-based interfaces
Speaking of user interaction, the next UX trend that we need to look out for in 2020 is less to do with touch and sight more with hearing and speech: the further rise of AI assistants and voice-based interfaces.
Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Samsung have been further opening up integration with their assistants software over the past twelve months, and this is likely going to continue in the seasons to come.
Amazon and Google in particular are pushing hard for wider adoption of their technology in this area with the release of sub-$50 devices for the home, striving to provide a convenient and frequent interaction point for the average consumer.
Big-brother implications aside, let’s look at how this affects our own products.
Not all mobile apps necessarily benefit from integration with these tools, but it’s something worth thinking about. Is there a benefit in the user interacting with your service through a voice prompt? Perhaps automation of certain activities or integration with location-specific devices is of interest to your specific application. It’s difficult to generalize here and the approach is better considered on a case-by-case basis.
However, if we decide to go down the route of supporting voice-driven interactions, let’s also bear in mind the limitations of such methods, and ensure we don’t make it the single interaction paradigm for our products. Granted, Siri and Google do allow input through typing as well, but that might not be as immediate as pushing a few buttons for a certain demographic of users.
Hold that thought as this is a nice segue into the next trend.
Accessibility and inclusiveness
In recent years, there has been a renewed and much needed focus on accessibility and inclusiveness in the tech world. This is only going to grow further in 2020, and hopefully beyond, especially if the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics manage to successfully showcase how the use of technology can improve accessibility for all, a hope shared by the organizing committee.
Closer to home, mobile apps and experiences can be a powerful enabler for a number of users who might otherwise encounter challenges in their interaction with real-world environments. Current and common examples can be found in how e-commerce makes shopping easier for those who, like me, have mobility issues, while challenges arising from sensory differences can be alleviated through the use of assisting apps, or through features within the mobile operating systems themselves.
The major risk when designing user experiences for new interaction paradigms such as the foldable screen or the voice-based interfaces seen in previous paragraphs, is to forget about these users as they often fall in a minority category from a statistical standpoint.
The challenge for 2020 would be to design interactions which make sense across the spectrum, avoiding deterioration of the experience for these minority groups as much as possible.
Speaking of device use, let’s also not forget the impact that our app has on the mental and physical wellbeing of our user. This a hot topic which has seen growing interest throughout 2019 and will likely become even more prominent in the new year.
Apple released Screen Time in iOS 12, towards the end of 2018, to give its users a better understanding on how they spend their time in different apps, and act accordingly if this is indeed perceived as overuse or even abuse. Android also has started similar initiatives with no less than five experimental digital wellbeing apps and a related informational website (which you can find here).
As users become increasingly more aware and mindful of their digital consumption, UX needs to become more aware of their needs and usage patterns, and avoid falling into toxic behaviors such as those perpetrated by previous-gen applications (e.g. mindless infinite scrolling through a social feed).
2020 will hopefully see UX design shifting from attention grabbing to providing interactions tailored to the user’s own needs, much like advertising has been slowly changing in recent decades from being a noisy blast-to-all activity off of mass media to a more tailored experience designed to enrich the customer (or at least, that’s the idea that Seth Godin and others have been pushing, and that I have been subscribing to).
In the end, it’s not just about user engagement, but the quality of the engagement itself. If there’s one key takeaway from this article, this is it.
User experience is exciting because it sits at the intersection between the cold and precise world of technical innovation, and the warm and fuzzy field of human interaction. When predicting trends for the short-term future, we cannot ignore either of these two components if we want to paint a complete picture, hence the selection presented in this article.
I hope this provides some direction for research investments in the early months of the new year, especially in the build up to the Olympics and in preparation for the holiday season of 2020 when hopefully some of the outstanding new technology discussed early on comes to fruition.
In closing, 2019 has been an exciting year with some important shakeups of the status quo in the mobile world, both in terms of boring me-too form factors and in terms of ethical design, with a long overdue rise in awareness of the impact big tech and big data has on everybody’s lives.
Hopefully this will usher in a new year where all kinds of users are treated more equally and more mindfully, all the while bringing ever more polished interactions to enrich their lives.
UX is the main discipline that can bring about this change and ensure sustainable business success in this ever evolving world, and in turn make it a better place for all.