Cell Phone Interface Design Principles

Are there any cell phone interface design principles? (Google’s answer is inconclusive.) I would think a multi-billion dollar industry would have developed some best practices at this point, but it seems like each new phone is designed by monkeys jumping on typewriters. Maybe eventually they’ll get it right, but I’d rather not wait until infinity.

A persistent flaw that has always puzzled me across nearly all models is the “shut down sound” feature. If you are shutting off your cell phone, do you really need a distinctive musical reminder? Did the designers of this feature ever consider that, in many instances, the user is shutting off the cell phone because they are in a silent theatre or a business meeting? Who are these designers, anyway? Of course you can always turn the volume down first (or probably better — just silence the phone and keep it on), but that is not going to be the first inclination for most users.

I was reminded of this flaw last night at a Counterpoint Concert that was being recorded for VPR radio broadcast. After the chorus director reminded people to turn off their cell phones for the recording, a symphony of shut down sounds followed shortly thereafter.

Cell phone gripes aside, the concert was great — particularly the performance of They Called Her Moses.

On a related note, see this petition regarding cell phone user interfaces and software. Joel on Software also has some nice observations on this topic.


  1. Stephen Touset Jan 28

    I have to agree completely.

    Two phones ago, I had some manner of Motorola. You couldn’t get the thing to shut up. Turning it on silent required making sound. Either you had to press the volume buttons (which made sound), or the power button (which made sound), or some combination of buttons to put the thing in silent mode (which again, made sound).

    Even then, you weren’t completely safe. Depending on how you turned the sound down, the buttons on the side of the phone might make a very loud beep when pressed, even when the phone was closed. You see, these buttons (the volume buttons) didn’t have any effect when the phone wasn’t open. That is, except to beep. Even if the volume was off.

    The thing had other complete aggravations. You could store, I think, 30 text messages total. On the other hand, several minutes of recorded voice could be stored. It didn’t matter whether or not you actually used the several megabytes available for voice storage; there was no way to actually use that extra available memory, except for voice. Never mind that I could have stored several hundred (if not thousand) plain text messages using that same available space. Plus, the call and hang up buttons were reversed from the layout used by every other phone by every other manufacturer. That’s only the beginning of my gripes with this phone.

    I made a solemn vow that if I were to ever find the man responsible for its design, I would bludgeon him with a tractor.

    Thankfully, I recently discovered the Samsung t509, and have been quite happy with it. It’s not perfect, but it’s by far the only cell phone which I’ve enjoyed using, rather than simply tolerated.

  2. Anonymous Jan 28

    Nokia seems to be the usability king.

  3. MJR Jan 28

    The Motorola sounds a bit like the ancient L7089 I use, apart from the volume buttons don’t beep when sound is off. I wish I could hack the firmware on it to fix a few of the more annoying bugs, like the ‘make a noise to be quiet’ stuff. On the plus side, it can map voice tags to menu options and the phone book, it switches off silently, it has decent-size keys and display text.

    I hate Nokias. Every model I’ve ever seen or used has keypads which are far too small and flat to ever be usable.

  4. Stephen Touset Jan 28

    My first Nokia was was pretty damned good. Small, great battery life, and “just worked”. Then I had the Motorola from Hell, and after it another Nokia (the 6800). It was quite tolerable, but I’m still thoroughly impressed with the Samsung I mentioned earlier. Its reception leaves a little to be desired, but other than that it’s enjoyable to use.

  5. D Jan 28

    I’m an Industrial Design student. This very issue of interface design is the subject of one of my current assignments. Our lecturer has introduced us to a wonderful book – “Universal Principles of Design: 100 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach Through Design”. The title speaks for itself. The author has also written a book on interface design. Check them out on amazon – http://www.amazon.com/Universal-Principles-Design-Perception-Decisions/dp/1592530079/sr=8-1/qid=1159854355/ref=pd_bbs_1/104-6602982-6331140?ie=UTF8&s=books

  6. Edward Apr 22

    as a designer, with years of experience in usability/experience, current phone models in america just suck! their design is terrible and the UI is just a nightmare, they worry so much in loading the phones with cameras, mp3 players or any kind of annoying ringtone and completely forget about the most important thing, usability, our experience as users, so far the only company that i can see has come closer to good design in the cellphone field is Apple with its so aclaimed iPhone, but still, some basic features like sending pics thru txt messaging are still missing (even after 2 mayor software upgrades). i have what i called the most basic cellphone ever, and still, its UI makes me wanna throw up. i came across this blog looking for a way of designing my own UI, if thats possible, i wish i could do it.

Leave a Reply

(Markdown Syntax Permitted)