What does a Smartphone Smell Like?

The actual digital graphic design process lives in wireframes, prototypes, mockups, user flow diagrams, site maps…

But every human experience — ergo, every user experience — lives in three dimensions.

When the final product of your design is going to be a 3D object, the design process contemplates a 3D visualization of its potential use in three dimensions, necessarily.

But when the final product of your design is going to be a 2D object (like an app for a screen or a printed material) the design process usually visualizes the two dimensions of the plane: the eye travel on the surface and (in the case of the app) the touch interactions of the finger.

But never forget that the two-dimensional world is just an abstraction. No objects are living in two dimensions. Except for those living in the imaginary Flatland.

The old times

We used to design in 2D only one stage of the complete process of design.

We used to draw sketches, diagrams, planes or blueprints, but that was only one part of what we did to give birth to a product.

I remember that even when we used to design something on the screen of our computer, we used to print it “to see how it looks”. I don’t see that very often anymore.

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Or, do you remember the color proofs or cromalin? Or what about the dummy print?

Today, sometimes the whole design process of digital products lives in 2D.

Yes, we have layers, levels, shadows, even skeuomorphic elements, to give some appearance of a three-dimensional space.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.

Remember, the user doesn’t use a product. The user experiences a product.

What’s experience? A little bit of Psychology

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Let’s get out of the design world and go to the psychological world.

We used to talk about “user experience”. I’m a psychotherapist, besides my work in software and systems projects, so “experience” has an extra layer of meaning.

Experience is what you actually live through, in contrast to what you imagine or think. You are conscious of what you experience. The experience is the content of your consciousness.

For example, you went sailing a sailboat or climbing a mountain. After, you tell your friends that it’s difficult to describe the event because you have to live it, to experience it by yourself.

In some philosophical and psychological schools of thought, consciousness and experience are the same or at least, overlap in features.

“…we have [experiencial] states when we see, hear, smell, taste and have pains.”

“[Experiential properties are] …sensations, feelings and perceptions, but I would also include thoughts, wants and emotions”

Ned Block , On a Confusion about a Function of Consciousness .

So you don’t imagine or think an experience. You have to actually live it with all your senses and be conscious of that.

Experience in design

Back to the design world. Let me translate (or transpose) these definitions to the user experience.

The user experience of any product is in a state when he sees, hears, smells, tastes and has pains.

The properties of his experience are sensations, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, wants and emotions.

When you present a digital product to a user, there are aspects of his experiential state that are out of your control. But that doesn’t mean they are not going to happen.

In principle, you can’t control what the user is going to smell when using your app. Your app doesn’t smell, but your app is going to be on a smartphone.

What does a smartphone smell like?

A thought experiment

Let’s imagine you are designing a medical app for patients that need nutritional menus. Let’s say some of those patients are recovering from cancer treatment, like chemotherapy.

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Are you going to include color photos of the dishes? It may look like a 2D question. The photos may look nice in an aesthetical o compositional way.

But, is the app going to be used in a Hospital? Is the patient going to be smelling and tasting the sequels of chemotherapy? What does he is going to be feeling at the moment of seeing nutritional tips? What are going to be his thoughts, wants or emotions?

Does the idea to include full-color food photos look as promising when you visualize the complete experience of the user? Does that is going to be in the mood of a cancer patient? Those look like 3D questions.

Yes, this is a very specific case. But I’m using it to make my point.

Two car examples

The first time I used Waze I was driving. I mean, not the first time I opened the app, but the first time I used it. It was a very bad experience. It was obvious to me that there were graphical elements whose functions were very difficult to access if you were driving. In the first versions of the app that wasn’t put into consideration.

Photo by Samuel Foster on Unsplash

Now, when you open the app there is a message that says you can’t use the app if you are driving. Good to know!

Waze is a 3D experience that needs a 3D process design.

Adding to the car experience. How many people use airplane mode in their smartphones and how frequently?

There are too many more people that use to drive a car and more frequently. But, I haven’t seen the car mode button in a more accessible place than the airplane mode button on a smartphone.

The airplane mode in the smartphones was designed to comply with airplane requirements, not user requirements.

A car mode or driving mode is a function or element to comply with the user experience.

Outside of any user flow diagram: escaping Flatland

We have to escape Flatland ( Edward Tufte’s sculptures and chapter’s book reference intended ).

You can design multiple user flow diagrams or travel user experiences. Most of the time this includes only the travel of flow through the app we are designing.

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But a smartphone or tablet is not a single app device. In the middle of any moment of the experience, the user can switch to another app, be interrupted by another app, or leave the entire phone — ergo, the app — and go to his 3D world.

Is the user going to find everything in the same place he left the app when he came back? Does he need to come back to the same place or need a resume?

I use Google News once in a while on my smartphone. In the middle of reviewing my news feed, I have to change to another app or another activity outside my phone. I come back to the app a few minutes later. Maybe more than I thought because the app just refreshes all my news feed and I lose track of my previous review.

I haven’t used Facebook for a while but I think the same happens there.

On more than one occasion I tried to open my Starbucks app to pay for my coffee just to discover that I was logged out from the app. I have to write my entire email again and my secure passcode on the little screen of my cellphone — caps, small caps, numbers, special characters — while other people are waiting in the line behind me. Not a good experience.