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Mobile Magic Moments: Transform the Trivial

When mobile or tablet design is executed well, the device feels like the extension of our bodies. Because interfaces respond even before we consciously give them a command.

Often, the interface “dissolves in behavior†and we feel empowered, as though the device we hold in our hand is the equivalent of Iron Manâ€s suit of cybernetic armor, or Batmanâ€s utility belt.

I call this empowering experience a “Magic Momentâ€.

Most importantly, these “Magic Moments†make people fall in love with your app, show it to their friends, telling, nay, insisting they download the app and experience the magic for themselves. These are the moments we designers live for.

And mobile and tablet devices are more suited to creating and fostering “magic moments†than any other device.

Why Mobile and Tablet?

Because mobile phones and tablets are increasingly:

  • Always with us, within easy reach

  • Have an incredible array of on-board sensors that allow for unique interaction with the environment

  • Aware of our movements and positions

  • Allow unique data entry and interaction methods

  • Allow for both flow and multi-tasking

  • Networked in sophisticated ways

Using these unique capabilities, designers and developers can produce software that responds with awareness and compassion to our needs to enhance our experience of life, making us more productive, allowing us to make better decisions with more confidence, and increasing the reach of our ideas.

Cross Channel UX Elements Framework

To take full advantage of the new mobile and tablet design opportunities to catalog and create these “Magic Momentsâ€, I have developed a practical Cross Channel UX Elements Framework, shown below:


It is a framework of 10 UX design elements, arranged in pairs of opposites. Each pair can be thought of as left- and right- brained, with the logical, thought-form on the left, and itâ€s right-brained compliment element that relies on intuition, integration and flow on the right side of the diagram. The pairs are arranged in order, from the Micro-level on the top (e.g. inputs) to Macro-level UX design elements that deal with task control and flow arranged on the bottom. Each “magic moment†can be thought of as falling somewhere along the line in the continuum of each of the 5 pairs, emphasizing one or more elements.

Rather than being an exhaustive catalog of each experience, the Cross Channel UX Elements Framework is meant to start a conversation about how we can model these unique opportunities to engage with mobile and tablet devices. And create a few “Magic Moments†of our own.

Start with Zero

One of the first principles of creating “magic moments†is transforming the trivial. Letâ€s start at zero: what is about the most mundane and boring activity you do with your phone? For many us, it is unlocking the homescreen.

Although no one specifically studies how often people unlock their homescreen, we can make some educated guesses. According to the Pew research center, one in three teens sends more than 100 text messages a day. We can imagine that theyâ€d have to unlock the phone at least one every 5-10 messages, which means teens unlock their homescreen about 10-20 times a day, a conservative estimate.

To do this on the iPhone you have to enter 4 numbers using the numeric keypad:


Using the Cross Channel UX Elements Framework, this experience can be described as follows:


Notice that:

  1. When it comes to inputs, this experience is extremely left-brained. This is definitely a user-driven interaction, where user has to do all of the work, having to memorize and then enter 4 digits.

  2. The entire interaction is performed using the numeric keypad.

  3. This experience is very personal (rather than social) and tied strongly to your personal identity – only you know the code to unlock your phone (or so you hope, even after using your phone in the Metro and other public places).

  4. This experience is very much one of having the task that moves you toward your goal interrupted – after all you did not pick up the phone only to unlock it so you can stare at it! But you do have to unlock the phone before you can proceed with your goal of sending a text.

Yes, unlocking the phoneâ€s homescreen definitely qualifies low on the totem pole of lifeâ€s trivialities. Not only is this activity mundane, it is also a very “left-brained†experience overall, with left side of the diagram heavily highlighted. However, with a bit of awareness and compassion, and the addition of some amazing technology, even this mundane experience can be transformed into a “magic momentâ€.

Enter Facial Recognition

Recently, I was running a project for a large Fortune 500 client and had to get a Nexus phone running the new Android Ice Cream Sandwich OS. Imagine my surprise when I discovered an amazing Easter Egg functionality – unlocking the phone using facial recognition technology.

This is how it works. First, there is a short setup process, where you “train†your phone to recognize you in different light conditions (it takes no longer than entering a personal four digit code). After your phone is setup to recognize you, the experience of unlocking the homescreen becomes a pure “magic momentâ€:

All you have to do is turn the phone on.

Thatâ€s it. Really.

Most people hold their phone in front of them naturally to turn it on, in preparation to whatever next activity they will be doing with the phone, which puts the device in the perfect angle for the front-facing camera to start shooting the video of your face:


As soon as the software recognizes you as the owner, the phone unlocks normally. The entire experience is natural, seamless, and personal. Most importantly, you remain in the state of flow, focused on the goal and task that made you turn your phone on in the first place (sending a text for example).

This is how the experience can be described using the Cross Channel UX Elements Framework:


Again, starting from the top of the diagram:

  1. Facial recognition makes heavy use of typing alternatives – in this case the device makes heavy use of the camera sensor.

  2. Because the user has to do nothing but what they normally, reflexively do in preparation for the task, and without thinking (e.g. hold the phone in front of them) the method of entry is completely environment-driven.

  3. Experience is even more personal than entering the numbers – the phone recognizes the user “magically†without revealing the userâ€s “secret identity†(the way the four digit code might be stolen with a casual glance in crowded environments such as Metro or public places).

  4. Last but not least, the experience of unlocking the phone does not interrupt the task the person set out to do in the first place (send the text) because it requires no thinking and little if any action on the part of the user, maintaining the state of flow by retaining focus on the original task.

As you can see, the resulting diagram is heavily weighted to the right, but not all the way so: the Personal vs. Social axis is if anything even further moved toward the “Personal†pole. Thus the design of “Magic Moments†of your own is more than simply attempting to transform all of the elements of the experience into their “right brained†counterparts.

Design runs deeper than that. Transforming trivial activities into magic is about approaching the problem with Zen-like awareness and compassion, as well as incredible technical prowess. It is about focusing on meaning as well as technology.


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