The Report

Three mobile design trends worth watching

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Sure, Mobile World Congress is long over. And the trade show tends to be extremely technology-focused. But a few design trends stood out. Here are three we predict will have resonance.

BARCELONA -- The ornate, temporary booths of Samsung, Intel, and other tech giants have been disassembled at the Fira Gran Via on the outskirts of town. Gone are the silly juggling clown and the flirty booth babes (pretty girls in flattering outfits), hired by exhibitors to win the attention of the 72,000 attendees of Mobile World Congress (MWC). It's a massive annual trade show devoted to mobile devices, products, and services. Yes, it's been a full week since MWC took place (from February 25-28) -- but now that the event is over, it's easier to gain some perspective and spot some fresh design trends.

Here are three that struck me the most as I roamed the hallways of the Fira Gran Via last week.

1.) Boundaries are blurring between tablets and phones.

Some much-talked-about devices at MWC were eye-catching because of their size. Were they very large phones, or were they small tablets? Huawei's Ascend P2, for instance, sports a 4.7-inch screen; LG's Optimus G Pro's is 5.5 inches; and  ZTE's Grand Memo's display reaches across 5.7 inches.

After looking at some of these offerings, I found myself squinting at my iPhone 5 and getting slightly upset when mistyping on its soft keys.

It doesn't really matter what you call these devices: they're obviously a trend. Interface and experience designers would be wise to consider these in-between screens as a canvas to embrace. They can be especially easy on the hands and the eyes, especially for augmented reality (AR) programs. (I say this with confidence after enjoying an AR tour at Antoni Gaudi's Casa Batllo while in Barcelona, offered by the historical site. The tour was programmed on a Samsung Galaxy Note device that had a larger-than-5-inch screen, and I highly recommend it. The tour, which superimposes computer renderings of the original furniture of Casa Batllo onto the real-life interiors you see on the device's screen, is included with admission.)

2.) Design is a key ingredient when creating emerging-market devices and services.

In an MWC speech, Nokia's CEO Stephen Elop, basically said as much. He stated that he is "very proud of [Nokia's] design of feature and low-end phones. They have the same standards as Lumia phones," the company's more glamorous, slick devices.

Manoj Kohli, CEO of Bharti Airtel, said the same in his own keynote: "Form factors are important in mobile for emerging markets, along with cost."

Clearly, there are large, potential new audiences for mobile technology in resource-constrained communities. And as competition heats up for them, attractiveness will play a role in winning attention. Even if phones and tablets are inexpensive, design is not just a strategy to seduce the elite.

3.) One word: services.

In a number of conversations I had with exhibitors at this year's MWC, it seemed clear that attendees are paying attention to services perhaps just as much as they are paying attention to hardware's capabilities or the technical details of software.

One sales manager I chatted with in line for coffee, Tony Fitzgerald of Thumbstar, a U.K.-based maker of mobile games, said for the first time he felt there were "many more marketing and advertising services firms than actual developers" this year at MWC. That's in comparison with the last several editions of the fair, he said. Design firms: take note of this anecdote.

Of course, MWC is a sprawling and epic event -- see the in-depth reports by my SmartPlanet colleague Jennifer Riggins -- and this is a very, very simple set of observations.

But I hope they're worth your attention, for while most coverage of MWC tends to be about geeky details of new product releases and breathy announcements of business partnerships, design trends sometimes get lost. One reason is that the design media often isn't present, and for good reason, as MWC is traditionally a very technology-focused event.

But I'd argue that more design journalists would be wise to attend MWC to sniff out where product, interaction, and service-related design might be headed. That's because mobile devices are increasingly becoming the centers of our lives. A week after the show, these design-related ideas still had resonance to me, and could very well prove to have wider resonance for many more months, or even years.

Image: Reena Jana

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure