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The unexpected UX potential of folding smartphones

Opinion

Published by:

11 June 2019

Author: Mathew Cockerill

Image: Samsung Galaxy Fold

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Flat interfaces will fall out of favour as designers tap into the compelling benefits and experiences that foldable screens can offer. 

For the last 20 years, folding screens have been the stuff of dreams, but today it’s finally possible to manufacture these screens at a commercial scale. As a result, folding, flexible and rolling screens are already entering the market, with the launch of smartphones like Samsung’s Galaxy Fold and Huawei’s Mate X, and LG’s Rollable OLED tv.

Beyond the physical design, just as important are the fresh opportunities folding smartphones bring for companies to reinvigorate the increasingly homogenised and plateauing smartphone and TV markets. The challenge for brands and designers is to use this nascent technology to make the experience around these products more valuable to users beyond the transient novelty of the new.

I’ve been thinking about how to deliver this value beyond the most obvious benefit of folding screens – that of having a tablet-sized screen with the pocket-ability of a smart phone. Whichever way you fold your screen, whether outwards to for a bigger screen, like Samsung and Huawei, or folding inwards to go smaller like the rumoured Motorola Razr, the flexible nature of these screens will become a key element of the user’s interaction with their digital content.

With that in mind, I’ve explored four ideas for potential future user experiences where the flex of the screen has a more direct impact on our digital products. To begin, the notion of the reveal, where the flex of the screen could help to present more information or allow for multi-tasking by navigating to other apps. Imagine composing a presentation on your folding phone; if you highlight a phrase and then subtly flex the screen, this could trigger an image search and allow you to quickly pull a selected image into the presentation.

Samsung Galaxy Fold
'The real opportunities for flexible and folding screens may well expand beyond today’s smartphone category as we know it'

 

Flexing our folding phone screen could control scrolling in a webpage or media file. If you were watching a video, for example, the flex could allow you to fast forward in one direction or backwards to rewind. Bringing the screen back to its flat state returns the video to its normal play speed.

Then there’s the possibility of edit mode. Right now, when you compose an Instagram post, the process can be fiddly on smaller screen. With folding phones, the post can be flipped to the bigger screen, allowing you to enter a more detailed edit mode. Once you’ve chosen your preferred edit tool, such as colour, simply using the flex of the screen could let you make fine adjusts to the colour tone of your image.

Last but not least is the potential for enhanced smartphone gaming, with folding screens stepping up the opportunity for some serious fun. In this case, opening up the screen could take players to a whole new level within a game, while flipping the screen could let the player push new boundaries or deploy new tactics.

With price tags nudging £2,000 ($2,540, €2,250) for the major brands’ first-generation handsets, we are still some way off from foldable smartphones being widely adopted. In turn, they will need to offer compelling benefits over users’ existing smartphones to really take off. In my view, the real opportunities for flexible and folding screens may well expand beyond today’s smartphone category as we know it. As brands and designers, we are challenged to think beyond the existing paradigms to create exciting and interactive digital products created purposefully for this emerging new platform.

Matthew Cockerill is a design and innovation consultant, and the former head of Swift Creatives, an international design and innovation studio creating digital and physical product experiences for global brands and start-ups.

For more articles on the future of technology and smartphones, visit LS:N Global.

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