The Design Challenge of Foldable Devices

The idea of a mobile device that would unfold is something that until very recently seemed far beyond our reach. The wait is over though; this year is set to be a milestone for mobile form-factor innovation. At the Samsung Developer Conference in November last year, the prototype of their first foldable device was unveiled, and others are hot on their heels. The devices promise to offer a seamless and more immersive experience for users along with a fair few challenges for developers and designers. 

The Leading Foldable Devices

In the same way as the change from keyboard to screen completely disrupted the way we use mobile devices, the advent of folding devices is going to do the same. Innovation is going to come in spades, firstly in terms of the way the device folds. Each of the leading devices, that are either on the market already or due to be released this year, offers its own version of the foldable technology:

  • Samsung Galaxy Fold – the portable focused screen, similar to existing smartphones, opens out into a full-screen tablet version. Any app running on the front of the device seamlessly switches to the middle once opened. Once you’re there, you can run three apps simultaneously, enabling some serious multitasking. 
  • Huawei Mate X – this screen folds the other way, wrapping around the outside when it’s folded. This gives you front and back screens that can be used when the large screen is snapped shut. 
  • Motorola Razr 2019 – instead of a smartphone that folds out to be a tablet, this is a flip phone that folds out to be a smartphone. The flip phone will have a secondary, always-on, screen designed for notifications and quick camera usage. 

While each of these innovations has its own distinguishing features, each offers the same unique value proposition to its users. Foldable devices will allow us to instantly check alerts and respond to messages on a small cover screen but then to quickly unfold the device to achieve greater productivity and multitasking capabilities. The key, of course, is ensuring the devices deliver the richer and more immersive user experience that they promise. 

Design Challenges That Need to Be Overcome

Foldable devices promise to offer an exciting user experience but in order to deliver on this, they need to overcome some pretty significant challenges. For foldable screens to become mainstream and to kick off the start of a new era for mobile technology they’ll need to address:

  • Invisibility – whichever way the screen folds, when unfolded it needs to be invisible. This poses a huge challenge, and one that is yet to be solved. While you might not see the crease from afar, when you’re using it you won’t be able to avoid it. 
  • Durability – foldable devices need to withstand being opened and closed many times each day, and they need to ensure the display along the crease is perfect. On top of this, with most of us protecting our devices with cases, it is unclear how this would work on a foldable design. 
  • Optimization – with millions of screen sizes and aspect ratios already available on flat devices, it will be a tough challenge for developers to optimize their apps for each device’s specific aspect ratio. 
  • Longevity – powering up multiple screens is going to need some serious battery power, which could impact on user experience. We have come to expect our devices to hold out for almost two days so foldable devices could feel like a step back. 
  • Dimension – while folding a device will make it smaller in terms of screen size, it’s going to be a lot thicker than what we’re used to. As a portable piece of technology that users want to store in their pockets, the dimensions will need some work. 
  • Cost – as with any new piece of technology, foldable devices aren’t going to be cheap. Currently branded as luxurious devices for early adopters, the price will need to fall a considerable amount before they can become mainstream. 

Developing for Foldable Devices

As we’ve touched on above, the promise of a seamless user experience for foldable devices will be dependent on how well apps are optimized for the multiple display and multi-window form factor. Google is throwing its full support at the Android foldable devices allowing the Android developer community to being to future-proof their apps for foldables. Developers will need to address two primary requirements to optimize their apps:

1. Screen Continuity

To create a productive user experience, developers need to ensure that users can continue what they’re doing after they fold or unfold the device. Screen continuity is already a consideration for screen rotation or multi-window interactions on non-folding devices, but foldable designs take this concept to the next level. To create a satisfying experience, a task must continue seamlessly onto a larger display while adding more detail and making use of the space. Smart continuity design should provide a seamless extension to the task by enabling a deeper dive into the information. A configuration change will be needed each time the screen is folded or unfolded; the running activity will need to be restarted and automatically reloaded with the required resources for the relative screen size. 

2. Multi-Window Life Cycle

With existing multi-window displays, it’s only possible for the last-touched window to be resumed while others are paused. The requirement for foldable devices with multi-window displays is that all of the activities remain active and are resumed on reopening the devices. This feature is called multi-resume amongst Android developers. The multi-resume mode will allow developers to choose how an app’s activities support the multi-window and select attributes to control the layout. 

Devices will need to be able to handle serious configuration changes in order to provide continuous experiences when screens are folded and unfolded and apps relaunched. Developers need to get their heads around the multi-display restrictions and non-default displays. 

Are Foldable Devices Here to Stay?

It’s difficult to know at the moment whether foldable devices will be a breakthrough technology or a nice-to-have perk. The answer will come once we see how design and development challenges are overcome, and whether this happens to a great enough extent for the devices to be adopted into mainstream usage. It goes without saying that the foldable display has great potential for user experience, but we are yet to see whether they will deliver. What we will begin to see this year, however, now that the devices have finally been released, is how people are actually going to use them. This will lead the way for future innovations. To make foldable devices a success, designers will need to come up with intuitive solutions to users’ challenges. This will move foldable devices away from the realm of a gimmick and into the breakthrough technology that the experts claim they will be. 

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