A few days ago I was fiddling around with my mobile phone (a Nokia N95) and it occurred to me (yet again) that the current mobile phone user interface just doesn’t work for me. Yes, the screens have become much bigger, it has impressive functionalities, a camera which is almost as good as a regular digital camera, it has HSDPA, WiFi you name it. But it just doesn’t work. The mobile phone interface is a phone interface with some application extra’s. It isn’t really a USER centric interface.
Just take the most basic mobile functionality you can think of (no it is not calling), messaging. I have several (technical) options to send a message to another person. But the phone forces me to resolve the technical details. I have to think about whether I want to send an SMS, e-mail or MMS (yes, I am one of those users that actually use MMS). People will obviously SMS most of the time, but with our physical and Internet world becoming connected in so many ways this will not remain to be the obvious choice. Once I have made a choice I need to wade through several menu’s in order to enter the message content, select the receiver and finally send the message away. It gets worse when I receive messages. Not only do I have several different types of inboxes (SMS, e-mail, MMS), but the notification mechanisms really suck. An SMS or MMS alert draws all my attention away from the thing I was doing. E-mail isn’t noted at all. If you don’t think this is a problem I recommend you try out Twitter and get it to send your tweets to your mobile phone for an hour or so. You see instantly why this messaging mechanisms doesn’t work. It floods my inbox and it distracts me constantly. I have to perform too many actions to read all the messages and then delete them again.
Nokia and other manufacturers are constantly working on their user interface. But they are simply improving on an old concept. Wiht the increased graphics and computing power I hoped they would not improve, but thoroughly redesign the user interface. It isn’t a phone anymore. It is my remote control of life. It needs a user centric interface where not the mobile phone functionality takes the central place in design, but the way I want to use that functionality! I want freedom, instead of being trapped into a user interface that limits my options. But they haven’t. And that is one of the main reasons I think mobile Internet will not break through to the masses yet.
I haven’t mentioned the iPhone up to this point. I don’t own one and only played with it a few times so it wouldn’t be fair to draw conclusions about it based upon a few observations. I can say that based upon first impressions Apple has done a great job in providing us with a totally new UI element when they introduced the touch screen. They have put great effort into usability. But I can’t help but think that even on the iPhone, the UI paradigms haven’t been as disruptive as I would have liked them to be, even if it stimulates mobile internet usage.
Readwrite web reports today that the mobile phone penetration worldwide increases even more than predicted, with currently over 3.3 Bln mobile phone subscriptions. I’m not surprised at that. With more and more strong developing countries now being covered by mobile networks, people in China, India, Africa and South America people fall for the very same being connected trap we all fell for. The mobile phone makes it possible to connect and be connected whenever and where ever we want.
In the article Richard McManus points us to a recent study by Nielsen that reveals that 35% of US teens (8-12 yr) now own a mobile phone and that 5% sometimes uses it for Internet. Richard feels that this is enough evidence to show that the mobile Internet is finally ready to take off.
I’m not so sure about it. The breakthrough of mobile Internet has been predicted many times. But it isn’t there yet. The most important indicator to me that it isn’t there yet is the ever increasing SMS traffic. Why use such an outdated and cumbersome messaging protocol instead of using the possibilities the web has to offer? It isn’t just price, although that is a major barrier to be resolved. I think a lot has to do with usability. Sending an SMS has become easy for people to use (even with the flaws mentioned above). Firing up the Internet anywhere (and I don’t mean just in places near a WiFi point) isn’t simple. And once on-line we are limited within the technical barriers of the mobile phone. Browsing the web doesn’t work on such a small screen.
And instead of thinking about entirely new metaphores for mobile Internet we start moving around this issue and develop solutions that aren’t really solving the problem. One way is to redefine the ENTIRE web (yeah right), by creating special mobile pages. These pages are smaller, need less data transfer and are basically optimised for the mobile phone browser. While this might sound like a good solution it really doesn’t work. First of all, it would take an impossible effort to rebuild the entire web to make it usable for the mobile phone, and secondly, it leaves the user with the task of solving complexity. Do I go to http://www.flickr.com (which I can remember), or do I need to try m.flickr.com. And how do I upload my picture there?
Another option is to develop a touch screen and really cool zooming and moving around functionality to handle these big pages. Apple did just that with their iPhone. They are providing us with a intuitive solution to handle big amounts of data, but they aren’t fundamentally solving the problem.
In my opinion we need a revolution in mobile phone UI thinking. A revolution that puts the user and his intentions central in user interface development. We need to understand what users do with their mobile phones. We shouldn’t be thinking in terms of releasing technical functionalities with nice graphical interfaces. We need to think in terms of the remote control of life, supporting the user in his interaction needs. If we let go of the current UI and browsing paradigms who knows what becomes possible. Let’s not rebuild the entire web to make it mobile, let’s not even come up with even better alternatives for the iPhone touch screen. Let’s first think about what the user wants to do with his phone, and then come up with an interface and a mobile web concept that supports his actions, regardless of the technology.
I’ll give away one idea for making things better. Why not get rid of the whole inbox-outbox messaging paradigm. It sucks on a mobile phone. Instead convert the entire paradigm into a life stream, similar to the way Twitter and Jaiku work. It fits human behavior much better. We don’t always want to look into or respond to every message we receive. Showing these messages as a constant stream allows me to look at it whenever I want to. It doesn’t call for my attention whenever a message arrives, but I get to decide when I wish to give the message my attention. It allows me to pick up things that are important, and it also provides me easy ways to respond to on ore more people. And it lets me ramble my thoughts to whoever is willing to listen to them. Maybe I’ll ask Chris Messina to create some designs for this particular idea. He does a pretty cool job designing nice interfaces.
We need to let go of current paradigms, and ask ourselves, what is a user going to do with his phone in this social networking age? It opens a new world of possibilites, a world without mobile web browsing, a world of freedom for the user. So who is going to free me from the limitations of the mobile phone and give me my remote control of life? Or maybe I should start something myself, anyone interested to join?