The usability of mobile phones could be so much better

A few days ago I realised (yet again) that the mobile phone could be made so much better. In such a way that the interface would start working for me as a user, instead of me having to work the interface of the phone (disclosure: I use a Nokia N95, but previous phones from Nokia, Samsung, SonyEricsson gave me very similar experiences). (Another disclosure: yeah, I’m one of those suckers that hasn’t got an iPhone).

It started when I wanted to SMS something to Twitter after I woke up. The following happened:

I pressed the icon for SMS. Started typing “twit” in the address field, the N95 understood Twitter and I could continue to write the actual SMS. Started typing “Woke up early this morning, about to go to the office”. The display showed “Wolf up das?”. Darn, wrong language set. Pressed options, arrow up, arrow up, arrow up, enter, arrow down and selected “English”. Then pressed c,c,c,c,c and started typing “e”, pressed * to change the word “Wolf”into “Woke” and continued the sentence. Had to change “in”into “go” and finished the sentence. Options, then send. After approximately 100 key presses I was able to send away my 53 character message. An overhead of almost 100%.

Next thing I did was get into my car and drive to the office. I decided to turn on the Twitter message stream to my mobile so that I could see who was doing what. So every few minutes I would get an SMS notification from Twitter. I’d pick up the phone, pressed new message and read it while driving. After reading the message I would immediately press options, arrow down, delete message,enter and then the big red button to get back to the main screen while I was still driving. I need to clean up Twitter SMSes immediately as they clutter my inbox way too much. On a typical drive of about 1 hour I get as many as 30-40 messages, and when there are a lot of people on-line even more.

Naturally I wanted to respond to a few Twitter messages, so while driving, I typed a few short messages to Twitter friends. It takes 7 presses to get the @ sign needed in Twitter. I had to switch 3 times back and forth between languages as I follow Dutch and English speaking Twitter friends. In the mean time I answered a few calls, and I got behind in reading the Twitter alerts who would come in during the calls. I ended up with some 10-15 unread Twitter alerts, not to mention the irritating signalling of the alerts during my call.

I wanted to check something on-line, so I fired up the web browser to go on-line. I needed to type in the web address, which is pretty lame to do while in the car. Took me a few minutes, then waited for the web site to appear, only to find out it was too big to see on my mobile display. So I ended up scrolling the site to reach a point where I needed to enter text for a search. Of course I was typing in the wrong language. Ended up wiping out a lot of pressed characters and entering them individually, with spaces between them, which I then erased again to prevent the phone from thinking for me. The Twitter alerts kept coming in.

By the timeI got to the office I was about 20 messages behind. It took me a lot of time deleting them (reading them too me too long). Twitter produces enough alerts to overflow my inbox. I finally switched off Twitter by sending an off message and then I could start work.

Later that day I wanted to check something on my weblog using my mobile phone. I fired up the web browser, tried to connect to a WiFi access point only to discover I didn’t have access. Reverting back to UMTS I typed in my web log address and waited for the content to appear. The site is too big for the screen so Nokia provides me with a cursor to scroll back and forth. This is not nearly as cool as the iPhone does it (you can zoom in/zoom out and move around with your fingers on a touch screen), but at least I can get to the place I wanted to look at. I tried to open and stream a video embedded in the weblog. The phone started a video player which was hopeful, but the video never showed. Unable to grasp why it didn’t work I pressed the big red button to get to teh main phone screen. I saw a nice sunset from my office window and decided to take a picture of it. I opened up the camera at the back of the phone and wanted to take a picture. I got a “not enough memory, please close other applications first” message. It took me a while to figure out that the Internet connection was still there and I needed to close that off explicitly. Closed the camera, and opened it again to activate it and finally took the picture. Luckily Shozu worked fine and I could upload the picture with one press to my Flickr account.

That very same day the phone froze up on me once, and resetted itself (nice). I used it for another 20-30 SMSes or so, browsed the web about 3 times more and finally drove home again.

So what is the moral of this story? Well, there are a few things I realised once I got home and started thinking about the experiences I had that day:

  1. The average overhead in terms of user actions, button presses, menu choices etc. is on average anywhere between 50 and 100%
  2. The inbox-outbox principle of the mobile phone for messaging is a real mess and is not capable of handling 50-100 messages a day without tremendous overhead for the user
  3. Web browsing sucks. The screen is too small, entering data takes too much time, a lot of the content doesn’t display, and no matter how nice the interface is, browsing on a mobile phone screen just isn’t any good. No, not even on an iPhone, sorry.
  4. Multi langual input is a pain. it takes a lot of switching between dictionaries to get it to work for me. Turning the dictionaries off doesn’t work either because then I have to press way too many buttons to type.
  5. Multitasking on a mobile phone is nearly impossible. Try web browsing while receiving SMSes, phone calls, and trying to take a picture in between. The phone can’t cope with it.

There is actually one functionality for which the mobile phone is optimised. It works just fine for making and receiving calls! One could easily argue that I’m trying to do things on the phone that are not normal. But, I described a pretty average day for me as a mobile user. Yes, I use the phone in the car. I do all these things, and preferably in parallel. Have you watched (your own) kids lately. They multitask even more than I do. And they deal with the complexity, just as I do. Grow up and deal with it.

But that doesn’t mean that we should be satisfied with the product. It basically is not fit for the job. Most of the mobile OSes are based upon mimicking the desktop PC interface, which sucks. The inbox/outbox principle for messaging is as old as e-mail and is not fit for today’s messaging needs. The interfaces haven’t really radically improved. We have gotten more applications, more possible connections, and ultimately more complexity. The iPhone’s major improvement is the touch screen and some really cool UI inventions. But even with the iPhone trying to do the things I decribed earlier aren’t easy.

I have said it before, we really need people to start thinking out of the box when it comes to the mobile user interface. We need people that first think about what, how, and why people are using it during a typical day. And design a user interface that works for the user to get his things done, not the other way around. With Google Android on its way there lies an opportunity to do just that. Why? Because it is open (how open remains to be seen). If it can overcome the Mobile OS es the mobile phone manufacturers ship with it, then there is hope. We might get to see some great designers rethink the mobile interface and update it to support the multitasking, multicontent, multi messaging and browsing world most of its user are in right now. The usability of mobile phones could be made so much better.

Update: just saw that there is another discussion now about the iPhone producing a lot of data traffic. That could imply that its usability has improved over other types of mobile phones, allowing the users to access the Internet easier. At the same time iPhone users are mostly tech savvy, and capable of handling the complexity provided by mobile phones. But the iPhone, with all its incredible UI novelties is still based upon the idea of browsing the way we browse with a desktop. The browsing paradigm hasn’t changed, it has justgotten a better interface. We will have to wait and see if that is good enough. I doubt it. We haven’t seen a real revolution yet, just a fast improvement over something that was really bad in the first place.


About vanelsas

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This entry was posted in Android Mobile OS, Google, Mobile, Nokia N95, SMS, Twitter, UI Design and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The usability of mobile phones could be so much better

  1. jcvangent says:

    Maybe it is an idea to get a telephone with a normal keypad like the htc s620/ 710 or a tytn or something. This way you don’t need to change dictionary’s everytime since you got a normal keypad, which works splendid (using the s620 now, and types lovely while sitting in its dock in the car)….love that phone, only missing umts/gps and a touchscreen. But you can’t have it all right? 😉

  2. Alexander van Elsas says:

    Hi jcvangent. Actually, I used the iPhone touch keyboard before, and a few smartphone keyboards. The language issue dissapears, but entering data remains a bit cumbersome. It solves part of the usability issues. But my main concern is that mobile phones increasingly seem to be designed as little pc’s, but that metaphore doesn’t work well for me.

  3. Sam D says:

    all your texting while driving is worrisome, Alexander!

    For your searches, there is a site called Mosio that you might like. You just text whatever you’re looking for and real people look it up.

    It works with Jott, so you can “speak” your questions and get back text responses for when you’re driving. Plus with Jott, there’s no “language” setting, except, of course, in your head.

    Just thought while we wait for the mobile interface designers to catch up with our ever changing needs. 🙂

  4. Chris says:

    This is one of the best mobile websites. It is free, requires no typing and will find most anything you want. Just explore.

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