Wednesday, September 02, 2009

What’s Wrong With Cell Phone UI, Part 2

In my last post I talked about the differences between my new phone (a Nokia E66) and my old phone (a Nokia 6125), but the text messaging user interface has been broken for longer than that.

On my original phones, a Nokia 5110 and a Nokia 3315, the text message user interface was brutally simple and wonderfully useable. Since then cell phone manufacturers have insisted on cramming in more and more features, and the extra features have broken the usability.

On the earlier phones the process to send a text message was simple and fast. Once you got into the text messaging system you selected new message with the navi-key, which then took you to a blank screen where you wrote the content of your message. When you’d finished the message you pushed the navi-key which then brought up the ‘send to’ screen where you could key a phone number to send the message to. Pressing the navi-key while the field was empty brought up your contacts list where you selected a contact and then pressed the navi-key again, then either sent the message to that contact or returned to the previous screen where you pressed the navi-key one more time to send the message. Virtually everything you did was done with the navi-key and maybe the up and down arrows, except for the actual typing of the message.

Apart from the near one-button send, and important thing to note is the order in which you were asked to do things. The very first screen was the message editor. Maybe I’m once again out of step with the rest of the world but when I want to send a text message to someone what I’m thinking about is the message content, not who I’m going to send it to. Either I’ve already decided who I’m sending the message to, in about a nanosecond while I was still picking up the phone, or I’m going to send it to multiple people and I generally have a good idea who those people will be but am not yet up to the point of thinking about specific individuals.

On the modern phones when I go into a new text message and it asks me who I want to send the message to, my concentration is broken. I either end up entering garbage into the destination field because I’m trying to type the message content which is then coming out as numbers, or my train of thought which was on what I wanted to say is interrupted with the need to think about who to send the message to. This isn’t good for usability, and it’s annoying.

Of course the reason for this is they’ve added a feature where you can send a single message to multiple people at once. That’s a"80 percent of the time I just want to send a message to one person. In fact, it’s probably more like 99% of the time." nice feature once in a while but the 80/20 rule has been violated, 80 percent of the time I just want to send a message to one person. In fact, it’s probably more like 99% of the time. The problem is that when you’re in the field to say who to send the message to the navi-key has to bring up the contacts list every time, it can never tell whether you want to send the message or pick another contact. Of course they could have used a different key for one function or the other, but they probably felt that broke the one-button model they were trying for. So instead, they moved the send to field to the first part of the edit screen, so now after selecting a contact you move down to the edit field and when you’re there the navi-key knows you don’t want to pick a contact so instead it can default to sending the message. They avoided breaking the interface in two ways, and instead broke it in a third.

I would personally (vastly) prefer if the message editor came first, then the send to field. If I pressed the navi-key in the send to field it could send the message and one of the other keys could be used to add additional contacts to the message destination. Even if the phone came configured the other way and I could change a setting to make it work the way I want, I’d be happy.

That’s not the only problem with modern phones. With one of my previous phones, when I received a text message and then chose to reply, it would ask how I wanted to reply. Excuse me ? What ? How do you think I want to reply to a text message ? By text message of course !

My phone would offer me a choice of text message, mms, phone call, email or fax. I never, ever sent emails or faxes from my phone, in fact I didn’t have the services enabled to do so but it still gave me those options every time. About one time in a thousand I might want to reply to a text message by phoning someone… again we’re back to the 80/20 rule, it would have been better for there to have been an extra item in the ‘Options’ menu that was ‘use number’ or ‘call back’ rather than asking me on every message whether I wanted to do this.

Although the user interface is different again, this is still a problem on the E66. When I hit the navi-button on a text message I’m reading I get a menu where the first option is Call, which expands to voice or video. The second option down is Reply (how dumb is that?) and that expands to text, multimedia or audio message (yet another option I have never, ever used).

I cannot tell you how much I hope someone from Nokia reads this and decides to make some changes. I don’t particularly like text messaging but thanks to my friends I do plenty of it and it’s getting more painful with every new phone (even when I don’t buy a Nokia, I’ve actually gone back to buying Nokia’s because they’re better than the other makes I’ve had).

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