Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Why Cell Phone Software Developers Need To Read A User Interface Book

I recently got a new phone, a Nokia E66. For the most part it’s a great phone, but it’s missing a couple of features in the text messaging system that really annoy me, and the text messaging user interface is still broken the same way it has been since the 3315 model back in the 90’s.

I’m not just picking on Nokia either, I’ve had several Samsung phones that were terrible, and I haven’t been all that impressed with what I’ve seen of other makes either.

In this post I’m just going to talk about the two features missing from the E66 that were in my previous model, a 6125. I’ll make another post later on why the user interface has gone down hill since the 3315.

The two features I miss in the E66 are;

    (graphical) Smiley’s
    Recent Contacts list

I never used to be a huge fan of smiley’s, they are silly and often seen to be unprofessional. The thing is though, they actually solve a communication problem by allowing you "If you put a smiley with its tongue poking out after a sarcastic comment it’s much less likely someone will mistake you for being serious." to express the tone of your message without having to re-word it or write more than is necessary to communicate your point. Texting is not generally a pleasant experience, even with mini qwerty keyboards on the phones and predictive texting it’s still fairly painful to type a message of any size, so short messages are good. However short messages can also come across as terse or angry, and other ‘tones’ such as sarcasm can be hard to pick sometimes, especially if the recipient doesn’t know you well. Smiley’s solve these problems, if you put a smiley with its tongue poking out after a sarcastic comment it’s much less likely someone will mistake you for being serious.

The E66 doesn’t support smiley’s, I’m presuming because it’s a ‘business’ phone and smiley’s are seen as something that professionals don’t need or use. There are two problems here; first, professionals and business people will often use one phone regardless of who they’re contacting, so if they’re texting their wife, friend or colleague then they might not be concerned with how professional it looks. Secondly, using a smiley and looking a little unprofessional can often be much better than not using one an accidentally causing offense because someone misreads the intent or tone of your message.

Of course I can add non-graphical smiley’s by inserting a : and a ) or (, but inserting symbols is also more painful than on my old phone. Luckily I’ve found that by pushing the 1 key twice it will put in a smiley for :) and pressing the * key changes it to a frownie :(. At least there’s a shortcut for those two.

The lack of a ‘Recent Contacts List’ is an even bigger annoyance for me. On my last phone when I chose to browse for a contact to send a text message to, I was first asked if I wanted to browse ‘recent contacts’ or my ‘phonebook’. If I selected recent contacts then I was shown a list of people I had recently texted or called. Since I have around 100 entries in my phone book but I regularly only text two or three people, that was really useful. If someone I didn’t text often called me about a job and I wanted to text them back later to let them know the job was done, then I could easily select that contact with a minimum number of key presses because they would be in the recent list.

My new phone doesn’t have this so to text my best friend, whose name is Stephen (Steve in my contacts), the old process was; press the navi-key once to say browse, press again for recent contacts and then either press it again to select him or press down once or twice and then press the navi-key to select him. That’s a total of about 5 key presses in a worst case scenario, and 3 of them were all the same button.

On my new phone I have to; press the navi key to select a contact, press the 7 key four times for S, which gets me to ‘Sally’, then press the 8 key for T then press the navi key.. that’s 6 key presses every time I need to select him, and at least three different keys.

Or it would be, if my new phone searched by first name then surname, but it doesn’t. It does a partial search for names that contain that letter sequence anywhere in the name. That means that when I type ST to find Steve, I get everyone who’s last or first name is Stewart, Stephanie, Stubbs, contains the word Customer (as in XYZ Customer Service), or any other string that contains ST. That’s confusing both because every other phone I’ve had has searched by first name then surname. Even though Steve is in the list, he’s way down the bottom… so I add E to ST, and then I still get Stewarts etc. I have to type all the way to STEV or STEP depending on how the name is spelt until I actually find a Stephen/Steven.

Of course all of this is assuming that I don’t make an mistake and hit the wrong button or press one too many times, in which case I either have to press it several more times to get back to the character I want, or hit the delete key and then start the character over again.

So all in all that portion of my new phone is a big step backwards in terms of usability. Of course, it’s  not the first step backwards… more on that next time.

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