On Nokia UI (and UX) blunders, and the raising of the bar
This is the year loyalty to a given mobile phone model or manufacturer died for me, let alone using a mobile to announce much of anything about myself to the world. (We’ll see what happens when the iPhone hits.) All I want is for the damn thing to work, to let me make and receive calls. Everything else is gravy. I’ve been using a Nokia 6680 ever since my RAZR expired (two or three days after its warranty did), figuring I’d give them a shot, and it’s been an uneven experience, at best.
On the upside, Nokia has clearly optimized the phone – excuse me: multimedia computer – around taking snapshots. This is by far the easiest phonecam I’ve ever used: flick back the protective cover, with its satisfying detent, and press a big, central, intuitive button. That’s it. Press the button again to take another picture. None of this hunting around for a control that invokes the camera, or stepping through a menu to save an image, the way Motorola does. It’s brilliant.
But you knew there was an “on the other hand” coming, right? The “other hand” with this phone is that it’s unreasonably difficult to use for just about everything but taking pictures – including, unforgivably, making calls. Part of what makes the experience unwieldy is a latency that seems to be inherent to the OS – foundational functionality, such as lists of Received and Outgoing Calls, takes forever and a day to load; you can count it off in seconds. But some of it is clearly, inescapably down to poorly-considered UI choices.
This is not Nokia’s issue alone, of course; I’d say that the standard Nokia UI about splits the difference with the RAZR’s, in terms of what it gets right and wrong. (Now there was an object where every expectation set up by its graceful form factor was thoroughly, comprehensively, almost gleefully undermined by a clumsy UI. If you’ve never used a RAZR, trust me: it was ass.) For whatever reason, though, and probably irrationally, I had expected the Finns to do better.
I’d been prepping a fairly extensive list of pitfalls in the 6680 experience, both to warn you away from buying one, and to provide a public record that designers developing future products Nokian and otherwise might find constructive. But this guy‘s laid it all out for me already; even though his comments are specific to the N800 PDA, most everything he says is germane to and resonates with my experience of the 6680.
Something particularly irksome that I don’t think he catches – it may not affect the N800 – is the fact that my phone crashes every time I turn it off. I have to remove the memory card before shutting down to ensure it doesn’t freeze permanently on starting back up. But his underlying point remains sound, and better than sound: even facing significant constraints on memory, speed, and resolution, the designers of the Newton UI got things right that Nokia is still dropkicking twelve years later, on a much faster and more powerful device.
Well, this Windows-grade icon design and user experience just won’t cut in anymore. Not out here in everyday life, not where millions of people who don’t happen to work in the IT department will be confronted with it. Even otherwise intriguing attempts to clean up the mobile experience, attempts that might have impressed me as recently as a few months ago, strike me as coming a day late and a dollar short, especially if their interventions get no deeper than the envelope. I don’t want to sound like some hopeless Apple fanboy, but the bar has been raised. And thank god, right? It’s about time.
Even before a single paying customer has laid hands on it, the iPhone has already changed the terms of the conversation. I’m not even talking about subtle and painstakingly worked out interaction cues and behaviors, though those are surely present, but simple interventions that make a profound difference in how it feels to use something. Like crisp friendly Helvetica in the UI. How difficult is that? And yet it changes everything.
By contrast, the 6680 is a mess. The problems go deeper than the usual emphasis on carrier-friendly non-features – which is, again, an all-but-universal flaw of the mobile experience, and by no means a complaint limited to Nokia. Here’s a fair sampling, not comprehensive in the slightest, of 6680-specific peeves:
- Ringtone selection is buried under Tools > Profiles > [Profile] (thirteen clicks, four clicks, one final click);
- It takes thirteen clicks of two different buttons to turn Bluetooth on or off;
- Sometimes the pictures I take wind up in a location other than the Images folder – and before I figured this out, I thought they hadn’t for some reason been saved to memory at all, and you can imagine how that felt after a day on which I had snapped fifteen or so;
- Above all, when I click “Call” from a name in my address book, I’m asked if I want this to be a Voice Call or a Video Call (!?).
Dealing with the Nokia 6680 on a day-to-day basis is just an unwieldy, time-devouring, attention-requiring, consummately frustrating experience. But for the fact that it does more or less satisfy my minimal requirements, and that I do enjoy taking pictures with it, I would have thrown it out already. It brings me no joy to point any of this out – I figured last year that fully one-third of my friends one way or another have their paychecks cut in Espoo, and anyway I hate hate hate know-it-all “experts” sniping from the safety of their non-involvement – but we should no longer be fooling ourselves that what’s been offered here is in any way acceptable. We can only hope that the iPhone announcement has sent Nokia’s designers, alongside their peers at LG, Sony Ericsson, and Motorola, scrambling to improve their game.