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.

10 responses to “On Nokia UI (and UX) blunders, and the raising of the bar”

  1. Abe Burmeister says :

    well when it comes to phone UI (pre i), the Treo is king. In fact minus a couple Jobsian flourishes the iPhone UI looks shockingly similar to Treo’s. Too bad the Treo hardware is mediocre at best and completely nonfunctional at times… Are there any phones out there that are actually better than those 5 years ago? Strip out the cameras and bluetooth and you are left with a marginally thinner and not so marginally less functional product in most cases. My old Samsung something or other had a better UI than anything I’ve played with lately and managed to last 4 years and 3 owners…

    Have been hearing good vibes sent the Sony Ericsson way of late though, perhaps they’ve slipped in under the radar?

    As for the iPhone, I’m still wondering if the multitouch will turn out closer “we made point and click work” side of Apple or on the “let’s keep this one button mouse absurdity alive for a decade to long” side of Apple. I’m dying for them to convince me I don’t need tactical feedback to type, but more than a little skeptical.

  2. Raphael Grignani says :

    I am the first to agree that Nokia S60 UI is full of poor design choices, yet I would like to point out that you are ranting about a 3 to 4 year old product that is crippled by operators requirements (e.g. voice call or video call). Please compare apples to apples when you will review your spanking new iphone in June ;-)

  3. speedbird says :

    [Y]ou are ranting about a 3 to 4 year old product that is crippled by operators requirements.

    Well, sure: I so stipulate. I guess the root of my frustration is that these blunders weren’t any closer to being sound practice (let alone the state of the art) three or four years ago.

  4. speedbird says :

    And now that I think about it, this is an unlocked phone – “operators’ requirements” shouldn’t enter into the debate.

    Look, I know it’s no fun having some self-appointed critic take on the role of nemesis, when after all that critic didn’t have to sit through a single meeting with the engineers and the marketers, wasn’t party to a single one of the heartbreaking compromises that had to be forged to get the product to market.

    Remember, I know how development works. I’ve never been anywhere close to 100% happy with a single one of the many, many Web projects I’ve worked on. And if you don’t think I can empathize based on that, think of how I felt when I saw the cover of my book for the first time – crestfallen doesn’t even begin to describe it, and we had to fight tooth and nail to get it even to that marginal level of acceptability. I know how it goes, is what I’m getting at. I’m sympathetic – within limits.

    But this phone, I reiterate, crashes every time I turn it off. I can’t find the volume control. I can’t figure out how to reconfigure the soft controls so they correspond with anything I want them to. And that, my friend, is a no-go. It’s got nothing to do with operators, and it wouldn’t have passed muster even ten years ago.

    In all fairness, now, the same (or similar) complaints could just as easily be lodged regarding Samsung or whoever. We all know this, and that’s why the Apple announcement got so much play. Mobile has historically been a crappy domain for UX, across the board; it just so happens to be that my crappy experience was with a 6680.

  5. igj says :

    Yes, the Treo UI is similar, but maybe not all that similar, to what the demo of the iPhone showed. But – and I love my Treo to death – the Treo falls flat on its face as a phone. It is a good PDA with a crap phone welded onto it in an unweildy and unholy combo. I wish it weren’t so because the interface is easy to figure out (volume control works as expected, a big clearly marked answer button pops up to accompany an incoming call, etc.) and I have a number of useful applications that I use nigh on every day – but the voice quality ranges from “mumfbkle-[f-fdh%#deuey%73hd” to worse and there is almost no comfortable way to hold even a reasonable length conversation using only the handset.

    So, I hope and pray that the iPhone really does change how designers and handset manufacturers think about combining a phone with some application-intensive device. If any designers want my vote: err on the side of better phone, lesser PDA.

  6. Jeff Herstwood says :

    First-class! I not think about this…

  7. AG says :

    I guess some things never change. Sigh.

  8. George says :

    Checking in here at 2011. Sorry Nokia, you’ve been overrun by Microsoft. And 4 years ago you Should have seen it coming. Adam did.

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