Christian Lindholm at UX 2006

I’ve been meaning to record my thoughts about seeing Christian Lindholm, head of Yahoo! Mobile (and former Director of Multimedia Applications for the Nokia Ventures) talking about “Mobile Usability” at the Neilsen Norman Group’s User Experience 2006 in London a couple of week ago.

Firstly, let me state that I’m not exactly a mobile phone freak, but I do use the things quite a lot. My experience with most of them has been that usability is generally very poor. So I was interested to see Lindholm speak.

Lindholm used the N73 and other recent Nokias as examples of state of the art devices: full-specced in every aspect (memory, CPU, pixels) and remarkable devices because of this. Nokia are selling more cameras than Kodak (or something like that). Yet despite the subject of his talk, he didn’t mention the usability of the phones at all. In fact, I was rather amazed at how uninspiring this man was in talking about mobile phones and their use. For example, he described how Yahoo! designed a mobile portal for the UEFA 2006 World Cup – the most popular sporting event on earth. His description of their design process mentioned some user tests in passing. It appeared that they built the system, showed it to some users, made a couple of tweaks, then went live. I later asked him a question about this. To what extent is user testing a part of what they do at Yahoo! mobile? He fluffed it with some meaningless guff about keeping the user in mind when they design. I kept one eye on Jakob Nielsen sitting in the row beside me – I thought his face twitched rather more then usual while Lindholm said this.

My opinon? People who design mobile devices – or at least Lindholm – are mesmerised by hardware: the size, the spec, the pixels, the memory. They care very little, if at all, about software and its usability. Take a look at his blog: it’s all about hardware, battery life, picture quality, etc. Yes, I know he invented the “navikey” (although not exactly a huge mental leap), but I don’t care if my phone produces great pictures if it’s hard to take them in the first place. What good is a wonderful screen if you’re looking at risible software, or hitting the wrong keys or having to remember arcane menu sequences just to turn on Bluetooth?

Designing software for phones is hard (device compatability, shipping cycles, marketing issues etc. etc.) but in my opinon, if people like Lindholm continue to all but ignore mobile usability, things are not going to get much better very fast. He stuck out at UX 2006 like the proverbial pork pie in a synagogue.

Postscript: I would like to point out that I do not like giving negative opinions on things – but I have to do it rather a lot I find. I once had a new year’s resolution never to post anything negative again on Webtorque. Hm. Perhaps I should institute something like a carbon neutrality policy: for each negative post, I provide a positive one. Let’s see if I can stick to that next year…

[some time later]
Just seen this post on Slashdot by EvilNTuser, which is rather relevant to my general view on this. I admire his ability to list the things he finds bad in some detail – having done that myself sometimes, I know it’s actually a lot of work.

I love my N73 too, but there are several problems. I’m sure someone somewhere is going to post about how all they want to do is make a call, but that’s actually implemented fairly well, although not perfectly. People who want to use the hardware to its full potential are the ones who will suffer! Here are some real issues I’ve found, and they amaze me:

  • Simple yes/no-toggles are implemented with dropdown menus. Unforgivable in a mobile device. One press should change the setting, not open a menu. To add insult to injury, the active option is the one that’s selected when the menu opens.
  • The music player is retarded:
    • Instead of listing your songs, it wastes the whole screen on empty space. You have to open a menu to get to a playlist.
    • Instead of mapping playing functions to keys, you have to select virtual buttons on the screen.
    • It doesn’t let you set it to a specific folder, so if any game uses mp3 sound effects, they will be added to your playlist. That would work on a dedicated mp3 player, yeah, but not on a goddamn general purpose computing device. Jesus Christ, morons!
  • The photo/video viewer does the same thing. Want to hide porn or just some boring diagrams you copied onto the memory card? Nope, can’t do it, they’ll all show up when you’re trying to show someone the cool photos you got.
  • Not a single application including the main UI tries to use the keys that are available. The interface designers seem to be completely in love with menus and virtual buttons you have to select on the screen. What happened, did they fire everyone who worked on Series 40? I want my quick to access alarm clock back.
  • The calendar is obviously NOT designed to minimize button presses.
  • The clock has lost its timer and countdown timer for no reason at all.
  • The phone will display a picture of the person who is calling, but it’ll be a 10×10 thumbnail at the bottom of the screen. WTF??

I could go on and on with this crap, but in summary: The hardware is great, but I’m looking to replace every single official application that came with the phone. Oggplay already takes care of my music, and it’s brilliant. I hope the application UI designers are out of a job by the time S60v4 comes out.