The Nokia X Factor 'app': Why advertise a usability disaster?

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Let's say you worked in Nokia marketing and had a great idea. Given that the company was sponsoring the X Factor, one of the largest entertainment shows in the world, each year, why not have an X Factor application? One that could be promoted before each ad break, riding the current wave of app-frenzy, showing off what the phones can do and also getting an even wider audience for the content? Fabulous. Meanwhile, back in reality....

You'll have heard me complain about this before, of course, if you've been listening to the AAS Insight podcast. You see, some bright spark at Nokia decided that the best way to implement the 'X Factor app' idea was in Qt, rather than native Symbian or the 'Web runtime' that has proved workable (if a little clunky) for the last couple of years. Qt is the next-gen runtime that's the way forward into Symbian^3 and Symbian^4 and beyond and all very wonderful - but it was the wrong choice for implementing something aimed at a million Nokia X6, 5800 and 5230 users.

You see, almost none of the currently shipping Nokia handsets actually have the Qt runtime built-in. Which means that when the user tries to download the 'X Factor' application from the Ovi Store, they get the small app itself plus a hook into a 'Smart Installer' which then sits there grabbing 13MB of runtime code over the air, bit by bit, a process which takes many minutes, even over Wi-fi. All without a hint of apology in the installer - surely a message like "This is a one-time upgrade of your phone to be able to run Qt apps, please be patient!" would have been appropriate? I recognise Qt's Smart Installer is an elegant technical solution, but that does not excuse the dog's dinner of a user experience for the uninitiated.

Finally, the X Factor application is installed and the user tries running it. It's slow. Very slow. Touch gestures are laggy, video content takes ages to start, if it starts at all. In short, it's a usability disaster. Part of this is possibly down to the resources needed to run Qt, but I can't really put the blame at this door, since there are other Qt-based apps on Symbian^1 which seem to keep performance acceptable (e.g. "Orange Wednesdays")... It seems as if the X Factor app was simply poorly executed.

And it's not just me. Run through the 'reviews' in the Ovi Store for the X Factor application and you'll be appalled at the user experience the wider population has been having. It's not a good advert for the X Factor. And it's definitely not a good advert for Nokia or their phones.

But then I spotted, in the last day or so, "X Factor v2", featured in a panel at the top of the page. "Aha!" I thought, "someone's lit a fire under the relevant programmers and they've rewritten the app!". 

X factorX factor

What actually seems to have happened is that they've added lots of tech mumbo-jumbo to the app description (see above) - enough to frighten off 99.9% of potential downloaders, all the X Factor-watching 'normobs'. Plus, into the bargain, they've broken the install completely for the Symbian^3 phones like the N8, the only devices which in theory should be able to install and run the application smoothly without any installer delays!

What happens is that you tap on 'Download' and something comes down the line. The app entry changes to 'Open' so you tap it again. A flurry of error messages and the entry has changed back to 'Download'. And so on, round and round in circles.

"Maybe it's just a Symbian^3 thing", I thought, booting up the 5530 and removing the old version. I then went back into the Ovi Store and downloaded the new version "2". It seemed to install smoothly, helped by the fact that I'd already put Qt on, of course. The X Factor app launched, played a sound effect and then said "New version available, do you wish to download? Yes or No". I tried tapping on 'No' because I knew I had the new version, but the application just quits back to the S60 menu. I tried tapping on 'Yes' and the app still quits, but launches the Ovi Store client at the errr...... download page I was at two minutes previously..... and round and round in circles I went - again.

Surely there's someone awake at Nokia, someone who has the authority to say "Stop the ads for this app, it's a disaster, stick one of our N8 or C7 adverts in the TV slot instead", or some such? 

Certainly the concept of creating a promotional download that's slow, clunky, awkward and incompatible and then spending hundreds of thousands of pounds advertising it on national TV seems bizarre to me. Shouldn't Nokia be advertising things they're proud of rather than things that should be swept under the carpet as soon as possible?

Steve Litchfield, AAS, 15 Oct 2010