The Curious Edge Case of the Mass Market User Interface

Published by at

Our smartphones have a lot of features in them, yet this is causing a divide. When we as power users look at a new device, we're expecting our favourite features to be there, yet this depth of power can be daunting to new users. A survey from Mformation (see here on the BBC), linked to earlier by Tzer2, reports high numbers of users having problems with setting up a new phone and accessing the available services. Read on for my take on the issue...

At the end of last week, Steve pointed to his editorial on All About iPhone, wishing that Apple would take on some of the organisational ability of the S60 interface and provide app folder support. You know, I'm not quite sure about the thrust of this one. As our smartphones reach the mass market, we have to sacrifice something, and invariably it's the complexity of the device.

So how does a manufacturer combat the needs of two groups that seem as distant from each other as possible? Namely the new users, which make up the bulk of sales of modern devices; and the power users that reach out to the edge of the envelope, act as early adopters and influencers and generally do things with the phones that the designers may not have even considered.

It's important to acknowledge the changing playing field here. I feel there will always be a core group of power users that will jump on any device released, use 110% of its capabilities and generally thrash a bleeding edge till all that is left is raw flesh. My gut feel is that the number of people using a device like this would be measured in tens of thousands. With the PDA devices and the early smartphones, that would make up a huge percentage of the user base. So while they were loud, hearing that volume meant that your user base was sending pretty clear messages as to their needs.

As modern communication devices started to sell in ever bigger numbers, the number of power users didn't grow as fast as the sales figures. More and more 'regular' people started to use the phones. They weren't looking to squeeze the last drop of power out of a system. They just wanted something that worked. And comments such as “S60 is really complicated” started to become the accepted norm.

Let our phones learn us, not the other way around.

Having pulled a 7650 out of a nitrogen atmosphere storage bag, I have to say that I don't see how it has got more complicated... What's changed isn't the interface, but the user base. Rather than be happy to tinker with a device, look and try lots of settings, and generally not be phased if something didn't quite work, the modern phone needs to 'work' out the box, with little reference to manuals or online help.

While set-up wizards can help in many cases, the general view of phones being complex devices (which they are) needs to be addressed. And that means a UI that is clearer to understand, no matter the vocal opposition to it.

This is one area where Apple and their iPhone have had a lot of success. I've had an iPhone on loan from O2 now since just before Christmas, and one of the most surprising things for me is that where the traditional view is that little used applications and features should be available, but placed somewhere deep in the menu structure, Apple simply didn't add them into the UI at all. But as Steve found out, even here, once you go outside the original design brief (in this case, by opening an App Store!), it starts to go wrong.

Here's a challenge for everyone in 2009... designing a UI that works for everyone. Is it as simple as an "advanced" option that can be switched on as required (as mentioned in our podcast this week)? Much as I would like to see that (and it is the way that devices like the E63 are starting to go, with the S60 app launcher demoted in preference to the home screen), that feels to be a stop gap solution that is still likely to confuse people.

The thing is, any UI change is going to be discussed at length by power users. Getting the opinions of "the man in the street" is just as vital for the designers. These are the people that need to be convinced to buy your devices. Apple have shown us one way - to strip down the user interface to the essentials, and ignore everything else. Is there another way that harnesses the huge amounts of computing power on these devices, perhaps paired up with some sort of learning UI? By all means start off with a simple UI that has gutted the functionality. Once a power user is 'spotted', the UI can start throwing in all the tweaks and options, reducing the hand holding, until they reach their own level.

To paraphrase Marks and Spencers:  This isn't a User Interface. This is a Personal User Interface.

-- Ewan Spence, Jan 2009.