Quality User Interfaces: Only for the Young and Very Old?

I was reading up on the Jitterbug – a phone that was designed to be easy to use. I thought that here, finally, was a product that took user interface design seriously – but imagine my surprise as I found myself getting angrier and angrier as I read more about this product.

What is there to get upset about? Just this: the product sales talk suggests that a quality user interface and ease of use is only for those who aren’t “able” to handle the more complex (and harder to use) interface of today’s typical mobile phone.

This plays to a common misconception among users and the public at large: if something is “hard to use” it is because you haven’t yet taken the time to learn how to use it. When I’ve complained about poor user interfaces in the past, I’ve been told it’s easy once you learn how.

The CMO Council (the CMO is the Chief Marketing Officer) and the Forum to Advance the Mobile Experience (FAME) teamed up in 2007 to survey mobile phone users around the world. The survey is the Global Mobile Mindset Audit and has some interesting bits of information. One particular tidbit was noted in the headline in the USA Today article Cellphone Users Complain about “Function Fatigue”: too many functions on the phone that will never get used. This was also noted in the article A Phone without Frills written December 7, 2007, for SignOnSanDeigo about the Jitterbug.

To quote from the Global Mobile Mindset Audit survey:

The industry’s preoccupation with one-upmanship on features and functions does little to improve the elegance and appeal of products. The number one problem voice by users in every region was “too many functions I did not use.”

Other problems included the fact that typical phones are difficult to use – quoting again:

[…] other reported problems [included] user manuals not being very good, devices being hard to configure or customize, and simple product requirements, like volume control, being deficit.

The article from the April 6, 2006, Fortune (discussing the introduction of the Jitterbug and other devices at the 2006 CTIA Wireless conference) by Peter Lewis titled Cellphones for Kids – and Seniors shows the previaling thoughts when he writes:

Jitterbug, also launching later this year, consists of a simplified mobile phone and service designed especially for baby boomers and their parents.

Peter later refers to the “technology-phobic baby boomers.” I wonder what Tom Peters would say about that?

One of my most favorite commercials is the Apple “Manual Ad” – in this collection of old Apple ads, it starts at 2:30. It presents an IBM PC – then its manuals. Then it presents an Apple Macintosh – and its manuals. The contrast is striking.

What is it about the mobile phone industry that it just will not listen to its users and give them something easy to use? That’s why the iPhone is so popular: it comes from a company that shows time and time again that it listens to its users and designs its user interface for usability. As soon as I can use an iPhone on my choice of carriers – a carrier known for customer service and for blanket mobile phone coverage in the Midwestern United States – I’ll look at the iPhone. Until then, I’ll stick with the iPod Touch – if ever I get one.

Choosing the Right Mobile Phone (or a review of the LG UX830)

Here in the United States, Qualcomm was able to get the Broadcom chipset locked out as they fight in court over patents. This means that all phones available for sale in the U.S. until very recently were operating Qualcomm chipsets. I’ll describe why this is important.

The LG UX830 (or LG Glimmer) is a good example. Since it is a Qualcomm-chipset based phone, it uses BREW and has no support for J2ME. With BREW, any third party developer must get an application certified to run on BREW and must pay a large sum of money just to be able to release the application to the public. Thus, virtually all open source applications are locked out of a BREW phone. Since Qualcomm controls BREW, it is no surprise then that this lockdown on the market has locked open source applications out of the current United States phone market.

For system administration, applications like SSH and one-time key pads are important – and unavailable on BREW phones.

Durability is not often mentioned in reviews of phones. The UX830, for example, has very flimsy plastic covers that feel as if they could break at any time. The cover for the charging port (microUSB port) gets in the way of the plug, so it sticks out from the phone when you open the port to use it.

Another thing to worry about is the usability of the phone itself. The LG phones I’ve seen have atrocious usability problems. Take the (apparently) multimedia menu. What is the difference between: Music, Shuffle, Audio, and Record Voice? Music is the music player. Audio is where you can work with your audio files: move, copy, set as ring tones, etc. (but not play with the player!). Shuffle actually has nothing to do with any music: it is the ability to randomly select a ringtone or alarm tone.

The application Record Voice is another perfect example: recording as soon as the application starts, and there is no way for you to listen to the recording without hunting down another application – and you don’t even have the option of not saving the recording. You start the application, then it will record and save – without giving you choice on whether to save, where to save, or what name to use.

The normal panel display is somewhat confusing as well: who knew that “four dots” meant “Main Menu”?

A phone (or computer system, or microwave, or VCR, or whatever) should not require hours of study to operate correctly – and without causing unexpected problems.

For me, the Nokia 6165i and 6265i that I’ve owned in the past were (mostly) good examples of usability. For one thing, there was the “gallery” (which contained pictures, sounds, applications, alarms, whatever) – which LG has separated out unnecessarily.

When looking for a phone – especially if for a team – I would recommend the following:

  • Check usability: how hard is it to start using all features without the manual? Does everything work as expected? Or are there surprises for whoever uses it?
  • Check for J2ME: a phone that uses BREW has a complete lockdown on the applications you can use; for instance, Opera Mini will not work. J2ME, however, is much more open: anyone can develop and release applications for J2ME.
  • Durability. Will it hold up? Check buttons, hole coverings, and any moving parts. A phone gets beat on; make sure it will stand up to it.
  • Check for memory cards – and which ones. Memory card expansion can be important, especially for saving data and external applications. However, are the memory cards commonly available? Are they cheap or expensive?

It may not be easy to get some of these specs; in particular, cellular carriers either don’t know what they are or don’t want to advertize. Asking your local salesperson for a phone that supports J2ME is likely to get you a blank stare, so do the research online yourself first. PhoneScoop is one such site; the PhoneScoop page on the LG UX830 has a lot of very useful information. PhoneArena is another site; their page on the LG UX830 is also very useful.