Nokia N9 User Experience Guidelines

Locked Nokia N9 home screen with incoming call

It’s been quite some time since Nokia last released a handset which innovated in the User Experience and User Interface domain. This changed with the recently announced N9 handset, where they have hit the ball out of the park in my opinion. Except for some of the iconography, they abandoned all their legacy User Interface design and came up with a fresh new concept that really stands its ground.

Nokia has now made available an animated demonstration of the software User Interface design and User Experience Guidelines for the N9 on their developer website. It is definitely worth checking out their innovative approach to mobile handset User Interfaces.

What do you think of the N9’s User Interface?

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iPad 2 reality check

Somewhat buried under today’s news about the major earthquake in Japan was Apple’s retail launch of the iPad 2 in the US. I skipped the long lines and all the hype and went to an Apple store in Los Angeles about an hour before it closed. Deliberately understocked for additional marketing effect (“look, we sold them all in one day”) or not, all iPads were sold out and this easily decided the question of whether or not to purchase a device within the first minute that I had entered the store.

Although Apple has improved the iPad’s software compared to last year at launch, here are my reasons as to why I still wouldn’t have bought an iPad today even if I could have:

  • Weight: Still much too heavy for my taste and it felt uncomfortable to hold in one hand for more than 5 minutes in a way that my fingers wouldn’t cover the screen.
  • “Multitasking”: No change compared to last year and apps still need to be closed to switch to another app. Even my Nokia N8 cellphone can do better than that.
  • Walled garden: All roads still lead to Cupertino, from first forced activation using iTunes on Windows or Mac, to apps and music and video. As I solely run Ubuntu Linux on my PCs at home, getting the device activated would already have been impossible, let alone moving photos and music on or off the device. This remains a major drawback for me.
  • Garage Band: The arrival of this application on the iPad alone made me go to the Apple store and take a look but sadly Garage Band felt much less expressive than Apple’s promotional videos made me expect. I also found that the force detection when tapping the screen did not seem to be that sophisticated and tones were either loud or very low volume without any in-betweens. In hindsight, from the few minutes I spent in the store with it, the application feels a bit more like a gimmick than a serious music application. Maybe Apple will release new instruments and make other improvements later on.

All in all, I guess I need to check back again in 6-10 months or so for the iPad 3, to see if Apple can convince me to spend my money on their products. In the meantime, I’ll probably give other tablet manufacturers a chance.

iPad reality check

Apple’s iPad was released today in Canada an I gave the device some 20 minutes of my time at the local Apple store to convince me to buy one. All the hype during the last days had certainly done its part to get me into the store, so I was looking forward to give the iPad a try.

While there are a couple of things that stand out such as the screen quality and responsiveness to touch input in the preloaded demo photo gallery, there were many little issues that I felt would only get worse if I had used the device for a longer time: Continue reading

The evolution of books

With the first iPad applications hitting the market, it really looks like interactive books are about to enter the mainstream:

From what is presented in the video, I really like the graphical design and how motion of the reader device can manipulate graphical elements on screen. It looks like a well thought out concept and I am sure there will be much more inspiring interactive books appearing in the next months. In this regard, I don’t think Apple promised too much when they presented the iPad as a game changer for the publishing industry, despite what many critics are saying about apparent hardware limitations.

Tangible interfaces

In summer, I wrote about a framework for reality-based interaction for which I wanted to give a few examples. Although the term reality-based interaction is not mentioned, I think the design ideas presented in two recent publications of the MIT Media Lab team around Hiroshi Ishii fit very well into that category.

The first paper is Simplicity in Interaction Design by Chang et al. which reports on a design exercise conducted at the Media Lab to encourage students to design expressive but simple means for representing information of common devices found in households with the use of a very limited set of interface components. This exercise resulted out of the observation that many interfaces are overloaded with “buttons and blinking lights (B.A.B.L.)” which represent information about complex state machines, such as those found in modern answering machines, in a manner that is too complex for users to understand. The authors argue that this is a result of designers chosing features over usability which, as a consequence, requires ever more complex user interfaces. The primary constraint of the exercise to redesign such a device was therefore set to allow for a maximum of one input and output mechanism, e.g. one button and one LED. With this, the authors state, they hoped to force students to prioritize features and leave out those not representing a core functionality. Before conducting the exercise in a classroom setting, the authors completed the exercise once themselves.

Of the results described in the paper, I found the design of a simple answering machine particularly inspiring: It consists of a bowl-shaped base which is overstretched by a membrane. For every incoming call recorded on the device, the volume covered by the membrane expands slightly more, causing the membrane to bulge outwards. To play back the recorded calls, a user simply applies pressure to push the membrane back down into the bowl. To rewind a recording for a few seconds, it is sufficient to briefly pull the membrane back out. In essence, Chang et al. argue, these restrictions helped them to focus largely on using mechanical change to modify and visualize a device’s state and overall, they conclude that such forced simplicity can in fact encourage finding novel interaction techniques and foster new innovations. Personally, I see significant potential in the marketability of such simple devices and would be happy to see them showing up in stores. It is the instant comprehensibility of the interactions which, in my opinion, would find a big audience of buyers.

No messages, a few messages, several messages, playback of messages

Different states of a tangible answering machine. From left to right: No messages, a few messages, many messages, playback of messages

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Reality-based interaction

One of the sessions I attended at this year’s CHI conference was called Post-WIMP (WIMP = Window, Icon, Menu, Pointer). It covered recent trends in user interface design and highlighted attempts to move beyond the typical WIMP concepts we generally use today. In one of the talks, the paper Reality-based interaction: a framework for post-WIMP interfaces by Robert J.K. Jacob et al. was presented which I found particularly interesting. Specifically, the authors developed a framework which allows for the comparison of today’s emerging post-WIMP interfaces according to several aspects, based on the underlying notion of a foundation of these interfaces in the physical, real world.

For the authors, up to four themes of the physical world can be reflected in these new user interfaces:

  • Naïve Physics
  • Body Awareness & Skills
  • Environment Awareness & Skills
  • Social Awareness & Skills

 

While Jacob et al. argue that building user interfaces around these innate human skills can have several positive benefits, such as reduced cognitive workload, they also stress that designers should ideally deviate from these concepts in explicit cases. An example they give is that of walking in a virtual world. The command for walking could then be augmented by a command for flying which should remain as analogous as possible to its realistic sibling. Unless some additional power (such as flying) was gained by a command, the authors state, a designer should always use the command closest to reality.

This rationale has become a central criteria for me when judging novel reality-based interfaces, many of which have been promoted (and hyped) in online videos over the last months. I will soon post a few examples of reality-based interfaces which I have recently discovered and put them into relation with the four themes above.

CHI Impressions

Here are some impressions of the opening plenary of the 2008 CHI conference.

A snapshot of the conference hall:

The keynote was held by Irene McAra-McWilliam, who is the Head of the School of Design at the Glasgow School of Art. Her talk was very interesting and covered the development of different crafts such as stone cutting, painting or gold forging and how their masters have perfected their control over the respective materials over time. She argued that this is not yet the case for the digital, or virtual, material. Therefore, she stressed, that designers of digital products need to improve their skills in handling their virtual material in order to truly be able to create the same inspiring art in the digital world that had awed people centuries ago.

Continue reading

Facet Folders

Facet Folders are a novel way of managing personal data using a combination of conventional hierarchies with faceted metadata. I am presenting the concept as part of a submission to the Student Research Competition at CHI. Due to popular request and positive feedback, I am providing the paper here for download:

Facet Folders (PDF)