Kevin Cheng  

Don’t Put Your Palm in My Pocket

February 5th, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

With the N-Gage, the recent announcement of the new Nokia 6600, the Sony Ericsson P900, Palm’s updated Treo 600 and a veritable army of other convergent devices, mobile phones seem to be paving the way in combination devices. However, not to be left off the bandwagon, PDA manufacturers are adding more and more functionality to their products. Handspring pioneered the way with plug-in peripherals for their Visor line. In addition to the basic PDA, you could purchase GPS, camera and even mobile phone attachments. In theory, this concept was ideal as it permitted maximum flexibility and gave consumers a choice. The reality was that users didn’t want to pay for the extras and those that did complained about carrying the extra components.

Last fall, my girlfriend Kathryn and I received PDAs for our birthdays. I elected for a Palm Zire 71 (alas, a mere week before the Tungsten T3 was announced) and Kathryn got an HP iPaq 2215 Pocket PC. While she was replacing her aged Handspring Visor, I was in the rather unique position of being a first time PDA owner - unique for a gadget addict, at least. What would it be like to use a feature-laden PDA when I didn’t even know the first thing about the most basic PDA functions?Taking advantage of this opportunity, I decided to do a rudimentary review of my Palm from a usability perspective here. Although I’m primarily looking at how easy the Palm and Palm OS are to use, I will inevitably touch upon some technical aspects. However, for a more technical review, I suggest you look at the many gadget review sites and magazines out there.

To begin my evaluation, I jotted down a number of tasks I felt were common uses for PDAs:

  • General navigation and maintenance
  • Organizing contacts
  • Organizing calendar/schedule
  • Reading E-books
  • Synchronizing information
  • Taking, organizing and retrieving notes

In addition, I also looked at some other peripheral functions that seem to be prevalent in all newer devices:

  • Playing games
  • Taking and organizing photographs
  • Listening to music

Other uses, such as reading e-mail or MS Office documents, checking maps, etc. were not considered because they involved software not included in the original package.

Executive Summary

The Palm OS may be easier to use than a Pocket PC – if they were unfamiliar with a Windows operating system. Unfortunately, many PDA owners, including myself, are intimately familiar with Windows. Although I did not explicitly compare Kathryn’s Pocket PC with my Palm, I did find overall, the functionality to be much easier to use because it was familiar. Decent handwriting recognition was also a plus for the Pocket PC over my Palm. I found the Palm’s new Graffiti easy to learn but difficult to master. However, perhaps the worst problem with the Palm’s built-in bundle is their inability to properly synchronize with Microsoft Outlook and read Microsoft documents.

Although great programs exist for the Palm that solve many of my problems (I highly recommend Office2Go and Beyond Contacts by DataViz), the fact that I must spend close to an additional USD$100 to get my PDA to a minimum level of compatibility and usefulness negates any price advantage Palm ever had. In fact, because the onus was on me to spend the time and money to find the right products, I am now convinced that Palm’s advertised advantages: price and usability, are quite inaccurate.

Palm Zire 71 / Palm OS Issues

The following is a more detailed list of some issues I discovered whilst using the Palm Zire 71 as a novice PDA user. Some of these problems are solved with third-party software whilst others still haunt me. This list is by no means comprehensive but shows a sample of the types of problems encountered. Pictures and screenshots will be added shortly.

General Navigation and Maintenance

Problem: Applications are Difficult to Navigate
Severity: Medium
Description: Palm OS uses a standard desktop approach to their main application navigation. An icon represents each application, accompanied by some text. At the moment, you either see all the icons in one screen or you can place the icons in specific categories. Navigating these categories, however, requires users to select the categories in the upper right, then select the category. Selecting an application is a primary task for users and should be as efficient as possible. Although repeatedly pressing the “Home” shortcut key cycles through the categories, this solution is still not ideal.
Proposed Solution: A tabbed approach would permit users to quickly jump between categories as well as organize their application by simply dragging them.

Problem: Category Management is Indirect
Severity: Low
Description: In order to change the category an application belongs to, the user must select “Category” in the main menu. This option doesn’t allow the user to rename, add and delete categories as one might expect. A list of all the applications, with their respective categories, is shown instead, permitting users to change the category each application belongs to.
Proposed Solution: Permit applications to be dragged to appropriate categories. Categories would need to be made visible even when not in view via tabs or other similar methods.

Problem: Dual Stroke Graffiti Letters Lead to Frequent Data Entry Mistakes
Severity: High
Description: Since the patent infringement of the previous iteration of Graffiti, several characters, such as “t”, “x” and “i” have been changed to require two strokes. Even after repeated use, the sequence of the strokes would often be inputted incorrectly causing undesired behaviour.
Proposed Solution: Add handwriting recognition or seek alternative methods of single stroke input alphabets if legally possible. Also consider using strokes which cannot be misinterpreted as common characters (such as the “t” being misinterpreted as a space).

Problem: Miniature Shortcuts are Disruptive to Data Entry
Severity: Low
Description: The four corners of the writing area of the Zire contain minature shortcut buttons for controlling brightness, opening the keyboard, the time and the numeric keypad. However, these shortcuts are often accidentally activated when inputting text.
Proposed Solution: Some of the functions do not seem to require a direct access button at all (such as brightness). For those which might (keyboard), the soft buttons should be moved to an area that is less likely to be accidentally accessed.

Organizing Contacts

Problem: Columns Cannot be Sorted
Severity: Medium
Description: Contacts cannot be sorted by any field other than last name.
Proposed Solution: Permit users to sort by other columns. In particular, contacts should be sortable by first name.

Problem: The Key Visible Field is Unpredictable
Severity: Low
Description: The browse view in the contact list displays the name and one contact field (phone number, e-mail, etc). However, the field displayed seems to be arbitrarily selected and often, an e-mail address is displayed instead of a phone number.
Proposed Solution: Always show the mobile phone number if available, or other phone numbers if not. Only show e-mail as the key contact field if no phone numbers are available. Alternatively, permit users to select the key field to display.

Problem: Categories Do Not Match Outlook
Severity: High
Description: Although I do not use categories for my contacts extensively, I know of many who do and even in the limited capacity to which I use them, Palm’s inability to synchronize Outlook’s categories into its own is debilitating. Users are forced to either re-categorize all their contacts or not use categorization at all.
Proposed Solution: Synchronize the categories as well as the contacts. Do not force the users to use the Palm Desktop utility.

Problem: Scroll Arrows Too Small
Severity: Low
Description: In many applications across Palm OS, the scroll bar mimics a desktop scrollbar fairly accurately. However in the contact list, only scroll arrows are used. Firstly, this prevent users from scrolling quickly down a large list of contacts. Secondly, it becomes very easy to accidentally scroll in the opposite direction to the intended one. (Also applies to Calendar)
Proposed Solution: Although the thumbstick provides an alternative method to scrolling, a full scrollbar should still be provided despite the loss in horizontal real estate.

Organizing Calendar/Schedule

Problem: Month View has Unclear Event Highlighting
Severity: Low
Description: When viewing the calendar in month view, the icons illustrating events are insufficiently differentiated.
Proposed Solution: Change the icon or colour used to represent an event in the month view.

Problem: Month and Week Views Can Display Additional Information
Severity: Low
Description: In week and month views, no data is shown on scheduled events, only a highlight to illustrate an event exists. This method requires users to enter each individual day to discover the events for the week.
Proposed Solution: Provide brief summary data of activities in the weekly view and if possible, the monthly view.

Taking, organizing and retrieving notes

Problem: Memo and Contact Deletion are Inconsistent
Severity: Low
Description: When viewing the details of a contact, a button exists to permit deletion of the contact. In memos, users are required to view the memo, then view “details” to discover the delete option. These two paradigms are inconsistent and the delete location for memos is not immediately clear.
Proposed Solution: Put option to delete within main Memo details.

Reading E-Book

Problem: Palm Auto Powers-Off when Scrolling with Thumbstick
Severity: Medium
Description: Whilst using the thumbstick to scroll through an E-book, the Palm will automatically shut down due to “inactivity”. Scrolling by pressing on screen does not cause a similar behaviour.
Proposed Solution: Recognize thumbstick navigation as an active action.

5 Responses to “Don’t Put Your Palm in My Pocket”
eDreamers wrote:

Owner of a palm Vx since 2000, I can only agree with your review but as said, some softwares can provide good answers to most of these problems. Indeed, I had to buy 2 to achieve the right level of usability and interoperability with my Windows based desktop:
- Agendus for Agenda & Contacts,
- TinySheet for interoperability with MS Excel

Some others are free and can also increase the usability:
- Khroma to increase number of gray levels or to customise the use of colors in the applications
- Graffiti Anywhere to use the full screen for Graffiti

Graffiti is quite easy to use with some practice and the ability to combine the use of the keyboard and Graffiti with the latest Palm OS is making things quite efficient.

anonymous wrote:

Regarding scroll bars/arrows, you said: “Secondly, it becomes very easy to accidentally scroll in the opposite direction to the intended one.”

I’m curious: you have two arrows. One is at the top of the list and points up, the other is at the bottom of the list and points down. How do you accidentally click on the wrong one?

KC wrote:

“I’m curious: you have two arrows. One is at the top of the list and points up, the other is at the bottom of the list and points down. How do you accidentally click on the wrong one?”

I should have been more clear (and I also intend to illustrate through photographs/screenshots). The two scrolls arrows are both on the bottom right, one directly on top of the other. When there’s a scroll bar as in the main desktop, the arrows are as you describe but in the contact list, it’s just two arrows like so:


and about 3 pixels apart.

Peter Centgraf wrote:

The HCI Methods course at Carnegie Mellon University has been using the Palm OS as a test subject throughout the semester-long course for several years now. Methods applied include a short (single-user) contextual inquiry, heuristic evaluation, cognitive walkthrough of a single task, a GOMS KLM analysis of the same task (in comparison to the CorporateTime desktop PIM), and finally culminating in a final project report. Several of the final reports are available online with some quick Google work, and I could send you mine in PDF on request.

I agree that the Palm definitely could use a healthy helping of consistency, and there are many areas of the OS that have obviously never been touched in 5 years (and could use it). On the whole, though, I have been able to infer solid design philosophy justifications for many of the quirky interactions.

For example, my project group’s analysis of the main “DateBook” app devolved to a battle between the Palm zealot (me) and the PocketPC zealot (not me). The Pocket PC uses a design that allocates a fixed vertical space for a given amount of time, regardless of the presence or absence of appointments. This is much like the Outlook interface, and interaction is very consistent with expectations from that application. However, this also means that scheduling conflicts cause appointments to be “squished” into a very narrow horizontal space, even when it would be much more efficient to break from the strict linear timeline for the sake of reasonable text flow. The Palm, on the other hand, takes its metaphor from a paper DayTimer. A fixed number of lines for text are allocated dynamically to whatever parts of the day actually have appointments. If there is a dense sequence of appointments in the afternoon, the afternoon gets more lines on screen. This maximizes the amount of information that can be presented in a limited screen space, but at the cost of a consistent timespan-to-height scale.

If this tradeoff sounds familiar, it should. What we’re talking about here is the age-old question of Context vs. Detail. (Of course, if you’re really savvy, you’ll somehow give the user both.) I personally prefer the Detail solution, and my teammate was a Context fanatic. On closer inspection, many of the differences between Palm OS and PocketPC are of the NN/g vs. UIE sort. IMHO, feel free to pick your poison, but please don’t pretend it’s ambrosia. (Not that I get that impression from you, in particular.)

As for some of your specific complaints, here are some suggestions:

The standard launcher is sub-optimal for several reasons, but it is also eminently replaceable. I’m 90% certain that an application following your design suggestion already exists and is available for free.

You might be interested in trying the EdgeWrite system. It was originally developed to improve accessibility for users with fine motor control problems, but it compares favorably with Graffiti in general. The software is freely available for Palm OS, and several academic papers are available to scratch your validation itch.

At least on Palm OS 3.5 and 4.0, the field displayed in the main Contacts list is set for each contact. This allows you to have the mobile phone or AIM handle or email address display as appropriate for any particular contact. I believe that by default it displays whatever is in the first non-empty slot. This may be unexpected, but was very easy for me to understand (at least for me) after 2 minutes of entering contacts from the Palm itself. Then again, I have a “see a button, click it” reflex with new software.

I utterly agree with the scrollbar comment. You’d think that they could use their own best widgets consistently.

I also agree with the coloration/labeling suggestion. It’s in our report. :-)

To see information about individual appointments in the week view, just tap on it. A tooltip-like info box pops up. It’s not intuitive, but it is documented, and it stays out of the way nicely when you don’t need it. Our report makes some suggestions about adding a drag-and-drop interaction style to this view, since here the Palm has the same kind of Context/consistent timeline property as the PocketPC’s day view.

The delete thing used to be consistent, but used the annoying “details” method. This is another case where PalmSource got it wrong by being only half-right.

Quit your whining. You’re lucky you have a thumbstick. Why, in my day, we were lucky even to have the up and down arrow keys! And we were happy to have them! ;-)

Chris wrote:

The Zire 71 is primarily a multimedia device. You wouldn’t find any business apps bundled with it. However, if you had something like the Tungsten E or T3, both of those PDAs have multimedia and business features, which would allow you to have a more complete review. The usability issues remain the same with all models, though. I have the same problem with my T|E shutting off if I take too long to read something. The only way to fix this is to go into Prefs > Power > Auto off After. What a big pain.

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?