Kevin Cheng  

It’s Pretty; Pretty Unusable.

March 25th, 2005 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

In Hong Kong, people change mobile phones more often than a dot commer changed jobs in 2001. You can have a conversation with someone about their phone and they’d say, “yeah this one is really old. I should change it. How long have I had it? Six months.”

Of course, there’s the constant need for the latest and greatest features. I’m told I have to get a 3G phone. Why, nobody can really tell me. Apparently, it can do a great deal of things like video phoning, and letting me watch the latest Natasha Beddingfield music video just in case I wasn’t inundated with it enough through other means.

All of this is an amplification of what is prevalent in other countries as well: a demand for style that’s so overwhelming, we’re willing to forego substance.

## Nokia’s Track Record
When Nokia announced [this monstrosity][1], I was shocked. They have a user experience group there and from what I hear, they’re quite good. I’ve met one of them and he’s a smart guy. So how does it come to be that they seem to enjoy playing with the most basic, established convention - the keypad - with every phone they release?

Then they release their [fashion phone][2] which is clearly targeted as an accessory. Fair enough, it is indeed stylish (it kind of looks like [lipstick][3] actually). This phone, I’m told, is targeted as a second phone to take with you out on the town. It’s not meant to be your primary phone.

As for the keypad they love to dabble with, this time they eliminate it altogether (oh but darling you look fabulous!)

Instead, the expectation is that the user can dial by voice or if they need to, they will dial from someone in their phone book whom they regularly call - using a mini-mini-mini iPod like wheel. After all, most people only need to dial [three numbers][4], it seems.

The real question here is not why Nokia is doing this. Presumably, people are buying these phones and willing to endure the atrocious usability for the trendiness of the design. Thus, the reasons are clear. People will buy it. Great, we can sacrifice usability and the phone will still sell but the question we need to ask is whether it was necessary to sacrifice usability.

Do we have to choose between style and substance? Was it really not possible to design a fashionable phone that was still usable?

## On Cultures and Paul Graham
In an essay for [Hackers & Painters][5], Paul Graham talks about [why USA does some things well][6] (like movies and software) and some things poorly (like cars and urban design). He speculates that it boils down to patience. Design takes patience and planning and Americans embody the spirit of Nike’s motto to Just Do It.

He then talks about whether the US can move towards embracing both cultures - the patient, long term planning design culture and the fast, iterative, just do it culture.

I started out thinking about how Graham’s thoughts applied to this apparent trade-off between usability and design. Was usability a different culture? Was it iterative like software or movies?

Then I tried to associate what countries or companies are known for good usability. The answers of course, came from companies that are known for good design.

And so it occurred to me that there was no tension. Usability isn’t this separate culture that needs to get along with design. Quite simply, a well designed product already is usable.

Therefore, Nokia’s fashionable trendy phone, is poorly designed. QED.

[1]: “Nokia 3650″
[2]: “Nokia 7280 Fashion Phone”
[3]: “Lipstick”
[4]: “Orange Mobi-click”
[5]: “Hackers & Painters”
[6]: “Made in USA”

12 Responses to “It’s Pretty; Pretty Unusable.”
X wrote:

Did you consider the third panel having, instead, a yell of, “Extend!” and the phone becoming a quarterstaff? Only slightly more unbelieveable than a number of HCI experts becoming a Voltron-esq fighting force.

While I only keep a cell - er, mobile… er, whatever we’re calling them today… for the purpose of requesting assistance in the event of car crash/failure, I think I would be tempted to ‘upgrade’ to the new Nokia 300 Quarterstaffphone.

I’m curious what’s wrong with the first linked phone, though. While deviating from the expectation is Bad, progress sometimes requires it. Secondly, the positioning reminds me of old rotational dial phones. Thirdly, given a centralized thumb, all numbers are now equally valid targets (bonus points for Fitt’s Law reference, yeah?). Fourth, you have good references if you were manipulating this device in the dark.

You have to find an edge to the cell - and in the case of my current one, the ON/OFF button is the same shape and grid as the numbers (hey, I didn’t DESIGN it, okay?) so if I’m fumbling for an edge (as I might, staving off unconsciousness as I bleed to death in my crumpled car - which is my expected use scenario for my cell), I may believe that OFF is 1. 6-OFF-ON isn’t going to get me any help. Not so with that “monstrosity” which has that nice circle edge from which I can count up or down.

Or maybe I missed why it’s a monstrosity..!

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Did you consider the third panel having, instead, a yell of, “Extend!” and the phone becoming a quarterstaff?

No. But now I wish we did. I’d buy that phone.

I’m curious what’s wrong with the first linked phone, though. … Fourth, you have good references if you were manipulating this device in the dark.

Deviating from expectation can be good, you’re right and you bring up some good points but really your fourth point is exactly why it’s a problematic design. Being equi-distant means it’s really difficult to differentiate by touch where numbers 2-9 are. It appears that Nokia agrees as their newer update reverted to a regular phone. Counting up and down works but I find I don’t even have to do that much with a regular keypad.

Not to say that other phones are designed perfectly.

Jesse wrote:

Not everyone cares about usability when making a purchasing decision, and perhaps blatantly poor designs can be a selling point to some. When selling fashion accessories, mutations can reap high premiums, such as this blob purportedly did for Nokia in Europe last year.

Curt Sampson wrote:

Yes, it is possible to make very fashionable looking phones that are also well-designed. One of my favourites is AU’s Infobar, which is in some ways even more usable than other Japanese phones, because it’s got a great keyboard (very big, sculpted keys with excellent tactile feedback).

Usabilist wrote:

Well that phone-with-three-buttons is actually for seniors, which have different “requirements” to a phone. And this market is only emerging now.

Another interesting market is the mobile phones fir kids.

Eric Svoboda wrote:

Hmmm. I have to wonder if the geezer shown in the photo at the top of the site understands what the ’speaker’ icon means. “What’s this soup bowl tipped on its side mean? You know, your grandpa once spilled hot soup on his…”

Tom Chi wrote:

Yeah, when KC showed me the 3 button phone, I couldn’t figure out what the heck it did. Does the button with the phone icon let you talk? … and the button with the speaker let you listen? The big high tech innovation that this phone needs is *labels*. It should provide a spot where a loved one can write in with what the button does.

And whose idea was it to use red and green of similar brightness in there? Haven’t they heard of colorblindness?

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Speaking of rotary keypad mobile phones, someone actually made one.

Bob Salmon wrote:

Dara O’Briain (an Irish comedian working in the UK) has an excellent mobile phone prank. You get on a tube train (metro, subway etc.) having set your mobile phone’s alarm for 15 minutes’ time. When it goes off you ‘answer’ your phone and start having a conversation really far underground.

All the wealthy stockbroker types around you with their trendy phones fish them out and start doing advanced yoga trying to find the signal that you’ve somehow got. You then steer your conversation to things like “Really? How much? Oh, put me down for 500,000 of those. I’m so glad I’m not going to miss out on this deal by being away from the office.” You eventually ‘end’ your call and if anyone’s curious enough to ask you just say “Oh this old thing? Everybody in Dublin’s got phones way better than this.”

Arthur Law wrote:

We work with Nokia phones at Berkeley’s information school and have use both the rotary style phone (Nokia 3650) and the pseudo Nike-swoosh phone (Nokia 7610). Somehow the designers forgot that people like text messaging with their phones.
Nokia has a short design cycle to keep up with their competitors so I guess in the fight between designers and usability, it’s the usability people that came up short.

Ian Stalvies wrote:

Can I put a question to those leaving comments. Haven’t actually seen the phone in question, but let’s assume:

(1) Kevin is right in that’s unusable initially,


(2) With experience, you come to know how the phone works and how to operate it.

Does the positive experience in (2) cancel out the initial problems in (1)? Does usability always have to be immediately apparent - especially with new technology?

David Heller wrote:

GREAT Question!!!!!
And the answer is NO.
It is the fundamental flaw in traditional usability testing is that it is only about “first impressions” and not about long term satisfaction.

Just reading “Emotional Design” … I recommend it to anyone who looks at a “Smart” ( and goes “Why?”, or the same thing for the dial-less phone.

That being said … you can’t ignore usability … you just can’t worship it either.

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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) ?