It's the User Experience, Stupid

Nokia has just announced their new phone, the N97. It’s a very capable phone that looks like a direct answer to Apple’s iPhone. If you just look at the feature list, it blows the iPhone away. Here’s the key ones:

It also has a nice design and looks pretty sleek. Here’s a promotional video of it:

However — all those features won’t mean anything if Nokia can’t deliver a great user experience. The iPhone isn’t eating away so fast on the mobile phone market-share because of its features. Indeed, the iPhone has, and always had, less features than many other smart-phones. No, the iPhone is so popular because of one thing it excels at: user experience.

The 3 stages of technology use

David Liddle, an interaction design expert, identified three stages of technology use: enthusiast, professional and consumer. Each stage has different requirements. For example, the enthusiasts are the early adopters who may not care so much about usability but more about the features. Indeed, they may take pride in knowing how to operate complex new technologies. Think Linux adopters.

The professional stage is one where the new technology is adopted for business use. Again, the features are king here because it’s the features that will differentiate product A from product B to the person  in charge of purchasing it (they may not, and often won’t, even be using the product).

The consumer stage is different in that people generally don’t want to buy things which are hard to use. Consumers want devices which are easy to figure out and devices that are enjoyable to use. This makes the user experience part of a consumer product all the more important.

Designs must work at every level but should be beautiful and delightful as well. Competitive advantage will accrue if they are bejaviourally and aesthetically enjoyable.       David Liddle, Designing Interactions

More features != a better product

But don’t all the extra features add up to a better experience for the user? Well… not exactly. More features means more things to figure out. More features means more complexity. The more features, the harder it is for the designers to make an interface that retains clarity and simplicity and yet gives access to all of the functions the device has.

But wait, what about the hardware features? The specs such as larger storage space and more megapixels on the camera — surely that only has a positive impact? Sure, it does. And that’s one advantage a company can push. But this advantage is much less important as the overall experience of using the product. This experience is largely dictated by how good the user interface is, because that’s the bridge that gives you access to all the product features.

I can already see two potential problems for the N97. First: the touch screen. It’s a resistive touch screen, meaning you have to physically push on it to get a response. The iPhone’s touch screen is a capacitive one which works by conducting electricity. This is much more accurate than touch screens which operate on pressure, as well as more responsive. Second: the N97 is thicker than the iPhone. I think being able to carry a phone comfortably in your pocket is important — and thickness is a direct result of adding things like GPS and a physical keyboard.

It's the user experience, stupid

I think Nokia, and all the other phone manufacturers, need to seriously think about their interface design. The interface, and the user experience that it delivers, is what really matters — not the raw features which a device has. 

Things like smooth transitions between applications, smooth touch scrolling, the little rubber band effect when you scroll too far, the effortless zooming in and out of websites, the elegant and uncluttered application and settings pages and the large, easy to push buttons and controls are some of the things that provide a fantastic user experience on the iPhone. If Nokia wants to challenge the iPhone at its own game they need to deliver a great user experience and that involves really polishing out all the details. 

From what I’ve seen so far, it looks like a good product and I’m looking forward to some reviews to see if they delivered on the UX.

author picture Written by Dmitry Fadeyev
Published on December 3, 2008