It’s interesting to see the latest developments in the phone market. Everyone is scrambling to match the iPhone in form and function in order to hold on to their market share. Sure, the iPhone is a high end phone, so not everyone is going for it, but it at is also a very very successful phone that gets a lot of things right, and the competition knows it.
Which is why we’re seeing all those Storms, Pres and Droids on the market lately. They come close, but always seem to fall short. It’s not the features — these phones usually have more features and better specs than Apple’s offering — it’s something else. To me, it all boils down to just 3 things. If any phone manufacturer gets these 3 things right, they’ll beat the iPhone at its own game:
Usable devices are all about flow. What’s flow? For every task that people perform on their device there is a sequence of actions they go through. Sometimes it’s just one action — you click a button and whatever you wanted to happen, happens: e.g. pushing the Home button to get back to the main screen. For other tasks you may go through dozens of actions before you reach your desired end.
Good flow means the designers have anticipated common tasks, reduced the number of actions required to accomplish them, and ensured the next actions are always there in front of the user so they don’t even have to think about what to push next. Here’s a great presentation by Ryan Singer from 37signals talking about usability — Ryan talks about flow at about 38 minutes in with some great examples.
Responsiveness here is all about speed. Stuff should happen when you press buttons or slide your finger across the screen. That’s obvious, right? Yet most phones on the market aren’t very responsive. You slide your finger, and half a second later the screen begins to move in a choppy manner. The device is laggy and slow — it’s not responsive.
All of the lag, the waiting between screens, the waiting for applications to launch and for the screen to scroll creates serious friction with the user. When you want to do something you have to wait for the device to catch up. That’s frustrating.
Polish is craftsmanship. When you’re finalising the user interface, make it look good. This doesn’t mean adding gradients, shiny gloss, reflections, shadows or a plethora of other visual effects — most of that stuff is superfluous — it means tasteful typesetting, choice of palette and contrast calibration. The important things should pop out at you, while the secondary and tertiary elements should fade into the background. There should be enough whitespace to make things easy to read and scan. That’s all you really need, yet we’re still seeing a lot of blunders in this department.
Just look at the settings panels of a Blackberry — there isn’t even any left padding on the text there, which means its touching the left edge of the screen. A little bit of polish will go a long way.
Get those 3 things right and you’ll beat the iPhone, or will at least match it. Why? Because the phone is a different device to say, a PC. The phone is always there with you, and its used primary for quick, almost mechanical, tasks. Calling people, checking SMS, checking the time, checking the map, snapping a quick picture. There are many different things you can do with a phone, but all of them are quick actions. This means the phone should aim to be closer to how a mechanical device works.
Think about a toaster. You put in the bread, you push the lever, and that’s it. Your action is done, and now you just wait for the bread to toast. The interface is dead simple and its instantly responsive. That’s because it’s mechanical. There’s not a lot to get between you and what you want to achieve. In electronic devices though, there is a lot of “interface” in your way, which tends to also be very laggy and confusing. What you want to do though is get closer to the mechanical toaster and do the users' actions easily and quickly.
That’s why the iPhone is so effective. It’s fast and responsive. It’s also very polished, which raises it even higher. Apple doesn’t care about features because it knows that that stuff just doesn’t matter. What people want is a device that doesn’t get in your way.
Other phone manufacturers are too focused on the hardware. Most of them produce really great hardware. But the problem is that hardware is only half the problem — the OS is just as, if not more, important than the hardware it runs on. The OS is the interface — it’s what lets people do the stuff they want to do with their phones. The OS is also the thing that my 3 points above are governed by.
Forget features, forget specs, forget comparison charts. A comparison chart will never tell you about user experience and usability, and in the end, that’s what matters most in a pocket device.