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Mobile Community Design
Research and design information for mobile community developers.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Comparative Task Analysis of Note-taking on Five Technologies

Increasingly I am of the opinion that use-cases (user tasks) are not sufficiently considered during design processes, particularly in mobile devices. Sometimes the use cases are simply forgotten (the user can't do something they should be able to do), but more often they haven't been weighted appropriately (things that should be easy are hard and vice-versa).

I take a lot of notes, and it's interesting to see how well cutting-edge technologies support this basic and fundamental activity. The following video demonstrates a light-weight comparative task analysis of five technologies across three use-cases.

  1. Sticky notes
  2. Notepad / artists drawing pad
  3. Sidekick 3
  4. iPhone 3G
  5. Fujitsu U810 Tablet computer
  1. Write down an idea quickly
  2. Write extended text entry
  3. Find an idea from a previously entered note

Comparative Task Analysis of Note-taking on Five Technologies
14 min.


Conducting a comparative task analysis is a useful way of ensuring that your new advanced technology actually performs better for typical tasks than the older and low-tech technologies which it is hypothetically supposed to replace. Note how poorly the cutting-edge tablet computer performs for this basic task - it's no wonder they are not selling well. Despite incredible potential of the device and form factor, tablet computer manufacturers are focusing on RAM and processor speeds instead of creating a product that is optimized for taking notes (hint: this is a market opportunity).

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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Apple: there's always room for improvement

Now that I've had a chance to break in my iPhone 3G, I think it is time to review what Apple should fix in upcoming OS and hardware versions. Looking back on my previous review of the iPhone 2G (before it had been released), most of those comments were reasonably accurate. What is even more surprising is that they are mostly still valid for the 3G version. So apparently Jonathan Ive and John Geleynse aren't reading my blog. =)

For the record, some of what I point out below is fairly minor details that won't matter to the average consumer. However, for UX professionals and students, this critique should raise the bar a bit on what mobile devices could be - even when we're admittedly reviewing a device that is best-in-class in many ways.

Top 3 Greatest Things about iPhone 3G
  1. The app store
    This phone would be far less useful without 3rd party apps. Having a dictionary, travel tools, voice recorders, etc makes this a great pocket knife for a wide range of users.

  2. Seamless Gmail contacts integration
    Past phones have always made me manually enter contacts, and then they would get out of sync with my mail programs. Now they're all in one place, and a change in one goes to the other.

  3. Free Exchange integration
    This was marketed by ATT as part of the business plan, but it appears that it doesn't cost anything extra for customers on a normal plan (crossing fingers)
Everything else that is less than perfect

(Ranked least to most important)

17. Mobile Me - why? - Mobile Me sounded great. I signed up for the trial; then I realized that I already had my email on Gmail, and I already had my contacts synced with it, and I already had my work calendar via exchange, and I didn't need a web-based hard drive. So what's the point for $100/yr?

16. No help system - One of the main usability heuristics that should never be violated is the existence of a help system. Even if your interface is usability tested and clean and simple, you still need it. There will still be advanced features people need to find. There will still be troubleshooting necessary. The iPhone needs a searchable help system, or at the very least, a desktop icon to a web-based iPhone documentation formatted for the iPhone screen.

15. Tedious customization of home screen - I had to do a web search to find out how to customize the main screen. I was scared to death that it simply didn't have the function. Hidden (completely hidden) functionality isn't a great idea. I still think it's awkward, even after finding out how to activate it. Particularly difficult is the action of moving an icon between 'panes/pages'. The user gets used to the physics model used elsewhere in the OS and expects to be able to "flick" an icon to the next screen, but alas this doesn't work.

14.Buried settings screens - The settings has an information architecture which is far too deep.
Settings > General > Network > VPN > Add Configuration
Trying to remember where wi-fi vs bluetooth vs VPN screens are is enough to give one a headache. Some of these things are actually frequently used if you want to extend battery life, so this is clearly not the right format for these features. (this can be solved by making the tree broader).

13. No external access to notes - The sidekick 3 still manages to get some things right that Apple hasn't learned from. For example, allowing desktop/web access to note content. I can't access my iPhone notepad content in iTunes, or in MobileMe. Some of us track multiple to-do lists and notes. The lack of a way to import or export this, or view it on a desktop or via the web is a clear unsupported use case.

12. GPS turn-by-turn? - There's a GPS. Why doesn't it act more like my Garmin? Am I really going to have to carry both my Garmin and my iPhone when I take that business trip to Europe?

11. Confusing standard widgets - I watched the Apple podcast by the Apple UX group on UI design (User Interface Design for iPhone Applications). It's actually pretty good, and clearly focused at introductory concepts for an engineering/programmer primary audience. That said, some of the basic widgets they are recommending developers use have inherent usability problems. One of the biggest ones is the 'two part' row items without any visual warning of their action or of their split personalities. Another big one is the 'long alpha list' with a miniscule search button at the top which is extremely close to the add contact button. It's nearly impossible to get to the search field when I'm sitting still, much less walking and trying to dial a contact.

10. Audio plug on the wrong side - Every time I put this phone in my pocket while listening to music, it comes back out upside down. This is because the device points head-down in the pocket and the headphones point back up toward my ears; but when I pull it back it's natural to keep the headphones at the bottom, which is of course the wrong side. Also, when I have it plugged into the charge cable (because it didn't come with a dock), the headphones point toward me, the charge cable points away, and the screen is upside down. Ignoring the undoubted hardware constraints, the headphone jack should be on the other end of the device. The current design would be OK for a generic dock, but users will primarily be using this on the move.

9. Modal mtg alert before end of call - Some of the Exchange and calendar alerts have gotten a bit too pushy (too modal to be precise). Several times I have gotten off of longer conversations to find a dialog demanding that I decide to 'Accept, Reject, or Maybe' a meeting request. I am apparently supposed to make this decision in a split second, before being able to hang-up my phone call / switch calls / do anything else. This device needs to be designed to have _everything_ be able to be interrupted or set aside for later.

8. App updates don't retain location - The auto-update features are great, but it would be nice to be able to set them to auto-update for certain applications. Furthermore, they need to remember their location on the desktop. If you move them to screen 4 of 6 in the bottom right corner, they need to go back there after you update them. Currently they drop in on the main screen like a new application.

7. Hard physical top edge of hardware - I think somebody got a little too carried away with this device being an Internet tablet. It doesn't actually feel comfortable when used for voice calls. Call me old-fashioned, but I still don't like using bluetooth headsets and talking loudly into thin air for all of my calls on noisy streets. Some more rounded corners on this device would make it more comfortable to have against the face. And I might further add that a little more thickness would be have been justifiable if it had allowed a larger battery to be used. 8 hours really isn't enough for a business phone.

6. Non-ergonomic headphones - I just don't get it. The standard apple headphones don't stick in my ears. They fall out. Every time. I can't be the only one. Considering this is a premium music device, is it really that difficult to ship with earbuds? I won't even mention the lack of otherwise-standard A2DP support to allow stereo bluetooth headphones, which would have been the truly elegant (i.e. wireless) solution.

5. Back button - where is it? - This is another thing the Sidekick got right. The iPhone is very modal. Only one app running at a time. Moving to a new app generally leaves you stranded - it has no memory of where you've been. For example, if you are in Contacts, and you click the address of a contact, it predictably brings you into Google Maps, showing that location (which is great). But what do you want to do next? Well, go back to editing or reviewing the contact of course. To do that you need to do this:
1. Home button > 2. contacts > 3. click to search > 4. type in name > 5. select name. Now you're back to your contact. Wouldn't a back button (probably hardware) have been easier. Currently the iphone is very IA focused instead of task focused. One more small hardware button on the top left really wouldn't ruin the aesthetics that much. Another option would be a universal gesture to move back to the previous screen.

4. Undo purchase option - where is it? - This is dangerous. People have been accidentally buying $1000 iPhone apps. Laugh if you will, but the next time you're using your iPhone drunk at a bar, make sure you click carefully. Good design should prevent errors. The Amazon Kindle has a great feature for its online ordering system. You can buy a book (with no confirmation screen), and if you don't like it within 10 minutes or so, you can undo your order. Undo is much more elegant than warnings and it actually solves the problem instead of just making it less likely to occur. There could be a standard undo gesture, that is universally supported.

3. Relying on iTunes
- It's oftentimes unclear what gets updated over the air, and what gets updated via iTunes, and further it's not always consistent. Some apps are "too big" to download over the air and require iTunes for installation. I've experienced some technical problems where some apps wouldn't download, and it tells me to connect to my desktop computer. However, my gmail contacts sync wirelessly. My podcasts don't update until I connect to the computer. I know Steve likes the Digital Hub concept, and it was good for a while, but the end is nigh. We travel for business. We use multiple laptops. We plug in at work. We go on vacation. Do you really think we want to wait until we get home to get our new podcasts? Do we really want to wait for application updates? Maybe Mobile me was intended to solve some of this, but it is clear that Apple doesn't get the fact that we no longer want our PC to be the hub; instead we need wireless networks to keep us securely connected (even if we don't know it yet). Amazon has thoroughly and elegantly figured this out with their always-on and free Whispernet service.

2. No universal horizontal rotate support - Please provide an operating system that natively supports different handling preferences. The keyboard still has unacceptably high error rates (see below) which are greatly improved in the very few applications that support the wide-keyboard mode. Most applications (with the exception of Safari and many games) don't support the landscape screen rotate mode. It should be mandatory that all applications support both modes. Content can re-size, or be previously designed for both modes. Some types of content are simply much easier to use in landscape mode. If I could rely on a horizontal keyboard, I would probably rarely use it in the portrait mode. Why this wasn't fixed in the 3G version I don't' know, given that it was a glaring problem in the 2G version.

1. Keyboard still sucks - Sorry, but I've heard the "but after it adapts to your spelling and you learn where to press the screen" arguments and they just don't ring true. At the end of the day it's an awkward keyboard. Anything with a dictionary that suggests words is a bad idea on a small screen device because it requires a large amount of attention from the user (increased cognitive load) to monitor it and make decisions. And we all know that mobile users have even less of that available than busy desktop users. It's also even more likely that the dictionary will auto-complete the wrong word for you, resulting in confusing or embarrassing messages - so it's actually creating additional problems. I've been using this keyboard for 2 weeks and I still regularly mis-type on it. I used to be able to write short emails on my Sidekick (same for the Blackberry), but on the iPhone, I have added the "Sent from an iPhone, excuse the brief message" signature file. It just takes too long. I'll wait till I get back to the desktop. The easy design solution is to _always_ allow the landscape mode, which does result in less typing errors due to the larger letter key areas. The hard solution is to offer a slim sliding hardware keyboard. Apple, if you really want this to be the mobile web device of the future, it absolutely has to support extended text entry - this is a chance for innovation.

Update: 8/10
I forgot three things that should have been on the list:
A) No copy/paste. It is a frequent use case that on the web or in various forms, that you want to copy a bit of a page and use it elsewhere. This is a general purpose productivity-enhancing feature. The sidekick supports it through an hidden shortcut.

B) Poor design of mp3 player interface. Many of the widgets to control location in the track and see the entire track title are very small and hidden. Trying to back up to a previous location in a track (common for audiobooks) is very error prone. This interface has focused too much on showing glitzy album art, and hidden commonly used features as a consequence.

c) No support to 'background applications'. While it is commendable for Apple to not force memory management tasks on the user, the optimal solution is probably not 'only one app at a time'. Clearly some apps will only be useful if they can always be on. For example what if your phone application could only receive calls when you were in the phone application? There needs to be an option to run applications in the background in a controlled and safe manner.

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