July 1, 2007

iPhone design trade-offs

There is plenty to like about iPhone - and we all already know about that. And there are some obvious challenges (i.e., slow network, lack of physical keyboard, no OTA syncing of calendar & contacts). But a lot of important, yet more subtle challenges have not yet been reported widely yet. These are largely due to trade-offs given the lack of not only the keyboard, but also D-Pad, Home and Back buttons, and soft keys that are so common on just about every other phone. So, how does this impact usability? Let's take a look by comparing to some other comparable devices for a variety of tasks.

  • Make a call to a contact:
    • BlackBerry 8800 (~2 secs): Start typing from the home screen, scroll down to filtered item and press action. I have 992 contacts. I can get to just about anyone in 4 or 5 keys, a scroll, and a click. Windows Mobile is also about the same as this, but it responds a lot more slowly.
    • iPhone (~4 secs): Press Phone. Press Contacts. Press the first letter of the last name on the right side of the contacts. But since these letters are tiny, you usually have to drag up or down a few times to get to the right letter. Now flick up or down to visually search for the person you are looking for. Press the person. Press the # you want to call. iPhone is not only slow, but painfully distracting.
  • Look at photos:
    • iPod: Flipping through a lot of full-screen photos is unbelievably fast. As you spin the wheel, photos fly by. I can probably scan 20 per second. It is also physically easy and doesn't require much attention. Just fling you finger around the wheel. I can do this to look at tons of photos.
    • iPhone: Looking at photos on the iPhone is undeniably beautiful and pleasing - but to flip between full-screen photos requires a flick for each one. The fastest I could manager was about 4 per second, and that required a lot of finger movement. I wouldn't want to do this for more than about 20 photos.
  • Read text on the web: Much has been made of reading web pages on the iPhone. Everything that is advertised is true - but they forget to mention one thing. If your eyesight isn't terrific, you'll have to take advantage of the beautiful two-finger zooming-in feature - even after you've zoomed in to an article. But if you do that, then you'll have to horizontally scroll back and forth to read each line. This is an unimaginably bad experience. In other mobile browses, content is laid out vertically. They certainly have their own problems, but once you get to reading an article, you can set the font size, and just press the space bar or down arrow to scroll down one page at a time. On the iPhone, if you can't read the natural size, you are just going to have a really lousy experience.
  • Things to do: Part of the fun of computing is that there is just so much darned stuff to do - from little flash games, to java downloads, to rich apps that you pay to download. And the wonder of "widgets" is that the public makes them, so there are lots of options to choose among (i.e., see what's coming soon from ZenZui). But with the iPhone's closed platform, no Flash and no Java - you're pretty much stuck with what Apple gives you. Sure you can watch a few YouTube videos. But there are about half dozen I know of and actually searched for - whoops, those weren't available. They nicely give you a bunch of Web bookmarks to all kinds of sites – so I visited some kids sites with my 8 year old daughter. Whoops, all the ones she cares about use Flash, and they don't work. So I can read on the Web, and do iTunesy stuff. Don't get me wrong, that's pretty great - but not great enough. For the iPhone to be truly great, they have to open the platform.
  • Finding an email: Amazingly enough, there is no way to search for email.
  • Finding some music: Amazingly enough, there is no way to search for music. Hierarchies and tags are great - but sometimes you know what you are looking for, and the fastest and cognitively easiest way to get it is just to type a unique word in the title. Oh well, you're out of luck.

Now if it weren't for the fact that Apple has Spotlight on the desktop, I might think they hadn't learned about search yet. Instead, it's almost as if Apple has tacitly agreed that typing on the iPhone really is so bad that they don't want to frustrate users by having them search for stuff. Or maybe they really want you to think of this as an entertainment device, so efficiency shouldn't be that important - and the act of forced browsing will help you discover stuff you didn't know you had on your device. Or maybe they just didn't get to that yet, and we'll see it in an update before long. Cross your fingers.