Monday, June 19, 2006

On the trade-off between feature-laden and usable

I've been buying Nokia digital mobile phones since the earliest days of GSM in Australia (1993), and always regarded them as quite user-friendly. I was very disappointed when I got a new model for Mothers' Day this year, and couldn't readily work out even how to turn it on!

There was no separate and distinct On/Off button that I was used to in earlier Nokia models. This was not good. I had to resort to reading the User Guide -- "RTFM" mode, as some would put indelicately it -- in order to accomplish even this most basic of tasks. Even then, it took me the best part of ten minutes to decode the small, rather inscrutable diagram and discover that it has two concentric rocker switches (a usability challenge in itself) that the bottom right corner of the outer rocker acted as the On/Off switch. A little later, as I got further into its all-too-numerous functions, I was equally frustrated by some of the clumsy navigation: particulary the repetive keying forced upon you when you carry out a function and are then sent back several levels right to the top of the navigation tree, not just to the previous level of the tree.

Altogether, there are far too many functions, not all well laid out or well explained. At least the dialing buttons are big on this Nokia model, on some models (other brands of phone too) the buttons are far too small and close together to accomodate my fat and clumsy "farmer's fingers." But that's another story in itself: Form over function.

Going all-digital with user interfaces isn't necessarily the best choice. In automobiles, for example, there are some functions that are best handled with analog interfaces. In my old but trusty Mitsubishi, for example, the heater's temperature control is an analog roller and so I can easily and accurately adjust the cabin temperature by feel in a second . There's no fiddly digital interface that would require me to take my eyes off the road. New technologies and/or the way they're applied aren't necessarily ideal for all tasks (cheaper perhaps, but sometimes a step or two backwards in terms of convenience and usability).

Over at Human Factors International (one of my favorite Web sites, you should register for their newsletter), there's a new article that immediately struck a chord with me and I'm sure it will with you too: Oh, that kind of better... On the trade-off between feature-laden and usable....
"Does it seem that making phones calls is no longer the primary function of cell phones? ... Do you give consumers what they want now? Or develop products that will increase the lifetime value of customers? This seems to be an interesting conundrum for organizations providing services and products – ranging from mobile phones to software to Internet service to cars – with the unlimited feature potential."
I strive to design and deliver products that are "good enough" and not too feature-laden. A recent example is the Simple Signer which was designed for just one function: to let you select and sign a Lotus Notes database -- "One tool for one task" is not a bad concept. Even this small application took a fair amount of work: to make it easy to understand and operate, to make it look consistent, to carefully craft the test and messages, etc. All for a free tool, but "If it's worth doing it's worth doing well."

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