Welcome back iPhone

By September 19, 2010 No Comments

About a year ago I opened my iPhone 3G for the second time, this time to remove lint that had somehow made its way down the headphone jack. This time, my iPhone didn’t survive. Perhaps it was due to its past water-damage experience (the first time I opened it so it could dry) or maybe it was something I inadvertently did putting it back together, but I wasn’t too upset because I had been considering getting a Blackberry for some time. Why? Partially because of the great things I heard about Blackberries in the past, a variety of e-mail features including push e-mail, and the potential power of Enterprise Server. But more than anything, it was because of the one thing that I considered was missing on the iPhone – a physical keyboard. And so I parted from my iPhone 3G and got a new Blackberry Bold 9700. After about 2 months, a replacement Bold after the first faulty one I received, dropped service that would only be returned after hard resets (which by the way, take about 4 minutes each), and other problems such as un-handled exceptions (unacceptable things to show to a user!) I decided to get rid of the Bold. I now have a new iPhone 4, which I am very pleased with. I will give an overview of both, as well as a generalized evaluation of both the physical and software interfaces, and why I have chosen the iPhone as the triumphant winner.

Physically, the Bold is more or less shaped similarly to the iPhone, in the rectangular candy-bar shape that is not exactly ergonomic. The problem here applies to both phones, because when you have smaller hands and/or shorter fingers, holding the phone with one hand while attempting to dial a number, for example, is a difficult task. And of course, the Bold offers what the iPhone doesn’t – that physical keyboard. The desire for a physical keyboard came from a frustration with the responsiveness of the touch-keyboard in the iPhone, which is difficult to use with precision. I became increasingly bothered when making repeated typing mistakes, fighting with the auto-correction technology (which sometimes helps, but others it is just another button I have to press to cancel its suggestions) along with a lack of haptic feedback from the buttons themselves. Synthetic feedback by way of the key-click noise didn’t make things much better either, as it did not compensate for the energy spent in having to correct myself. As soon as I started using the physical keyboard in the Bold, however, I noticed that using it required a larger amount of physical energy that I didn’t need with the iPhone. An increase in kinematic load tends to affect performance; in this case, however, performance was not related to my ability to type messages correctly, but to my desire to type extensively. Nonetheless I was very pleased with its responsiveness and I no longer had to fight my way through typing a short message.

But the Bold 9700 also comes with the infrared trackpad (which not so long ago replaced the undesirable trackball, which would get dirty and stop working correctly as well as fall out in some older Blackberry models). Nonetheless, a mouse implementation in a smartphone is no longer optimal. The widespread application of touch technology in smartphones has removed another barrier between the user and the desired action, by allowing a more direct interaction with the interface. The use of a trackpad or “mouse” is a step backward, a limitation – after all, we have to be able to use it correctly in order to interact with the system. This is especially true with a screen as small as one on a smartphone, where the pointer is being controlled by a highly sensitive trackpad, which in turn is being manipulated by a less-than precise (and larger) human thumb. To understand the implications of this in a simpler way, think of taking all of our desired intentions and processing them, like a filter, through a temperamental funnel, a limiting interface that requires learning and precision in order to achieve the task at hand. A touch-screen is therefore a much more appropriate choice for a smartphone with such a wide variety of user-interaction options. Additionally, we humans are low-energy path seekers, which is why the use of a touchscreen is so well received in a smartphone but less favorable in a personal computer, where constant interaction with a larger-scale screen would require a larger amount of physical energy (holding up our our arms and moving them around is much more tiring than holding up and moving one finger). Having to detail the movement of a cursor by interaction with a mouse or trackpad requires more energy than directly interacting with the touchscreen. Moreover, the trackpad requires a degree of precision that cannot be applied to any user; what about those with slight motor impairments, vision problems, or both?

From a design perspective, the Blackberry OS does not have an intuitive interface. I have had several phones, and I don’t consider myself the average user (being constantly exposed to software development). To begin with, the icons (the primary guides to the user) are not entirely clear. I never found myself staring blankly at a symbol in one of the icons in the iPhone menu, not sure of what the icon represented. What’s the difference between the two? Setting their particular design styles aside, the reason is text. Although inconspicuous, there is small, white, sans-serif text below each icon in the iPhone menu describing each option. In fact, it is so subtle that I wasn’t even conscious of their existence when trying to remember the iPhone menu. That, is the sign of good design – unobtrusive clarity.

From an aesthetic usability perspective, the Blackberry OS is not completely terrible, until you get to any settings menu or even messaging and e-mail applications. It’s just bare-bones, and not in a simplistic, clean way – it’s rugged, lacking, and limited. White backgrounds with blue selection rectangles and black and white pixelated fonts are reminiscent of MS-DOS. RIM should remember that aesthetic usability is a prominent factor in gaining and maintaining positive user response, and so they should continue this positive experience into the settings, the more likely frustrating experience for the user. All in all, this results in a limiting interface with a plethora of options that are difficult to manipulate, and rather overwhelming. If one of the factors that determines the clean design of the iPhone OS (as well as most Apple products) is a minimal set of choices guided by progressive disclosure, Blackberry OS falls clearly behind here. The size of the option list elements in each settings list is also rather small, and scrolling over them with the trackpad is difficult as well.

After multiple attempts in trying to learn where everything was, and realizing that I wasn’t retaining as much information as I should have, I realized that the reason was poor design – much like I described above. But I kept trying, understanding that there was a learning curve and it required patience. But, patience? Interface designers should know that when the user is consciously trying to exercise patience, something is amiss. Furthermore, patience is only accepted by a user who believes that the complexity and reward of the system is proportional to the time it takes to learn how to use it. And the rewards did not compensate for the time invested in learning the system – at least not for me. The features the Bold offered were equal or inferior to those I had with my previous iPhone, and the difficulty in using the ones that were the same in both made the iPhone seem superior. Furthermore, what previously made the Blackberry the famed “business smartphone” no longer holds true, with the arrival of Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync for the iPhone. The iPhone can now support push e-mail, calendar, events, contacts, and security via strong encryption and other policies and restrictions that were not available before.

Lastly, what convinced me to change my mind were two very important factors. First, every time I lost service on the Bold it took a very long time to recuperate it. Another way to get service back would be to perform a hard reset on the phone – which takes approximately 4 minutes (a very long time when you’re in a hurry or in the possible case of an emergency). Finally, a few times, trying to use my phone normally, the screen would freeze and I would see pop-up messages with reports of un-handled exceptions – which I think is absolutely unacceptable for the user to see. I took that as a sign of sloppy design, both in the front and back end of the system, and it sealed the deal.

I am now back with the iPhone, very pleased with the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4 OS. The system is as clean as usual, with a very easy to use interface that is and rightly should be a model for many other systems. Clean, clear, and consistent design as well as large fonts and buttons make applications and data manipulation both accessible and pleasing to the user. A limited amount of visible information allows for easy familiarity and strong user retention of the available options. A vast amount of applications and a solid set of features make the iPhone a very appealing product. The performance does not fall behind either, being proportional to the expectations of such a well-finished product. The new front-face camera, built-in flash, 720p video-recording, longer battery life (with up to 300 hours of standby time), a 5 megapixel camera and the 960 by 640 pixel retina display are among some of the new features that make the iPhone newly appealing. The voice control feature is also a great option for hands-free usage, although the voice-recognition technology is not always accurate and, when driving and trying to use it, having voice control make an unintended call is not helpful. A few glitches still need to be fixed, with FaceTime crashing relatively often and some apps (usually third-party) crashing inadvertently as well. I’m not sure why Apple also chose to limit the number of apps in a folder to be 12, but I will imagine that it has to do with the limited screen real-estate (although scrolling and other options could be used to employ the same principles and provide more folder storage space). While a phone that is “full of features” (as the Blackberry phones are) may have strong potential, it is the interface that makes these options readily and easily available that will triumph once both systems grow to reach the same feature-set. When looking at both systems together as a whole, the iPhone is the true winner here, without much question.

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