Simmering at CTIA

Last week I walked the busy halls of CTIA, the main mobile phone trade show in the US. The show's very large. Not as big as CES, but the exhibits filled the main hall at the Las Vegas Convention Center, plus a big side hall. The aisles were filled with an overwhelming variety of everything phonelike, from phone holsters to RF components to those big fake plastic trees used to disguise cellphone towers. And of course there were mobile phones. Lots of mobile phones, from every major vendor and many of the minor ones.

When I go to a trade show, I try to look for both interesting details and the big picture, to see the trees and the forest. I had trouble doing it this time; there was so much detail and so many different things to look at that I was kind of overwhelmed by the trees. I list some notable ones below. But as I collected brochures and watched demos and poked at display models, I eventually found myself coming back to one basic thought, over and over:

Gee, the user interface on this phone really sucks.

That was the common denominator across almost every mobile phone I saw. The phone hardware was interesting, sometimes beautiful. But the phone software was generally unworthy of the effort and creativity being put into the hardware. It was gaudy, overfeatured, and extremely difficult to navigate. The more sophisticated the phone's hardware, the more impenetrable the user interface generally was.

This was intensely frustrating. It was like being served a beautiful five-course meal, and then finding all the food was made of wax. Or sitting down by a crackling fire to read a great book, only to find that all the pages had been glued together.

The interface problems clustered in two general areas: looks and navigation.

Looks: Tart me up, baby. Las Vegas is a good spot for CTIA, because the interfaces of many mobile phones seem to be designed according to the same principles as Las Vegas casinos – the glitzier the better. Why use easily understood words to label a function when you can substitute a cute color icon? And why use just a static icon when you can have it bounce around and animate when the user selects it, or better yet have several more icons pop out of it to the accompaniment of a sproingy sound effect?

On many phones, the cumulative effect of all this graphical clutter was much like what happens when you stand on the Las Vegas Strip at night – visual overload. It's pretty, but you also have trouble figuring out where you're going. On the Strip, the effect is intentional; the casinos want you to feel a little disoriented so you'll stay longer and lose your inhibitions. I'm not sure what benefit the mobile phone companies get by making their customers feel lost and overwhelmed.

Navigation: Help, I've opened a sub-menu and can't get out. My general test of a phone interface is to see if I can confuse myself in one minute. I start clicking around, trying features, to see if I can lose track of where I am or get stuck without any obvious way to get back to where I was before. On almost all the phones, it was depressingly easy to do this. Typically I'd get stranded in a sub-menu or dialog with no way to get out without canceling everything and going all the way back to the main phone interface. The more sub-menus I had navigated through to get to that point, the more frustrating it was to have to start over.

Usually the culprit was missing or inconsistent use of navigation buttons. Often different applications on the same phone will use different buttons inconsistently. For example, in one app Back may take you back a step, while Cancel may do the same thing in another app. On some phones, the button for Menu and OK are the same. If you want to get back to the main menu you'll push the Menu button, only to find that you've just said OK to a function that you didn't want to select.

Another common culprit was phones with "soft" buttons, the two buttons under the screen on the left and right side, without labels on them. In most cases, one of these buttons is normally used for Back, but some applications and functions change the button's meaning, leaving the user with no way to go back at all.

Backspacing in text when I made an entry mistake was another nightmare. Even after a lot of experimentation, I wasn't able to find the backspace function on some phones, or I accidentally selected OK or Cancel instead.

These inconsistencies and problems have the effect of punishing someone who tries to experiment with the phone. Once you've memorized a few basic functions, you're afraid to try something new for fear that you'll screw things up. I saw this a lot in early DOS users, pre-Windows. They used only a small percentage of the PC's features because they were afraid that they'd accidentally erase the disk drive if they did something wrong. Software usage rose substantially with the Mac and Windows, because people could re-use interface tricks across multiple applications, and because they were more protected from tragic mistakes.

The phone world hasn't reached this point yet. That isn't a critical problem today because most phones are used only to make calls and send text messages. But I think adoption of more sophisticated data services is going to be held back tremendously unless the interfaces get a lot more transparent and consistent.

Phone user interface vs. data user interface. What the phone industry doesn't seem to understand is that the interface needs for a mobile data device are very different from the interface needs of a traditional mobile phone phone. A phone that does just voice and texting can have a fairly playful interface because it's only doing a couple of things and the user isn't too likely to get lost. But the goal of a data device interface is first and foremost to be usable. If people can't figure out how to find the data service, or how to use it, the whole purpose of the device is defeated. That means as the phones get more sophisticated, the interfaces need to become more simplified. Right now the interfaces are going in the opposite direction.

My favorite phone interface at the show was the SonyEricsson Walkman phone. To play music, you press the Walkman button. Your commands are listed as text (rather than dancing icons) displayed in a list that scrolls up and down. It's very easy to figure out what you're doing, and very easy to go back if you make a mistake.

Sony's not exactly known for making great user interfaces, and I know from working with the Sony Clie handheld team that they have a fondness for 3D icons and strange graphical effects. So you might wonder where SonyEricsson got the inspiration to create something so simple and easy to understand.

Yeah, it's pretty clear they copied the market leader.

I don't have a problem with that. At least Sony was willing to learn from someone else's success. And I think the iPod has a lesson for all mobile device companies. Do you see any dancing icons on the iPod's screen? Do you think that has hurt iPod sales at all? The customer evaluates the iPod on how well it does its job, not on how groovy its screen looks. To paraphrase an old Macintosh commercial, "sometimes the most powerful devices are the ones that people can actually use."

Looks over usability. At the other extreme was my poster child for an overdesigned user interface, the vaunted ESPN phone.

I love the idea of MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators), small operators who buy air time from the big players and sell phones and service plans specifically tailored for the needs of vertical markets. Mobile ESPN is an MVNO focused on sports fans, leveraging the brand and content of the ESPN cable network that dominates sports television in the US.

I played with the ESPN phone at CTIA and felt both captivated and dismayed. I was captivated by the idea – a phone for sports nuts, saturated with stats and video and alerts that tell you every time your favorite team scores. I was dismayed by the implementation. The ESPN phone uses an extremely high-resolution screen that's incredibly sharp. ESPN took advantage of this resolution to cram the screen full of extremely tiny icons, and text that's literally about five points high. Think I'm exaggerating? Below I've reproduced a photo from the phone's screen (left), plus two screen shots from the Mobile ESPN website. They have all been scaled to the size of the phone's screen. The images look fuzzier here than they do in real life, because your computer's screen isn't as high resolution as this phone. But the size of the fonts should be about right. (To check, look at the service and battery icons at the top of the screen image at left. They're standard sized.)

Maybe ESPN's target demographic is 19-year-olds with the eyesight of eagles, but I don't know how many of them can afford the phone's monthly service charge, which can run to $60 or more.

My other issue with the phone is its navigation scheme. The phone uses an innovative icon menu called the Sideline that pops out of the left edge of the screen. You can scroll up and down in it, and then the menu pops back out of sight after you make your selection. I think ESPN could have achieved the same effect with greater usability if it had used text labels instead of icons (preferably nine-point text), but I can live with that because the number of icons is relatively low. What bothered me most was the sub-menus you get after choosing an icon. These menus don't operate the same way as the Sideline itself, and I couldn't figure out how to get out of some of them.

To me, the ESPN phone is a great example of glitz over functionality. But out of fairness I should also let you know that it has gotten some enthusiastic reviews here and here and here and here. Maybe I'm out of touch.

Or maybe a lot of reporters are nearsighted.

Brew: Great technology, wrong business model

Part of Qualcomm's booth was given over to small demo stations for Brew developers. If you're not familiar with Brew, it's Qualcomm's answer to iMode and Java (Brew...Java...get it?) Brew is a software development platform paired with a very nice billing and software installation engine. Qualcomm's trying to get it installed on a lot of phones. Software developers are being encouraged to create Brew apps, which they can then sell to users through operators that adopt Brew.

Unfortunately for the developers, Brew is not set up to be an open garden. Instead, the operators choose which Brew applications they want to offer to users. This gives developers very little control over their own fates – they have to go begging to operators to carry their products. This favors larger developers who can afford the investment and risk associated with marketing to operators.

The downside for Qualcomm is that the most innovative developers are usually the smallest ones. They're the people who are least likely to be able to jump through all the business hoops associated with developing for Brew. As a result, most of the applications I've seen for Brew are pretty unimaginative, not the sort of things that would compel an operator to feel like they had to offer Brew. I think Qualcomm's very nice architecture is being stunted by a bad business model.

Palm and Microsoft, sittin' in a tree...

Palm is doing an extremely good job of leveraging its relationship with Microsoft. The Palm booth was in a very visible spot, right next to Microsoft, and they were featuring each others' products. Meanwhile HP, the single largest licensee of Windows Mobile products, was stuck some distance away in an obscure booth overshadowed by another pavilion. Even after I found HP's spot, there were almost no mobile devices on display. CTIA underscored how far behind HP has fallen in the phone market.

LG: Love my heinie, love my phone

Most companies that step up from regional player to global brand go through an awkward phase while they learn how to talk to people from other countries without coming off as peculiar. LG is in the middle of that process, and earned my award for the most embarrassing booth at CES. As far as I can tell, LG wants desperately to convince the world that it's not a square Korean electronics company. Unfortunately, to prove this it put on a floor show in which very leggy girls rapped badly with supposedly edgy hip-hop DJs who looked slightly like refugees from the Cotton Club circa 1940.

Photo by PC Magazine. There are a lot of great phone photos from CTIA on their site.

I guess the theory was that if you liked a dancer's big hair you'd also like her phone.

The show was hilarious, but probably not in the way LG intended. Rather than making the company look cool, it looked out of touch and insincere. That's marketing poison in the US, where companies are falling all over themselves to appear genuine.

LG makes very creative hardware. Its clamshell "V" keyboard phone (formerly called the VX9800) would be formidable if it were paired with a RIM client instead of an MP3 player, and supposedly the LP4100 Sobriety Phone with built-in breathalyzer is a hit in Korea. (I'm not making this up.)

Yes, that's a driving game on the screen of the Sobriety Phone. I guess the idea is that if you're too blitzed to drive for real you can make believe while you wait for the cab.

LG is a sharp, fast-moving, incredibly intense company, but almost none of its culture or history involves tall blond women, and a quick check of the website of LG CEO Kim Ssangsu revealed no mention of hip-hop at all.

Here's hoping that LG will grow out of its very awkward adolescence quickly.


Anonymous said...

Nice roundup of CTIA. My overall impression was that there's a lot of consolidation going on, but there wasn't anything that new or innovative. One thing that did suprise me was the low presence of smartphone in general (but especially in consumer applications). It was something of a contrast to 3GSM where every third booth seem to be showing something on a smartphone (any platform). There didn't seem to be the same awareness of the potental of the 'open' mobile platform. Europe seems much more keyed up to this - not just for end users, but benefits for operators etc. (e.g. the S60 Vodafone announcement, the development of an ecosystem of services / products not just the ones the operator approve and integrate - leading to the device differentiation which seems to be the future driver for growth).

Where smartphone were present it was very in the enterprise sector. They were mobile email devices - indeed they almost stopped being smartphones and became pdaphones. The one handed traditional form factor (flip or candybar) seems almost non existant in the US. As a Symbian watcher this was something of a suprise. It was informative to see a market where Symbian devices in one form or another are dominant at the high end.

With regards to mobile interface - I agree with you - there are some truly appalling interfaces out there. I think S60 (espeically in its 3rd Edition guise) does a better job than previously, but it still not perfect (but then I think the number of trully excellent user interfaces are very small. As devices become more complex making the interface usable becomes harder and harder. I'm not sure I agree with you about more complex devices = simpler interfaces. I do think that simple interfaces that hide complexity until its needed work well most of the time. I think the key may be to have more of an awareness of which function the user is using. I'm something of a fan of hardware mode swicthes. I personally think the twist function of the 3250 works quite nicely as do some of the camera cover slide to start the camera phones (though some people hate these).

I think part of the issue is everyone wants something slightly different things from their devices and therefore you would need to customise the UI to each and every user - possible, but very very hard to do well I would imagine.

The iPod interface is relatively easy because of the simplicity of the functions, but has degraded over time as more functions are added (and frankly scrolling through a long list on the iPod sucks).

I think navigation keys are partly responsible, but just as guilty are too many keys, poorly placed keys, and lack of intuitiveness (poorly thought through wording of menu optons, poorly structured menus, etc.).

I think the Walkman interface is quite slick to. I especially like it on the W950 where you can use it with the scroll-wheel and the back key one handed or use the stylus driven input (one of the few times I think stylus input driven works).