Mobile Phones and Usability

Ever wonder why Nokia is the preferred mobile phone brand (at least in Asia and Europe, and second in the US)? It’s because of usability. Never mind those snazzy looks and features that other brands give you. Never mind the hacker-friendly mobiles that let users tweak and flash their firmwares to their hearts content.

Nokias rule because even the dummiest of dummies can operate them. Yes,the interface is usually clunky (like vertical-folder instead of grid like everyone else). But it works.

A Lesson in Design

It’s ironic that some devices that have what we perceive to be clunky interfaces are, in fact, those with the friendliest UIs–so friendly that many mobile users will simply not consider any other brand because they’re comfortable with a certain interface, and will stick to that.

As for designing Websites or Web apps, it pays to be as simple and straightforward as possible, even if your site may not fare well in the snazzy department. I know some companies and developers love to wow their audiences with fancy splash screens, dropdown menus that automagically drop down on mouse-over, and AJAXy sites that have all these alerts popping up every now and then (useless widgets, anyone?). Usability buffs would say these are only annoying and should be done away with. I agree.

Some Questions

Here are a few questions to consider when conceptualizing your site, blog, web-app, or even software.

  1. Am I requiring my users to do otherwordly stuff before accessing the functions of my site? It should be as simple as clicking a few links. The fewer the better. For the Nokia, it’s click, a few presses of the up/down button, click, up or down again, and so on. Yes, they can press Menu-2-1-4, but they shouldn’t necessarily have to remember how to press combinations of several keys just to access the function they want.
  2. Am I making it easy for users to find what they’re looking for? Again, for instance, it’s that darned “home” link! Users shouldn’t have to have a difficult time navigating your site or looking for information they might need or want. Help them out, or else they will leave.
  3. Do I present too much information? This is called overload, and this is bad. This is why Nokias have a nested menu system instead of offering all features upfront. And this is why on my blogs, I chose not to put every conceivable tidbit of information on the site’s sidebar. No one really reads them, anyway, and I’d like my readers to focus on the content. If my users want more information, they will look for it, and my navigation system should help them on that.

I don’t claim to be a usability expert, and I never have. But I’ve done usability testing for my previous employer, and I’m also a user of gadgets and Web applications myself. While I consider myself to be in the intermediate to advanced range, I still do find unfriendly design daunting and annoying. What more to those not really well-versed in gadgets, technology, or a devices’ interface?

Again, I echo myself–design with stupid in mind.

I don’t use a Nokia, by the way. I use a Windows-based SmartPhone.

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