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Interfaces and Time

24 Nov 2004 by Matthew Linderman

I’ve come to realize my cell phone sucks. For example, whenever I choose a text message recipient, my phone prompts me to choose between all the numbers listed under that contact. Unfortunately, it just lists the numbers without telling me which one is cell, office, or home. I have to either know or guess. That’s just plain dumb.

It got me to thinking about interfaces and time. You really need to live with an interface in order to assess it properly. Sure, you can judge aesthetics immediately. But, often, the only way to realize whether an interface is truly successful or crappy is to buy and use the product for weeks or months. And by that time, it’s usually too late to do anything about it.

Even product reviews suffer because of this. Reviewers usually use a product for a day or so and then write a review. But the impact of annoyances like extra required clicks or missing icons can often take weeks to sink in.

It’s no wonder interface design often gets short-shrift from the suits. It’s a long-term customer satisfaction factor in an arena that’s focused on short-term sales success.

19 comments so far (Post a Comment)

24 Nov 2004 | Jeff Croft said...

Wow, that does suck that it doesn't identify which number is which. mine has little icons.

Anyway, you are dead on about the time bit. You really can't judge intefaces quickly, and you really can't judge them unless you actually use them in the way you expect users to.

24 Nov 2004 | sloan said...

the problem i see is that they aren't learning from their mistakes. cell phones have been popular for how long now? and they still are making pretty amateurish mistakes in interface design. But then, do they care?

24 Nov 2004 | Mike D. said...

One word for you: Treo

It does a great job of handling the exact sorts of things you're talking about.

24 Nov 2004 | Mihai Parparita said...

It looks like at least Sony-Ericcson's K700i tries to improve on this:

Just as it has made changes to their UI, Sony Ericsson has made some changes to the various aspects of their messaging system, including the T9 system. The SMS system in the K700i is not all that much different than those in pervious phones, but the look has changed a wee bit, and they have streamlined the recipient selection process. The change to the recipient selection comes by way of a list of recently used recipients that is shown under the options for selecting a number from the SIM or for looking up a contact. It is a small change, but it will remove a required step from the process of sending a message if you tend to send messages to the same people all the time, as I do.


24 Nov 2004 | Geoff Moller said...

Things like this make so happy to have stuck with Nokia products over time. The 6200 series have little icons next to each of the numbers indicating General, Mobile, Home, Work and Fax.

While their market share has taken a beating lately, their interface is still a model of simplicity and usability.

24 Nov 2004 | Bryan said...

I second the treo.

24 Nov 2004 | Darrel said...

Itís no wonder interface design often gets short-shrift from the suits. Itís a long-term customer satisfaction factor in an arena thatís focused on short-term sales success.

Replace 'interface design' with:

- customer support
- product quality
- product longevity
- environmental issues
- worker safety
- employee compensation
- etc.


As for cell phones, has anyone actually fell in love with a cell phone provider? Each new phone I get is worse than the previous. My new one is just awful. Miniscule buttons, WAY too many options, annoying ringtones, bad color screen. Ugh. I miss my old black and white LCD, simply-dial-the-number-to-call phone.

24 Nov 2004 | Carl said...

Hey Darrel, are you happy with anything?

24 Nov 2004 | Michel Vuijlsteke said...

Ugh, ads in the rss feed.

24 Nov 2004 | Don Schenck said...

Darrel reminds me of Sgt. Maj. Dickerson sometimes.

24 Nov 2004 | Michael Honey said...

... and the converse also applies: to satisfy stakeholders/focustesters/reviewers, interfaces get designed with fluffy extras which impede the experienced user. Powerful, complex tools need powerful, and, yes, sometimes complex interfaces - and to make them manageable, it's often better to strip out that fluff. But how to sell it to the CEO with a ten-second attention span?

25 Nov 2004 | pb said...

My new one is just awful. Miniscule buttons, WAY too many options, annoying ringtones, bad color screen. Ugh. I miss my old black and white LCD, simply-dial-the-number-to-call phone.
I have the exact same sentiment. I'm switching back to a Samsung N200 on Sprint from a Sony T637 on Cingular. I have been very disappointed both with the phone and the service.

25 Nov 2004 | dusoft said...

Go with Nokia. Forget about those dilettantish SonyEricsson and Siemens interface/menu designs.

25 Nov 2004 | Matthew Schinckel said...

Yes, I sometimes feel the same way - it should automatically choose the mobile phone - but some countries & service providers have the ability to send/receive SMS from fixed line phones (that are compatible).

And sometimes people have multiple mobiles.

But the icons on my 6610 do make it a little easier. If only it was smart enough to realise an 04xx number (in AUS) is a mobile, and just about anything else is a fixed line phone.

25 Nov 2004 | mindful_learner said...

I'm a late adopter. I don't have much money, so I have to purchase wisely. I like flicking through the technology magazines, but they don't help much for the reasons outlined in this post. I just can't afford to take a fancy to something and throw caution to the wind. I NEED to be sure I'm not making a dumb purchase that is going to end up on eBay faster than you can say 'look before you leap'.

Soo....what I'd love to see in the technology magazines is a 'Living with it' section (they do this in the car magazines quite frequently). The magazine would choose a couple of the gadgets they rate highly in different categories and discuss what it's like living with them over a few months. The emphasis would be on how useful and pleasing these things are in day-to-day usage once the initial excitement has died down. What are the unexpected gripes? The hidden annoyances? The compromises? I'd love the review to be run by several groups of people: the experts, the technophiles, the guy in the street, and Mum and Dad. A real good range of views. There'd be no quick rating, just honest commentary of what it is like to live with a technology or gadget.

Actually, there's a couple of blogs out there that are close to this vision. Real labour of loves where individuals carefully review what is like to live with a particular product with beautifully illustrated examples and no obvious bias. I salute these individuals (not least because you helped me choose my recent digital camera).

Let's hear it for technology we can live with. Let's hear it for stuff that actually gets used.


25 Nov 2004 | Darrel said...

Hey Darrel, are you happy with anything?


26 Nov 2004 | ffub said...

I still want to know why all the T9 phones I've had think I'm more likely to write nun than mum and shot than pint. It's not alphabetical and can't be by studies of usage.

"I've been back from uni two hours and already my nun is driving me crazy; fancy meeting for a quick shot?"

29 Nov 2004 | Michael Spina said...

Agreed. Cars are the same way; you really have to live with it and drive it every day. All the little quirks which can make or break an experience, like the speed of the intermittent wipers or how easy it is to dial a contact on your phone just get emphasized (for better or worse) over time.

And the next time I read in a tech magazine "we love this phone because of the great picture quality" I'm just going to scream.

01 Dec 2004 | Don Schenck said...

ffub - sure! I like Maker's Mark!

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