Conflate with care

One of the worst user interface design errors is the conflation of two unrelated concerns. Unfortunately it is depressingly common.

Take for example Back and Up. Frequently these are conflated into a single button leading to unexpected user behaviour. This is currently bugging me on my Android phone… I use an app that opens a screen that then sends me to my e-mail, I press ‘Back’ expecting to go back to the app but instead the ‘back button’ is overloaded to mean ‘up to parent’ by the mail app so I actually end up in the inbox. It may seem a small thing but believe me it is absolutely infuriating.

Unfortunately for designers precisely the converse is also true… one of the best UI design ideas is to conflate related ideas. Yes, mutual contradiction at work.?

Consider e-mail and facebook messaging, both are basically the same and wrapping them all up in the same ui would make most users pretty happy.

The challenge for the designer then is to locate ideas that seem related not only to the designers of the world but to everyone who will pick up their creation. When they succeed the user sees the world as simpler, more obvious, and less stressful. When they fail the UI seems to be a nightmare to use, a frustration, and often reason enough to seek alternatives.

Moral: Conflate with care!

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Looking back on previous work
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So, over the years I’ve done some interesting work (or at least some time consuming stuff ;) ) and I thought it might be interesting to gather a few of those items together on my new site, to begin with I’d like to highlight a couple of my early web designs.

C&W Creams

From 2004 this design was for a small American family business selling a special moisturiser to the female market. The site was a simple no-nonsense construction using css based navigation (at the time that was relatively cool, nowadays no-one would consider it anything special… how times change) consisting of 7 pages.

TaxTime

Keeping the minimalist information driven theme I also created this framework for an American tax office, unfortunately this wasn’t what they were looking for at the time so now it exists only as this mock up. I guess you win some and loose some…

So there you have it, a simple post with a couple of designs in it… if you like to see this sort of thing do let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

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[Review] Nexus One vs iPhone 3G 16GB
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This review courtesy of a complex import excercise to get the Nexus One onto my t-mobile iPhone account in the Netherlands. Damn you google for not accepting the fact that the internet is a global distribution system. Damn you and your godawful online support. Still at least you had the good grace not to carrier lock the phone so it is at least possible to flaunt your rules with a helpful UK family member.

This mini review only covers the out-of-the box experience. Maybe I’ll update with new feelings and opinions after I’ve had some time to configure and aquire lots of apps.

The outside
When you lay the two next to each other on the desk the heritage is plain to see. The Nexus One is almost identical in size and form. If anything HTC & Google have taken the rounded edges idea a little further than Apple and the device benefits from that in the pocket and hand. However they are very similar – indeed my girlfriends first comment was “why did you want another one the same?”.

The screen on the Nexus One is slightly larger and has a much higher pixel density which shows in the smoothness and readability of text. Perceptually I am more grabbed by the look of the iPhone display, but that is probably because out of the box it is a tad brighter. The reading angle on the Nexus is substantially better.
Like the iPhone there is a speaker grill on the top of the front panel, although the one on the Nexus is slightly sexier looking.

On the front of the Nexus One are a Trackball and four soft buttons in place of the iPhones single physical button. The track ball works surprisingly well, even when wearing gloves and it doubles up as a button by pressing down on it. The soft buttons are brilliant, why the iPhone ever shipped without a ‘Back’ button is beyond me and has bugged me since day one. Thankfully the Nexus One has this covered. All four soft buttons function reasonably well and are easy to hit.
The mini-usb on the bottom is much like any other – at last I can have a single charger system for all my phones (well, except the iPhone). There are also three docking pins that I have been unable to test because I don’t have a dock. The mini-usb is marginally harder to insert than the iPhone connector but easier to remove. Only time will tell if the mini-usb has the survivability of the iPhone dock connector.

On the side lives the volume control which is simultaneously nicer to use than the one on the iPhone and harder to locate by touch. It is elegantly moulded to match the case which means even running my fingers up and down it I don’t get caught on any sharp edges. However because it is hard to feel I find myself accidentally pressing it a lot more than the one on the iPhone.

On the back live the camera and the xenon flash. Thankfully HTC put it closer to the middle of the top edge which is slightly more intuitive when using it. The flash is not available on the iPhone.

On the top is the ubiquitous 3.5mm headphone jack; however this is on the right instead of the left on the iPhone. And the power button – also on the other side.

It took me a while to discover that holding down the power button also triggers an on-screen menu that allows one to select ‘Silent Mode’, ‘Flight Mode’, and ‘Power Off’. This is not at all intuitive compared to the iPhones little switch, on the other hand that little switch on the iPhone has been the bane of my life because it often gets switched to silenced in my pocket and then I miss calls. All in all I call this one a wash.

The iPhone is backed in shiny black whereas the Nexus is a sort of matt grey/gold colour. I prefer the shiny black but the iPhone is damn slippy to hold onto in the wet… the nexus one is grippy and comfortable. So, image aside this is a big win for the Nexus.

On the iPhone the method of inserting the Sim card is to stick a bent paper clip (or their special tool that everyone loses) in the top to eject the Sim holder, on the Nexus it is done by removing the back cover and the battery. Either method works, meh.

The back cover on the nexus is easy to remove but doesn’t seem to show any indication of jumping off. HTC seem to have removable covers down to a fine art.

Unlike the iPhone the Nexus also supports removable Micro-SD storage and a removable battery, both big plusses in my book. The only slight downside is that the SD card can only be taken out when the battery is removed – I would wager this has something to do with ensuring the user has ‘un-mounted’ the card before removal (this thing has a Linux kernel after all). All in all it’s OK and seriously better than the iPhone but hot swap would be a nice thing to see in a future model.
Build quality wise it feels solid in the hand but not overly heavy. Subjectively it feels lighter than the iPhone, but according to my kitchen scales they both weigh in at an identical 133g.

Powering Up
They both take almost exactly the same time to boot from cold… about 45 seconds.

Shutdown
The Nexus turns off in about half the time of the iPhone 3G, however it doesn’t have the groovy ‘slide to power off’ UI element of the iPhone. Another wash, especially since neither takes more than a few seconds.

In Use
The first thing you see on both phones is the lock screen. On the iPhone you see the service provider, 3G status, Wifi status, notification of whether or not alarms are set, the battery meter, and the date and time. On the Nexus you see the same, however for some reason they included the time twice…

The Nexus also displays a handy warning to connect your battery charger if the power is low. This is better than the iPhones single fire, cancel, forget message. Speaking of charging there is a groovy little LED that lights up on the front face when the phone is charging, nice. Score one for the Nexus.

Also on the charging front the power adapter is one of those horrid moulded onto the plug things, which means you can’t replace the plug. This one goes to the iPhone with its gorgeous adaptable adapter. In fact I will miss the iPhone adapter system loads if I move to the Nexus full time.

Unlocking the phones is about the same… slide a little doehicky to the right. The Nexus adds the ability to slide another one to the left to silence the phone (this duplicates the silence menu under the power button). If anything the iPhone implements it a fraction better with the sweetly fading prompt text and the ability to wiggle the slider back and forward, the Nexus annoyingly unlocks regardless of whether I lift my finger or not.

Both phones provide a home screen that looks much the same, the both provide multiple pages using left/right swipes and indicate the current page using little dots. Both show you the battery and phone status in the toolbar at the top. The iPhone squeezes an extra row of icons onto each page, however the Nexus manages to include an extra soft button to get to even more apps and the ability to add ‘Widgets’ to the screen (such as todo, calendar appointments, etc). All in all the Nexus is more functional but the iPhone manages to look nicer.

The left/right swipe on the iPhone is a tad more responsive and smoother, the slight bounce animations and acceleration/deceleration of the slide really help to make the action feel better. Win to the iPhone here.

Opening my gmail account is a fraction quicker on the iPhone 3g (!) and the 3-line preview is preferable to the Nexus’s subject + sender approach. The Nexus shows the Stared status of mails which the iPhone doesn’t. When it comes to reading the mails themselves the Nexus’s screen is waaaay better, but the iPhone has a much handier interface layout and functionality. Definitely the iPhone wins this one hands down.

With regards to Exchange e-mail support they both have it; however the iPhone combines all the e-mails in a single app which is imho nicer. So again a win to the iPhone.

In terms of the calendar app the one on the Nexus throws away the ability to see at a glance the events of a given day and in its place squeezes in a bar that shows when you are busy on every given day. I’m not convinced, in fact I really prefer the iPhone here. In order to create a new event the iPhone lets you use a single tap on the + button, the Nexus makes you go through the menu (soft button) and then the + button. iPhone takes this one too. Filling in the event details is for the most part also better on the iPhone, the Nexus only wins out in having a slightly more usable date selection widget and allowing multiple alerts per event.

The one big calendar win for the Nexus is the 7-day week view.

However, there is one HUGE loss for the Nexus… Microsoft Exchange Calendar integration. If it’s possible I certainly have not figured out how. Clearly this isn’t meant to be a business device.

The browser is nippy and well designed on both; however there are some significant differences. The Nexus browser fails to display the title of the page and provides no easy way of scrolling back to the top (the iPhone has both). The nexus also lacks the control toolbar of the iPhone… this means more reading space but an extra soft-button press for every action.

Both have double tap zoom, with googles implementation being slightly better. Both offer Pinch zoom, however here Apples implementation is better.

When you visit Google.com on the Nexus it can locate you using your gps, however strangely it does not automatically connect you to your iGoogle account despite the phone being linked to it. Worse even though it knows I’m in Haarlem, Netherlands it insists on showing me google in Spanish. I have to select ‘google.com in english’ every time I visit it. Some work needed here!

Multi-tasking on the Nexus is nice when compared to the iPhone, however it isn’t exactly intuitive. Who would have guessed for example that pressing and holding the home button would bring up the ‘alt-tab’ interface to switch between running apps?

Contacts are pretty much a wash; maybe the search ability is a tiny fraction better on the Nexus but nothing much in it.

The new iteration of Google maps on the Nexus is really taking maps to the next level with satellite image and custom information overviews, the multi-tasking helps here too. I would still prefer to download an offline maps app for GPS navigation since it is all too easy to run out of 3G data signal and have to struggle to get maps down. Win to the Nexus.

Android Market is better than iPhone App Store in implementation but there are less apps available. I think Android takes this one for the potential – I imagine in 2 years it will trash the app store.

The ringer is not particularly loud on the Nexus although it out peeps my house phone, in fact it is noticably quieter than the iPhone 3G at max ringer volume. The vibrate is feeble both on call reception and as haptic feedback compared to the iPhone Frown This is an area where smartphones really really need to improve.

The noise cancelling effect of the second microphone is very impressive; it almost totally eliminates background noise but does have the downside of very occasionally causing some voice distortion that can make the caller hard to understand. That said I would definitely rather have this feature than not! My parents proclaimed that I had never sounded so clear on the international connection (and I’ve called them on landlines, iPhones, WinMo’s and normal mobiles) which is praise indeed.

Reception clarity is astoundingly good, no issues whatsoever. I wouldn’t mind a tad more volume in the earphone but it is way better than the iPhone.

Speakerphone is loud enough but a little tinny. IMHO not the best speakerphone mode I’ve heard but usable.

The call log is large and clear with completely intuitive functionality. In fact I would say it is better than the iPhones in terms of doing what one would expect. The dial pad is equally functional.

I think the 3G reception is a tad less reliable than the iPhone on T-mobile NL, however it is possible that they need to tune their towers for this phone since the Nexus is not officially available here yet. In any case the variation is extremely marginal and may just be the Nexus reporting lost signals quicker than the iPhone does.

I really miss the voicemail system of the iPhone it is nice to be able to see at a glance which voicemails I have and listen to them out of order. Going back to the old ‘dial in’ way of listening to voicemail is a serious come down. Go iPhone.

Notifications via the glowy trackball on the Nexus one are a feature the iPhone doesn’t have at all and are a really nice addition Smile This of course is balanced by the horrid notification toolbar that makes getting to my notifications a pain in the butt. What on earth is wrong with a standard fly out menu in place of this horrid click and drag thing that usually closes before I can get to the notification.

Without a doubt the camera on the Nexus is streets ahead of the iPhone, no question a hands down winner here. Do mobile photos matter to you? Maybe not… but the bar-code reading ability is also improved by the camera and cpu combo so maybe that counts for something.

I like the digital compass, nice. Of course the iPhone 3GS also has this so it’s not really fair to fault the iPhone here.

Typing on the Nexus is more finicky than that of the iPhone and the placement of the soft-keys just below the spacebar doesn’t help. I keep finding myself tapping the soft keys by accident and if I’m typing in a hurry sometimes I bring up the menu and trigger and action without actually seeing what the action was. The onscreen keyboard is an area where there is substantial room for improvement; however the auto correct is nothing if not brilliant. Of course HTC have had autocorrect/complete sorted for many years on WinMo so maybe this isn’t such a surprise.

I would say that in general the touch responsiveness and accuracy of the Nexus isn’t quite up to the same level as the iPhone, the iPhone borders on psychic at times by getting exactly the right action under a finger mash that could have gone many ways. A particularly insidious example of the Nexus problem is the sms interface… sometimes it can take me 5 or 6 presses to encourage the on-screen keyboard to activate so I can type in a message.

Speaking of texting… it works, it’s nothing special and it suffers from the annoying notification system. It supports conversation threading, multiple recipients, and to a degree draft messages. It shows contact pictures in message threads which is a nice addition.

Finally the animated wallpapers are a bit of a gimic but they are rather pleasing and I already miss them on the iPhone Wink

Conclusions
The Nexus One has a way better screen, marginally nicer hardware, and much better customisability.

The iPhone has way more intuitive software, better touch sensitivity but it looks dated and lacks a back button.

All in all I think the Nexus One is a good evolutionary hardware improvement however Android is not quite up to the level of polish shown by the iPhone OS.

I’ll likely persevere with the Nexus just because I want to develop for it but if Apple launched a new iPhone with similar hardware I’d switch back in a heartbeat.

Of course I’ve only used the Nexus for a day whereas I’ve had the iPhone for nearly 2 years… so maybe time will make it better – after all it is extremely customisable.

As a side note Android blows Windows Mobile out of the water. I will be intrigued to see what MS comes up with in WinMo 7 since Android has clearly stolen its place in the mobile phone ecosystem.

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Building on the shoulders…
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The blog design is finally begining to take shape, it’s built on WordPress so all the heavy lifting has already been handled… and a thousand little complexities have already been introduced!

Actually it seems to be pretty nicely built and I’m not having too much trouble hacking together my own theme, phew.

It’s all looking a little minimalist right now (sign of a clean mind don’t you know) but as time goes by I hope to get the rest of it working, then on to the content (eek).

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Slippery Slope
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First they made me get a mobile, then a website, not long after it was ICQ, IRC, Facebook, Broadband, and a house full of computers. Now it’s the turn of the blog.

Yes folks, I’m sliding down the slippery slope into the mire of the digital world.

Why? you might ask (although probably not, I know I don’t)…

It is starting as a place to collect some random ramblings ranging over my experience of daily things and a collection of thoughts over design and interaction with gadgets. Probably there will be a photo or two thrown in.

So… there you have it… now sit back and wait for the first post :)

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