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    Thursday
    Aug052010

    mobile UX: plastic click vs metal glide

    The next time a commercial for any mobile device comes on, close your eyes. What do you hear? Interestingly, what you hear may say more about the "feel" of the product than any visual will ever be able to communicate.

    I've been spending a lot of time crisscrossing the mobile touchscreen market. And one thing has become very obvious - it's time to get back to paying attention to the more abstract, kinesthetic parts of how these products work. And although you may scoff, watching and listening to commercials of the products can give you an interesting POV on where the company thinks they're going.

    When the Blackberry Storm 1.0 and 2.0 were release I watched the commercials with interest. What I was stunned to hear was a distinct emphasis on "clicking." In this commercial you'll even hear the actor say the word clicking. Hm. In an earlier commercial (the one that first caught my attention) they show a close-up of someone using the interface, showing them pressing the button on-screen which creates a rather unpleasant click and then the screen kerplunks to the next view. No fancy screen transitions for these folks.

    In terms of the touch interface I notice that the Storm feels like a plastic experience. That commercial made me think of a cheap plastic games where you move the pieces around until you have a complete picture. Or those clickers that I hear dog owners use when their dogs are misbehaving. Click-pop, click-pop. To use a programming analogy - it's old school HTML klunk and change, rather than newer ajax or flex transitions.

    I should point out - I love old school. I'm a fan of klunk and chunk fast cuts rather than annoying swishy animation in interfaces. But somewhere in the engineering of the Storm, the old school base code met up with the old school visual and interaction experience and leaves you feeling like something isn't working the way you'd like it to. And the analogies that you LOVE from the key driven Blackberry experience, are just not working the way you're used to in this new environment. In the user experience world this would be the not so subtle difference between "it just works - anywhere/any time" and "it works - but they still have some kinks to work out."

    Somehow, I think the Blackberry folks are up to the task - the 2.0 release was definitely an improvement. I can actually begin to see and feel the emergence of a more solid interaction. I look forward to seeing if they can keep identifying their own strengths and finding their own appealing quality of interaction.

    And as the world we're in for the U.S. smartphone market is one where the iPhone is in the lead in terms of defining what "works" for touch interfaces, we could listen to its close-ups and watch its transitions. Much like luxury car commercials, the graphics and sound are all about the organic sweep and metalic slides. "Go marketing," but also go engineering and design. By creating hardware that can produce the necessary touch experience and the transitions required they really paid attention to the feel of the interactions. When you study the pace of their transitions they obviously spent a lot of time tuning the gravity, reactiveness and speed.

    Interestingly, on a performance note, notice that they don't use full animation cycles in the transitions on the iPhone. Watch them carefully - it's really just the most essential pieces of the motion cycle (starts and finishes) so that they don't completely kill the battery life while still providing a fairly speedy and reassuringly smooth visual experience. This is where it's critical to balance design constraints with the visual/interaction and branding implementation.

    And now with the iPhone 4, watch how the commercials show it with no interaction. "Things" happens without you needing to do anything. Connection without buttons is the hot new interaction. And when you are interacting then they emphasize the soft touch and quick visual responsiveness. That's the whole design game - when do the visual responses happen based on the touch and what are they? Can your hardware produce full transitions? And if not can you speed the cuts enough to provide the feel of seamless, highly responsive interaction?

    As a designer of applications on a wide variety of mobile devices, I think it's critical that I keep in touch with these more abstracted, kinesthetic sets of information. I always spend time looking at the company commercials, marketing materials and technical specs. What did THEY think they were up to? Then I spend as much time as possible playing myself, comparing and contrasting. And while we can't necessarily affect the path of the base development for these products, we can certainly maximize on what is provided.

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