Following an internal ‘end user’ review of Windows Phone 7 a few weeks ago, there is a lot which we feel is ‘right’ about the platform and admirable to have accomplished in just under a year. On the flipside, the speed at which WP7 was developed has left some gaping holes and rushed, neglected features. If anything, it should be a compliment that elements that are ‘wrong’ only stand out so much because the platform overall has gotten so many things ‘right’. Here’s a quick summary of the highlights and lowlights from an end user’s perspective.
Windows Phone 7 comes with strings attached, in order to avoid hardware and OS fragmentation as experienced by Android. There are several hardware requirements that have to be met by handset manufacturers in order to run the platform. These include three mandatory buttons for back, home and search. Although the home button is straightforward, the back and search buttons are unpredictable and frustrating. Search directly opens Bing most of the time (annoying when accidentally and repeatedly tapped) but tapping the button in Mail searches downloaded emails, in People searches contacts and (bizarrely) in Messaging opens Bing! There seems to be no way of knowing whether you will open a web or localised search. Likewise the back button, which is meant to act as a web browser ‘back’, can surprise you by taking you out of applications (this may be due to poor implementation rather than design). By comparison, Android phones feature three mandatory buttons for Home, Menu and Back, with an optional fourth (usually contextual) Search button and iOS is supported by its single mandatory device button, which is well-situated and doesn’t tend to cause any surprises. If mandatory buttons are requirements for a platform, then their actions need to be rigidly defined and predictable so that the user feels comfortable; Microsoft still has some way to go in this sense.
The stark Metro UI style has been much discussed over the past year, and it’s easy to see why. The minimal sharp graphics and bold use of typography completely reimagines how a smartphone should look and feel. This is particularly refreshing after years of iOS dominance, where real-world materials and effects are mimicked and 3D elements are used for buttons. We liked the WP7 start screen dock, where frequently used apps are positioned front and centre rather than buried in a pile. The Metro tiles are hardworking; not just buttons but individual mini-screens that show notifications and animations, and generally infuse the phone with life and character (the messaging tile is a particularly nice example).
Microsoft are understandably proud of what they have achieved with Metro, and are therefore reluctant to allow users or handset manufacturers to distort it. However in a small concession, users can change the theme of the phone within two parameters; the background colour can be toggled between light and dark, and there are several accent colour options. Although these changes seem slight, adjusting the theme in this way really refreshes the UI while obviously staying within Microsoft’s comfort zone. Add in the animated tiles and Facebook integration and you have a platform that strikes the perfect balance between customisation and originality. This marks a stark contrast to Android, whose home screen can be heavily customised and populated with widgets and animated wallpapers. Unfortunately for Android, this often backfires…
The limited customisation options for iOS lie at the other end of the spectrum, but include background wallpapers and folder creation. Compared with these, Windows Phone 7 falls comfortably somewhere in the middle.
Windows Phone 7 has been cited as the best example so far of Facebook integration within a smartphone, which may come as no surprise considering the Microsoft connection. Facebook content is localised throughout the platform; news feeds are pulled to contacts within the People hub, photo feeds are pulled to the Pictures hub, profile pictures are assigned to Facebook friends within your address book and there is even a dedicated Me tile that does nothing more than relay your own recent activity within the network. While none of these feeds are particularly useful on their own, the beauty of the integration lies in how personal the phone becomes. By simply supplying your account details, familiar names, faces and photos begin to appear throughout the UI. Its a nice touch. While Android allows users to import Facebook contacts to the address book and view friends’ photos through and application, it just doesn’t come close the the ‘hub’ experience of Windows Phone 7. There is no known Facebook synchronisation available for iOS yet, only applications.
Learn to Use
One of the really interesting aspects of the Windows Phone 7 personality is that Microsoft clearly expects users to learn and remember how to use it. There is no spoonfeeding. In a way they have a point; phones are super-personal, frequently used objects and we can probably assume that after initial discovery iOS users don’t need to be told forever more to ‘Slide to Unlock’. This seems to be Microsoft’s reasoning with WP7 at any rate, shown by a UI that hides whatever has been deemed as ‘learnable’. The sleep screen has no visible unlock control; the user learns to swipe upwards. The status bar is hidden the majority of the time; the user learns to tap the top of the screen to briefly reveal it. Icons throughout are unnamed (and often hard to distinguish); the user learns to tap nearby ellipses to reveal accompanying annotations. It does work, and you do learn, but in their haste to streamline the interface Microsoft have somewhat neglected the initial discoverability of controls. It would be nice if there were degrees of control visibility that could be minimised as the user learns rather than throwing them in at the deep end.
Transitions between screens are really smooth, and its obvious that a lot of attention was paid to the details. Instead of dropping an entire start screen, tiles are treated as individual elements which fold away on their own. The flying progress bar dots which skitter across the top of the screen when loading something are pleasantly distracting too. A lot has been said about WP7’s ‘wider than visible’ page UI, where a long page is swiped through a viewfinder (the screen). This is a direct challenge to the more traditional approach of iOS and Android, where each screen is treated as a discrete bound page, but we still need to be persuaded that this is the best alternative. There is a lot of swiping and consequently a lot of accidental presses. It will be interesting to see how, if at all, this gets improved later.
There is a lot of room for improvement within Microsoft’s app Marketplace. The categorisation is OK but we found the download process to be erratic and disjointed. Downloads need to be confirmed several times and the language is a little off (including a mysterious ‘Check Install’ button). When the download progress bar has filled up you are told that there are ‘no downloads in progress’, rather than being offered a straightforward ‘you have successfully downloaded X’ confirmation message. Likewise, failures aren’t explained well. The quality of app preview screenshots is hit and miss; some appear as compressed jpegs and really jar with the crispness of the WP7 UI. Overall the Marketplace feels like it was rushed out without the same level of design consideration shown in other parts of the platform.
From an end user’s point of view we feel that Windows Phone 7 is probably too young to tempt any veteran iOS or Android user right now, but in the near future it is likely to be a real contender. For entry level smartphone users, the platform is a great option; future friendly and enjoyable to use. As exciting as the platform is right now, the real excitement lies in seeing where Microsoft will take Windows Phone 7 from here, and how it will compete against iOS and Android in the long term. For now, at least, the future is looking bright…
By the way, this post is related to another one we did, called Windows Phone 7 for Designers — Cheat Sheet.
Photo credit:: Windows Phone 7 RTM Parade by Trioculus on Flickr.