The beautiful N9 – and how it could be even better

Posted in Interaction Design, Interfaces and Mobile

Have you been swiping lately? I hope you have, because Nokia’s N9 is an extraordinarily beautiful and responsive product with the swipe. I warmly congratulate the whole MeeGo team for the achievement!

First I start with some disclaimers: I used to work at MeeGo (at that time: Maemo) during 2008 as a design lead for the UI. Therefore my view on the N9 is biased in many ways: positive bias as I still feel tiny bit of ownership and negative bias towards any changes and differences to what we designed back in those days.

Building blocks of a UI framework

When building a new UI framework from the scratch, there are a couple of building blocks you necessarily need, and then the job is to design how to access these and move between them. These include: launching applications, notifications and status information, within-application controls, cross-application controls (closing app, moving between apps), finding and handling content and data, and a couple of others. This is provided that we still have the application centric paradigm that all computers currently use.

Although the design space for a UI framework may seem almost infinite, there will be dominant use cases, requirements an restrictions that will limit the amount of ways you can organize the building blocks. Let me first walk through a bit how the dominant UI frameworks are designed.

Building blocks in iPhone…

In iPhone, launching applications is on the home screen. The notifications are either small indicators attached to an application icon, or they are modal popups on top, e.g. for a text message. There are no widgets or such for more advanced, live status info and notifications. Within-application controls consist of a quite standard set of UI controls, and back-stepping within the app is always on the top left corner. Moving between sections within the app are at the bottom. There’s no way of exiting an application, except by pressing the button that will take back to the app icon grid. In the original iPhone, there was no multi-tasking: going back to home screen closed the application.

In Android…

In Android, home screen is reserved mainly for notifications: widgets that display status information. Home screen can also include shortcuts to applications, but the actual application launching takes place in a separate application menu. Within-application controls are similar to iPhone’s, except that there’s a physical button for going back, and typically the tabs are on top where iPhone has them on the bottom. For cross-app functions, Android uses the home key, which doesn’t (seemingly) close the app, or by pressing repeatedly back until you are at home screen. You can also at times move to other apps through the notifications in the top bar. So you already here see that the structures of iPhone and Android are different: iPhone very simple and Android slightly more complex.

…and in MeeGo

In N9 and MeeGo, the home screen consists of three panes, where one is for notifications, one for launching applications, and one for moving between open applications. In this sense, by placing multi-tasking on the home screen puts much more emphasis on multi-tasking compared to iPhone or Android. Within-application controls are not much different to others: here the commands and tabs are on the bottom. Back-stepping is placed there as well. You should note, that in MeeGo you can’t exit an application. The only way for getting out of the app is to use the swipe gesture, which will leave application open and go back to home screen. This is very similar to Android’s home button but using a gesture instead.

So all these three platforms have the same building blocks, arranged in slightly different ways. It’s difficult to claim which of these is better than the other. Structurally, N9 is completely on the par with the competition. The differences will be more subtle.

What will then set these platforms apart? I’m not getting to the obvious questions of the ecosystem, where the first comers have a clear advantage. Instead, I will point out some issues with N9 that I would have done differently.

1. The Swipe

Swipe is a nice, smooth gesture. Short swipes are the easiest thing to do. This is why touch UIs are so successful: kinetic scrolling is easy, fun and accurate at the same time. (*cough* EP 880091 for those interested in patents).

Using swipe for exiting an application has two problems. First, it is slightly difficult to do. It’s not the standard swipe as we know it: you need to swipe from outside the screen. This requires stretching the thumb slightly beyond what is comfortable. It’s not completely reliable: sometimes you miss. And it is annoyingly just slightly different from the normal swipe that you can start anywhere on the screen. I expect that in frequent use, e.g. when browsing, normal horizontal scrolling by swiping will at some point be recognized as app-exit-swipe.

Second, it is completely non-intuitive. There is no hint on the screen that you could swipe. Maybe your friend will tell you, maybe you will see this in a shop, or in a tutorial app on the device itself. Fine – but I still dare you: is it acceptable that one of the most important functions in the UI is hidden? The poor occasional user who missed all the communication about the swipe will be hopelessly and permanently stuck. I hope that this won’t happen when the owner of the phone is lying unconscious in the gutter after a bicycle accident, and a passer-by is trying to make the emergency call with his device.

Lastly something positive: the swipe is good in that sense that it saves some space in the UI: you don’t need to have explicit buttons (hard or soft) to exit an application.

2. Closing an app

The only way for closing an app in N9 is to first leave it open, do the Swipe for the home screen, then swipe to the multi-tasking view, and close the app from there. You may ask, why close applications in the first place? In theory, if the device can keep tens of applications open (or hibernated), there would be no need for closing an app at all. I’d claim otherwise: people have the need for closure. They want to know when a task is finished, by explicitly closing the application. If you have been using an app that is for example connected to the internet, would you have a nagging feeling that it might be still open in the background, consuming battery, bandwidth or your money? Some people want to keep things tidy and in order (not me – you should see my desk). If apps keep piling up in the multitask screen, there will be people who want to clean it up regularly. It would be so much easier for them that apps would have an option for exiting completely in the first place.

Why not have exit in the apps? Most of applications have a hierarchy that will require them to have a back button available for going back anyway. In the highest level of the app, the same space could be used for an “X for exit”.

3. Within-app controls

As discussed above, the tool bars and tabs in mobile UIs are typically on the top or on the bottom of the application. (Obviously: they can’t be in the middle either.) Why did N9 choose the way of iPhone of placing the controls on the bottom? Not that it would make such a big difference, but when holding a monoblock touch device in one hand, the upper part of the screen is much easily accessible with the thumb than the lowest part. That’s where the primary within-application controls should go.

Another much more interesting decision for Nokia is to use the positive options on the right side of the screen and negative on the left. So in the eternal discussion of OK/Cancel vs. Cancel/OK, MeeGo seems to be going for the latter. This is also the iPhone way. But hold on – Nokia has been making mobile phones with positive options on the left and negative on the right for a couple of decades. The green handset button has always been on the left. The soft keys have always been Options and Back, in that order. Is there something in the spatial metaphors of MeeGo that requires changing the tradition?

4. Multi-tasking

I really like the multi-tasking pane of the MeeGo home screen. It is demonstrating visually one of the biggest strengths of the new platform: multi-tasking. Putting emphasis to multi-tasking makes N9 a true computer. But there’s one thing… Why are the applications in the multi-tasking view changing their positions? I think the rationale is this: people are most often switching back to the application that they have used recently. Therefore, N9 places the application that you recently used as the first item in the view. It kind of makes sense, but…

When a tile in the multi-tasking view is moved to the first slot, all the other tiles change their location in the grid too. (Well, not quite all of them, if you already had the app open, but I’ll leave that for you to think through.) This means that you need to visually search for the application you want, every single time.

I think it would be sensible to expect that people use regularly just a couple of applications. When they are open in the multi-tasking view, and if they would simply stay where they are and not changing their order based on the recency of use, you would always find them there, just where they were the last time. You wouldn’t need to visually search for them. This would be much more convenient and fast. This change would also be very easy to do, so I hope some of the MeeGo guys are listening…

And last…

I think N9 is a marvelous achievement by the dedicated MeeGo team. My favorite aspects of it is that they have really taken the touch UI to the max: MeeGo doesn’t require any hardware buttons. That’s a true statement and a differentiator on the market busy with touch screen devices. This feature will enable devices that maximize the display size.

One of the things I was mostly delighted in N9 is the emphasis put on NFC. Connecting accessories, such as handsfree earphones or loudspeakers seems to be extremely easy and natural. Combined with a smart and simple notification on the display, this will be a killer feature. My colleague Akseli was designing the principles of NFC touch UI when he was still at Nokia, and it’s great to see his designs now implemented beautifully.

I sincerely hope that Nokia will give N9 a fair chance on the market, and that it will be a commercial success.

Until then, have a good summer, and happy swiping!
–panu

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