Note: This is a continuation of a series on the Windows Phone. See Part 1 for the motivation for this review.
It’s truly amazing to have a unique experience with the same underlying concepts. The Windows Phone is just another smartphone OS. It can check the weather in your area, give you directions, send media-rich messages and let you post to Twitter. You can get that with iOS, Android, Symbian, Meego, or whatever other flavor of smart there is. But the Windows Phone takes the classic elements of what has become commonplace and rediscovers the context of why we engage in these activities on the go. Mobile interaction affords fast, yet engaging motions that demand just a tiny bit of attention in your everyday life. Get in, get out. That is Microsoft’s goal. If you are looking for a large development pool, tons of third-party apps, and a widget based UI, you’ve come to the wrong place. This is about changing opinions. It’s about making things new.
Act 2: The Experience
This is Part 2 of an in-depth analysis of the Windows Phone, from a dedicated i-system user. Part 1 covered my motivation for moving away from the Apple ecosystem. It wasn’t easy to take the leap, given the strong connections to everything thus far. But, the effort that it took (minimal in some ways) made the experience more worth it. Thanks to some handy assistance from Google Sync, it was almost too easy to break away and hit the reset button. I’ve been using the phone for about a week since that time, and have slowly gathered my thoughts in my little notebook as I went.
I had a white iPhone 32GB 4S. A person on an internet forum initiated the trade and sent over a Lumia 800 that was sold in Italy, I suppose. You can’t get the Lumia 800 in the United States unless you buy a gaudy bundle that is sold at Windows Stores for an atrocious sum of money. It is probably the lousiest retail decision (other than, perhaps, a recent blunder of selling the Lumia 900 on Easter Sunday). The Lumia 800 comes with the following:
- The device, sporting 16GB internal storage, or half of what my iPhone had.
- An AC adapter, but made for Italy. The cable is micro USB, though, so I took an old Apple charger and tossed aside the sync cable.
- A rubber, condom-style case. The phone fits snugly and it actually does a decent job protecting the matte-black exterior.
- A very terrible set of Nokia earbuds, much like Apple’s. They are black to match the device (Does the Cyan include matching earbuds?).
- Instructions. A booklet of them, actually.
Unboxing is similar to an iPhone: the Lumia is on top in all of its glory, followed by the innards. In fact, the accessories also sit at the bottom, separated in three compartments. I thought it was nice they included a case with the phone, though Apple has also had its share of including free things, too. A friend of mine commented on how the case takes away from the design. Again, like the Apple bumper, the case has a function beyond its aesthetic: without the case, the phone easily slips out of your hand. There were a couple of times where I would take the phone out of my pocket and do a quick ninja maneuver to catch the phone before it hit the ground. And I’m not a clumsy person: my iPhone 4S was in pristine condition when I traded it away.
I tend to sympathize with many others‘ opinions about the hardware design, but there are some critical faults as well. The build quality is impressive, and I appreciated the heft of the device. It feels lighter than an iPhone 4S, even though it is 2 grams heavier. Finding the sim tray and charging port was easy enough: they are both behind two doors at the top of the device. The sim tray is only accessible if you open the top door for the charger. Nokia’s design principles differ in this way, as Apple is a huge proponent of making sure that no devices contain moving parts. Having the small door doesn’t really bother me too much, as it only stays open at night when the device is charging. I miss the oleophobic screen found on iOS devices, but it is easy to wipe the front glass with your pants to resume viewing.
The Three Navigation Buttons
On the right side of the device are three buttons: volume controls, sleep/wake, and shutter control (top to bottom, respectively). Contrast this with Apple’s iPhone, where only two buttons and a switch can be found on the left. This points out an interesting design distinction. I use my phone in my right hand. While my thumb naturally falls on the button side of the device on the Lumia, the index finger would be the primary input on the iPhone. My thumb is a bit “overworked” on the Lumia because it is also used as the primary input method of navigating the UI while quickly checking email or notifications. I haven’t experienced any fatigue, but I have made the mistake of hitting the sleep/wake button on accident a few times because of how it is positioned directly in the middle of the right side.
The device is far too soft. The vibrator is subtle. One vibration for an SMS, and two for an email. Repetitive vibrations for a phone call, but all alerts would be missed if you are more than 2 feet away from it. I’m not sure how this changes with the 900, but I suspect it may not be by much. Along with physical subtly is the audio softness. It is far too quiet. I love to listen to music loudly: in my car, at home, at a concert, wherever. I can barely hear when an SMS/phone call comes along unless it is about 25/30 (an arbitrary number system, by the way). But worst of all is the call volume. For some reason, they changed the numbering from 30 to 10 notches. Maximum volume (10/10) is the only volume that you would want to set a call at, and to hear the other side requires your ear to be just on the right spot so that the small hole at the top of the device can pump what it can like the Little Engine that Could. For all of the software annoyances the phone may have, this one physical woe tends to trump them all.
In a word, the camera on the device is meh. It can definitely take pictures, and gets the job done, but it reminds me of “just another phone camera”. It is no wonder why the iPhone 4/4S is the highest for device uploads on Flickr and Twitter. It is also no wonder why app developers have profited from iOS camera abilities. I have barely used the camera since I tried to earlier in the week, just because it is so awkward to use. It may seem a bit egotistical for Apple to place the camera at the top left of the device (when looking at it on the back), but it actually makes sense in practice. I found that I was fumbling with hand position when attempting to take a picture with the Lumia; however, it may be only because of my prior experience. The flash on the device renders photos over exposed, and low light pictures are subpar. If I wanted to capture yet another terrible bar photo, the camera does the job. But if I wanted the beautiful family memories that you see on Apple commercials, I’ll bring my Nikon P300 instead.
The last hardware element to mention are the array of haptic buttons at the bottom of the device: back, windows, and search. The back button always takes you to the previous screen state you were in. Much like a browser, this means that if you were in a previous app, the back button will still get you there, eventually. Interestingly, this is where Microsoft decided to include its version of application switching. Holding the back button reveals a cover-flow style of windows that allows one to switch from state to state, finding the application you want to resume in. I discovered this entirely by accident.
It gets even more complicated when you play around with the feature: all roads lead to home. For example, if I start up the device and navigate to mail, I can use the windows button to go back to the live tile home screen. If I navigate to messages, Windows will save the mail screen state I last used and open the messages application. If I navigate to the home screen again, I can hold the back button to take me back to messages, or back to the mail screen state. However, if I press the back button while in the mail screen state for the second time, I cannot activate application switching for mail. In other words, every app remembers a timeline of its usage: once I progress to home, I am done with using the application, and the phone no longer remembers I had done so. Contrast this with the iPhone: an app is only removed from memory if I purposefully close it. Otherwise, that screen state persists as long as there is memory in the device. I suspect this software decision stems from the hardware limitation of a single core processor in the 800, though the 900 probably doesn’t do much better in this aspect. This in depth report only points out a small annoyance, though one that takes getting used to from an iOS user perspective.
A global search option would be handy if it wasn’t so deprecated in iOS itself. Tapping search actually launches the Bing application. Here, you are greeted with a nice pretty background and a search bar at the top. You can also use the context navigation bar at the bottom to search with your voice. Voice search has built in features like song detection, so there is no need for Shazam or another third party application. That was one of the many pleasant surprises I had when using the device. But, my prior experience with iOS seems to block my need to search at all. Apps are the new way of finding information. When you unlock an iOS device, the home screen greets you, not spotlight. On a Windows Phone, you get the tile screen, not Bing. Search is not a priority, and yet it is a dedicated button on the device. I tend to wonder if the feature was only added for symmetry of inputs on the bottom of the device itself, rather than for functionality. In any case, Bing is there if you need it, and perhaps I will drift to it as a go-to fact checker over time.
Recall the famous quote by Alan Kay, an inspiration for Steve Jobs and Apple design:
People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.
The Lumia was created by Nokia, and Microsoft created the operating system. Both companies are engaged in a long term strategy, and reading between the lines emphasizes the importance of the Windows Phone in hardware design, rather than Nokia making causing Microsoft to make compromises. While Microsoft doesn’t have complete control of the hardware manufacturing process, they have enough control to provide high level decisions to Nokia. The partnership is provides a level playing field of comparison between iOS and Windows Phone, and it isn’t valid to suggest that Apple should have the upper hand. In general, the following quote serves as a baseline for my critique:
Let me just put this bluntly: I think it’s time to stop giving Windows Phone a pass. I think it’s time to stop talking about how beautifully designed it is, and what a departure it’s been for Microsoft, and how hard the company is working to add features.
Josh is right, and it harkens back to John Gruber’s quip of “grading on a curve“. If a category of non-iPhone smartphone continues to be legitimate, innovation will stall for as long as the company survives. A gold standard is a goal, not a wall.
A Breathing OS
Windows Phone Mango breathes under your fingers. Tap the lock wallpaper and witness a bouncing upward. This is to que a person to finish a sliding gesture to reveal the previous screen state. Move from screen state to the next and witness the icons flying out of the left and from the same spot, as if you were flipping the pages in a book. Contrast this with Apple’s icon interaction, which shows icons flying in and out of all the edges, drawing eyes to the center of the screen. From my perspective, I appreciate the playfulness of the Windows Phone with these little elements, as it makes me feel like my interaction is like reading a book or telling a story. In a way, the phone reveals this to be a maxim for the design: your life in a phone. Every page of your life is written and turned as you interact with your phone. Every motion pens another piece to the big picture.
The home screen is when obvious is brought to the surface. An icon is an entry point – a gateway to a new experience on a dynamically changing screen. Icons traditionally provide information as an afterthought on iOS, with the exception of Calendar which shows the current date. On WP7, icons may be the only thing you need to get information about the application. Icons are arrayed on a board, that has an infinite space between a definite beginning (the top) and end (the bottom). The board evolves into a dashboard when the icons provide information on the front. For example, the pinning the weather for your local area turns a simple cloud icon into a contextually aware tile, that shows a vector simplification of the current weather state, the temperature, and the city that I’ve pinned. (right now it is Mayan-like sun and 62 degrees). Other examples include SMS, eMail, and your phone call log: All show the number of elements that are new or unread. This is not as far of a departure from iOS, as one can find badges as indicators for the icons instead. The Zune (music/iPod) app pulls a picture of the artist playing from the Marketplace database and applies a Ken Burns effect as a background of the tile. The People tile is a 3×3 grid of tiles that flip around to reveal people synced from various social services (more on this in a bit). The Me tile is intended to be a home base for all of your social networks, allowing to post a message to all connected services in one swoop. The tile reveals the face of the user, followed by any notifications that have been gathered across the services connected to it: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and more. To summarize, the new tile system provides a refreshing look at content. Tiles simulate the dynamic nature of one’s increasingly connected life, and also provide a means for a fast interaction. Get in, get out, and get back to life.
Unification Has a New Name
Segoe UI design:
Segoe UI is an approachable, open, and friendly typeface, and as a result has better readability than Tahoma, Microsoft Sans Serif, and Arial. It has the characteristics of a humanist sans serif: the varying widths of its capitals (narrow E and S, for instance, compared with Helvetica, where the widths are more alike, fairly wide); the stress and letterforms of its lowercase; and its true italic (rather than an “oblique” or slanted roman, like many industrial-looking sans serifs). The typeface is meant to give the same visual effect on screen and in print. It was designed to be a humanist sans serif with no strong character or distracting quirkiness.
I’m no font expert, but the key words that pop out at me are: open, friendly, readability, and humanist. The first three are cliché enough to gloss over, but the last one strikes me as another design maxim. What does it mean to be humanist? The Apple dictionary says:
An outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.
Since most of this definition emphasizes being human, we hit another road-block. Did Windows make an impossible standard, or one that was too easy to beat? Either way, Segoe UI meets the bill of elements the font needs.
I bring the font to question because it is the center of the unification that Windows has attempted to create. Windows 8, XBox Live and Windows Phone are all united in the Segoe presentation, so it makes sense that the execution of the style should be nothing short of perfection. This concept, married with the tile layout, is the entire aesthetic for the next generation of Microsoft devices.
In usage, Segoe UI does a good job with presenting a lot of information in a flexible way. By removing pictures and making text the important focus, it is easy to augment a window to include more text (i.e. more information). Thanks to the AMOLED display, the text is not impossible to read or overwhelming because the contrast makes the text jump out, much like an e-ink device. On the other hand, I quickly missed the retina display — having font at pin sharpness would complete the narrative like feel that phone attempts to showcase, as much of the experience would be like writing a biography. Sometimes the fonts get a bit too large, and it makes me wonder what the other ways the phone could use the real estate.
It’s my job to be an expert at ux/ui/ix design. In order to be an expert, you need practice in the field for thousands of hours. As such, I have seen numerous interfaces, input mechanisms, and application environments. The inputs that are natural to me may be completely novel to someone else — a majority of new WP users may be mired in the complexities of smart phones, simply due to inexperience with the basic interaction elements that have surfaced: icons, pull tabs, swipes, and more.
The Windows Phone is designed for moderate experts. To these designers, the elements of interaction that are the baseline for all smartphones are common knowledge — something that is learned only through experience, not orally. It started with the iPhone, and has evolved for the past 4 years.
The WP employs many gestures to get around the system, especially left-to-right swiping to move from state to state. For example, the messages application uses left/right swiping to access the either current threads or online people connected with your Windows Live account. The left/right swipe can be employed almost anywhere on the screen, but the up/down swipe to view more content within the tab is only possible on the content itself. In other words, you can swipe from tab to tab anywhere on the screen state, but up/down swiping is only possible in the pane that moves in that direction. Contrast this behavior with iOS: left/right swiping is almost nonexistent. The only iOS app I have seen using left/right swiping as a primary interaction method is Google Currents (which is awful). Instead, iOS apps typically use a dock to move from one tab to the next, encouraging users to customize the dock of the application (á la the iPod app) to view different tabs. Curiously, WP also uses encourages developers to have buttons on the bottom of many apps, to add a tab or to view settings. Thus, users have two very different paradigms of interaction in the same app: buttons or swipes. It escapes me as to why the distinction is made, and my only theory can be to tie in the overall Segoe aesthetic — a useless gesture for usability purposes.
This is an appropriate time to introduce the information density problem that Casey Johnston points out:
For the density part, the apps and settings of Windows Phone hew closely to the OS’s spacious design principles, but sometimes at the cost of making information accessible. Often apps split too much between too many menus, requiring several swipes to access all of the options. In other cases, the large fonts that characterize the OS take up too much valuable screen real estate.
The problem is exacerbated on the Lumia 900, which has additional physical real-estate but the same 800×480 resolution of the 800. So, not only are headers large, but they feel bloated when the resolution is stretched to a smaller pixel density. Instead of making use of the new found space in the 900, the same amount of information is displayed in the disjointed button/swipe fashion, leaving users to determine what options or contexts exist by exploring the app itself. This can get pretty cumbersome in Mail: swipes take you through different message types: all, unread, flagged, urgent. The bottom buttons take you through different options: a plus button lets you compose a message, a list button lets you select items in a list, a refresh button and a magnifying glass. Touching the “…” symbol lets people view what the buttons actually mean, and provides people even more options for customizing the inbox view and more. It is quick to see how a new smartphone user is overwhelmed with the amount of customization one app has. Dealing with the status quo is okay, until reasonable questions like linking email boxes tend to frustrate users. Like Casey points out, there must have been some usability studies or the like that lead Microsoft to believe in these decisions, but perhaps they are misguided if the audience is a new smartphone user.
Portrait is the primary orientation, with many landscape design variations created as an afterthought. Email can be viewed in landscape, but Zune cannot. Mail includes a most curious margin on the left side when viewed in landscape, but that same margin is not taken care of on the Twitter application (this margin has only one element: the time). Information dense applications are stuck in portrait mode (People), and I’m left to wonder how imaginative they could have been (an address card for each person in landscape) had they taken a second look at the application. This is why iOS tends to delight people: you get two different experiences in the same application. Portrait gives people an overview of information, and landscape gives people a more in depth look (stocks.app, calculator.app, etc.). This philosophy is lacking in the Windows Phone: a landscape orientation is just a stretched version of the portrait version. The problem is not unique to Windows applications — all of the apps I’ve downloaded from third-party developers employ the same lackluster thinking.
My Favorite Things
The bad and the ugly are balanced by many high points on the Windows Phone OS: threaded messages, a smart address book, and comprehensive plug and play. All of these features are a result of deep thought about the core of the WP experience — the social connections we make everyday. It is becoming more and more apparent that managing these connections is a worthy problem space, so WP takes the information in all of the social networks a person participates in and gives them context in a person’s life by weaving them together.
Threaded messages gets an instant applause. It’s as simple as it sounds: start a conversation with someone on a text message, and pick up right where it left off in a Facebook chat. The ball can be in either party’s court. My friend Nick could get up and text me from his computer, or I could switch to text from my phone. In either case, the entire conversation history across all services is compiled in one place. It just makes sense and I wonder why no other company (looking at you, Apple) has implemented this into their own messaging app.
The People tile is the new way of tracking social connections, phone numbers, email addresses, and more. When I transferred my information to Google contacts from iCloud, Windows Phone gathered these contacts and matched them to Facebook, LinkedIn and Google profiles. Every name has a face to it, right out of the box. Apple does this too, but I found the process less cumbersome and more intuitive. One complaint is the lack of fuzzy matching: my friend named Phil isn’t matched with the Facebook profile of Phillip, and so on. But, 80% of my contacts were filled in with ease.
Finally, the syncing behavior on the WP works beautifully. Every account, including social accounts like Facebook and Twitter, has a home on one settings screen, and the status of all of these accounts can be monitored from there. Syncing times can be customize by the service, and the battery saver feature can be used to curb syncing across all applications as well.
Thus ends Act 2 of my 3-part analysis of the Windows Phone experience. Stay tuned for Weekly Download #35 for a tl;dr version and a preview of the verdict I will hammer down in Act 3.