I’m a subscriber to Joel On Software. He has a knack for writing interesting posts interspersed with entertaining anecdotes on how to, and how not to, write software.
One of the points he is particularly strong on, and one which is often neglected in software development, is user interface design.
It used to be that when users tried to program a VCR and couldn’t work out how, they felt this was because they were too dumb to use the product.
These days users have clued on to the fact that if they can’t figure out how to use something, it’s not because they’re dumb, but because the interface, well, sucks.
So I was interested to read Joel’s latest post on Nokia phones. He gives the new Nokia E71 a glowing review for usability, but then also states how surprising this is as:
I had never heard of this thing. Nokia? Really? For years I had always thought that Nokia made chunky Europhones that were always just one button short of a usable user interface.
This intrigues me because Nokia make by far, the most user friendly phones I have come across.
Over the past ten years Nokia is the only phone I have ever been able to commit to. (I have used various other models, including a Motorola, Sony Ericsson, and Alcatel but found them frustrating affairs and I never had any of them for more than six months.)
Nokia is also the only phone that successfully seduced my mother. I had introduced her to a number of mobile phones prior to that, but they only caused frustration, and ultimately did not get used.
Then, we got her a Nokia. The original brick-sized one, a 5110. Not only did she quickly adopt it and learn how to navigate the menu, but within a week started feeling left out because she could only receive txt messages and not send them. So, we upgraded the phone to the sexy white 1100. She’s had it ever since and still loves it.
For products that was supposedly unusable, they were market leaders. The sexily simple Nokia 1100 sold over 200 million handsets, and in its time was the world’s best selling phone.
Even today, nearly five years on since its launch, that iconic white phone is still one of the most common handsets spotted about town (even surpassing the ‘wannabe cool, and impress the girls’ iphone).
There are newer models of course, like my current phone. It has a few new features, including a colour display, but fundamentally maintains the same UI and functionality.
So what is it about Nokias that makes them so loveable?
- Universal charger. If my phone unexpectedly runs out of battery, chances are there is someone close by with a charger, to bring it back to life.
- Intuitive user interface. The menu is intuitive to use, and like the charger is common to all models. The important buttons are large and prominent. It’s a real user’s phone. It takes three steps to make a call or send a text. And it can be done blindfolded, wearing gloves.
- Quality. They do everything well, including calls, and battery life.
- No additional crap.
- Reliability and indestructibility. (Although submersing it in sea-water for several minutes will degrade the microphone and require some of the parts to be soldered back on.)
- Sexily simple design. It’s non-pretentious and simple. It does everything a user wants a phone to do and nothing more.
So, if they really are thought of as a chunky Europhone with a user interface that’s short of a button, I can only assume there is some distinctive cultural difference between the American way of thinking and the rest of the world.
Maybe it’s the beef.