Wednesday, September 17, 2014

How to judge a smartphone interface

Well, it's about time.

First, a huge thanks to Jolla Pioneer Fans and everyone in the amazing Jolla, Mer & Nemo communities, for the wonderful support and encouragement <3

For a long time now, I've wanted to do a set of posts that walk you through some of the less visible parts, both directly and indirectly related to Sailfish OS user interface design. This first post is a bit of a wall of text as I need to lay some groundwork, but if you stick with me the story gets better.

Also, this is important. I want you to focus. There's going to be pretty pictures, but not in this post. I hope you don't mind.

Lovely. So how do you judge whether a smartphone interface has a good or bad design?

Start by raising your hand. Make it dance and look at it for a while. Combined with the human ingenuity, it’s the ability to use our hands in a variety of fields and in a variety of ways, that has carried us this far. Our hands are highly adaptable, sensitive, efficient and amazing. Every single day.

I’m not the first one to point this out to you, and will not certainly be the last. Unless the smartphone industry suddenly stops being silly.

But trust me on this, it will not.

Old habits die hard and it’s easier to work with things you can measure. Emotions and how things work together will not fit into an excel sheet. Hardware specifications and feature lists on the other hand feel right at home. And the end result sticks out like a sore thumb.

Regardless of that pain, our hands continue to be amazing - and will not run out of amazing any time soon.

That’s one of the biggest reason why many current smartphone interfaces are considered acceptable. It’s because we, as users, bend over. Or it's our hands that do the bending.

What makes it kind of sad, is how the acceptance has been created through a clever indoctrination. The handiwork of a ruthless media machinery, feeding constantly new needs into our minds from all directions and channels imaginable.

A recently released smart phone claims to be "Bigger than bigger". Right, let's think about what that mea..

It. Doesn't. Matter.

Seeing past that pay-grade of bluff is hard. But when you do, you can judge the product and its interface clearly without any smoke and mirrors.

Now, focus.

For a product to feel natural and effortless, it should allow you to use it naturally by supporting the way your hands work. It either works with you or against you.

Working against you doesn't mean preventing you from completing something, but just slowing you down or making you feel cumbersome. Like, having to reserve two perfectly awesome hands for a small device, kind of cumbersome.

The exact opposite of how I earlier described the human hand.

This is apparent with many existing products. You’re wasting your potential. Dumbing down your hand to a level of a pointing device. Every time I think about it, a question arises: why are these interfaces then designed to fit the technology instead of our hands?

That's a simple one. It’s cheaper.

Ah, the great motivator. Why waste money on improving how things work, if our amazing hands can adapt! Just add another layer of features and do some marketing.

That’s the problem. Smartphone manufacturers believe their existing interfaces require only cosmetic updates. That adding features on top of an already shaky foundation will make it a good product. Our hands disagree, but nobody seems to care. All eyes are on the next shiny thing on the horizon. Same poop, different pile.

Still, it's us who have authorized this kind of model. A moderate product is better than no product, and if enough people have a moderate product, any shortcomings are negated.You adapt and forget.

Let's slow down. Stop for a moment even. Think about what our hands have accomplished in the long history of hands accomplishing things.

Once more, raise your hand. Make it dance and look at it for a moment. Do you want to restrain that potential? Look at the silly smartphone industry. It has dropped the ball completely. It needs to keep selling to sustain itself.

At your expense.

What little time is left between introductions of new models, goes into coating the previous version a bit differently. That cycle is so viciously fast that there's just no room to really think why we even have such amazing hands since a lot less would suffice. And the thing just keeps repeating.

As long as we allow it to.

Back to here and now. It doesn't matter whether you think you can or cannot make a difference, you're absolutely right. Always remember that.

Keep focusing on how it all works together, with your hand, enhancing or limiting our natural potential, while doing something you want to do. Does an interface allow you to fly or force you to walk?

That's how you judge an interface.

Finally, what did I mean by making ones hand dance? It's another fantastic ability of ours. We can imagine any series of movements, take dancing for an example and our hand can perform it perfectly.

Your hands ability to dance is therefore depending on your ability to imagine a hand dance. For pretty much anything, you have to imagine it first, for your hands to start creating it.

Never stop imagining.

Thanks for reading and see you in the next post. In the meantime, agree or disagree, debate or shout. Bring it on and spread the word.


  1. In your opinion: pinch to zoom, a natural 'operation' that doesn't bend the hand?

    1. Sorry, I'll try to clarify. If you move a thumb and your index fingers away and then closer to each other, it's the same movement as in a pincer grip you learn as a baby, to grab things with those fingers.

      That's what you can do with a single hand when both hands participate into a task. Other hand holding a device, while another performs pinch-to-zoom.

      In one-handed use, multi-touch is pretty useless concept, because only your thumb is on the same side with the display.

      I'll try to rephrase that part in the post when I have time to clarify the message. Thanks for pointing it out to me.