Tuesday, June 9, 2015

No more empty smartphone screens

Ever since I parted ways with my trusty Nokia 3310, empty standby screens of many smartphones have felt cold, distant and useless in comparison.

Although, various Windows phones, and a handful of Android devices come equipped with features that make their standby screens appear far less dead. After all, credit must be given where credit is due.

No need for power or home key presses, display double taps or other conscious interactions. The moment they're exposed to the world outside users pocket, both the phone and its user are already one step ahead of everyone else. A digital extension of a human intention.

Sailfish OS also has a similar feature in development we call "Sneak Peek". It's not ready yet, but I've been trying it out for almost one year now. Somehow the feature always carried over software upgrades, up until last week at least. I had to re-flash my phone, turning the feature off for good.

The sudden change in device behavior has left me staring at an empty screen more times than I'd like to admit. Looking and feeling like an idiot.

One step too much

Curiously enough, I realized that all those solutions I mentioned earlier, had one important piece missing. They all focused only on what user might want to see, but ignored where that would lead: what would people do next, after already holding the device in their hand, with the display showing relevant information?

Easy. You either want to interact with it, put it back to your pocket, or set aside on a surface near you.

And the problem with everything we have out there today, is that they all just create an additional state between the display being completely off and fully on. A glance or active screen is shown first, before you can see the lock screen. If you desire to interact with device functions below, you have to first go through that extra screen. This throws away part of the potential gained through anticipating user intentions.

To allow user interaction, it would make more sense to automatically show the lock screen, without any added steps. User would see the same information, intereact with lock screen controls, or continue to unlock their device.
Yes, it would requires some adjustments to how the lock screen behaves. It might be something like these wildly conceptual images, that are created to support this post. Take them for their illustrative value.

Moreover, the appearance is secondary in the long run. How it feels in the daily use becomes much more interesting and valuable quality. At first, it might sound strange for the phone to behave like this, but let's look at what would happen if it did.

The first thing you'll notice, you can get to whatever you're doing a bit faster. People use smartphones over 100 times a day, with majority of those instances starting with manually turning on the display. As the manual part is removed, less attention and accuracy is needed.

Second, the amount of user errors would decrease, because nothing was added. Every gesture and functionality works just the same way. It's the same lock screen, nothing more, nothing less. It's just working with you, not against you.

Worried about accidentally unlocking it? Don't be. Every lock screen has a built in protection mechanism to prevent that. Made famous by that "slide to unlock" slider on the first iPhone. We flick or swipe long enough distance to get past it.

Finally, removing your device from your pocket becomes much more friendlier event.

Just pick up the phone from your pocket and place it on a surface near you. Display will light up to greet you. An accelerometer inside the phone can tell whether you're holding it in your hand, or it's resting on a table. By following that information, it's easy to turn off the display sooner to save power.

Naturally, if the phone is on a table, the same sensor can be used to detect user picking up the device. And for cases you don't want to pick it up, you're just a double tap away from whatever you need.

By now, I'm sure some of you've already wondered why not use black background with colored text and icons on top. Well, it works great if there's no display backlight. If there is, too bad. I illustrated the problem below.

Those liquid crystals that are used to affect the light passing through, cannot block all of the backlight, resulting in gray appearance instead of black. This is very visible at night, inside movie theaters, clubs and ancient dungeons.

Using a background image will simply make the issue less apparent (can be turned off for AMOLED devices to save power). Also, a user selected image is much more personal option compared to someone saying it should always be black.

Making smartphones anticipate our needs is not rocket science. Especially when it comes to the lock screens scenario that we manually go through almost 100 times a day anyway. It's much more about seeing past of our past experiences. If you see through them, and get a taste of what things could be, it's going to be difficult to go back anymore.

You'll soon realize how passive most smartphones are. As if they didn't have the information available to anticipate the most basic thing we do. Once again, you've been staring at an empty screen. Looking and feeling like an idiot.

Welcome to the club.

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. Hi Jaakko,

    I can't disagree with this article (yeah, double negation is right there). I still have my old Siemens phone with monochromatic display and readability of "notifications" on it is power feature, what mobile phone market forget.

    I loved Sleeping screen on Symbian and screensaver on MeeGo was one step forward.

    Your concept is perfection :)

    And idea of automatic high contrast mode is... ehm ... "wet dream" of Jolla user =D Sorry, but readability on sunlight is really poor on Jolla - I know, it's caused by colour selection of the ambiance...

    Thank you for article full of inspiration and enjoy your day =)

    1. Hi Naecken,

      Yes, it should be helpful regardless of device and display technology, but it's naturally inspired by my journey with Jolla phone.

      There are also other areas where readability can be improved pretty easily thanks to the dynamic silica theming. But that's a story for another time :)

      Thanks for your support and encouraging comments. Let's see what comes next. Take care :)

  2. Well, I've written quite long and I think interesting response, but WordPress ate it. Maybe I'll write it again later today.

    Anyway, interesting article, which I don't fully agree with - as often :)

    1. I know how you feel. This commenting system has eaten several of my thoroughly crafted responses. So each time I need to compose one, I do it in a text editor first, because clearly it's too much for this platform to handle :)

      All comments are welcome. I had really hard time narrowing the post to its current length, so it goes to show how much deeper one can go. I'm hoping you get around to rewrite your response, so we can dive deeper into details. I like details.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. See you soon :)

  3. Great post! By the way, would you have came up with these ideas without using a phone not so optional in outdoor use? The final kick being loosing the Sneak Peek for a while. I mean, there seems to be a very bright side in a nasty issue if so. Keep up the journey, your blog is full of light :)

    1. Hi Simo,

      Oh, you're too kind as usual :)

      It's hard to know. Our minds work in a strange ways, and sometimes they need a bit of misery and hardship to really go on the fifth gear.

      I'm pretty sure all things have bright sides, they just take more time to become apparent, or the bright part is for someone else, and one has to make due with a lesser hand of cards. But I digress..

      Thanks for your encouraging comment. You know, it's the community that keeps these lights on :)

  4. I`m using the "Sneak Peek" glance screen at most to get the current time.
    I like the used black background and reduced backlight level which is not disturbing to me and others around, e.g. in meetings.
    But in sunlight it's too dark.

    So replacing it with context specific lock screen themes using different contrast allows a short look or normal interaction.

    1. Yes, that's the intention of the concept. To have more reactive lock screen behavior to the environment user is in, when interacting with their phone.

      Still, in most cases, people disturb others by reaching out for their phone. It's not really relevant what the screen looks like. It's mostly the duration that person is not paying attention to the meeting / other people.

      That's why I'm so worried about many interfaces not being properly "designed" for situations they're used. Here's some more thoughs about it: http://jaakkoroppola.blogspot.fi/2015/06/tailoring-graphical-user-interfaces-for.html

      Thanks for commenting and take care :)

  5. A really fascinating look at smartphones, Jaako. It will certainly be interesting to see this brought to life. It's the little details that mean a lot, and that will determine the difference in use and lifestyle if dealt with. Who would have thought that the 'glance' screen, which we take for granted, gets in the way of full convenience and engagement with technology? This is an interesting notion to explore, along with the remedies you have proposed.

    Clara Brooks @ Telco World

  6. Hi Clara,

    Yes, these are interesting times indeed. There are a lot of great solutions hidden in plain sight, if we just allow ourselves the time to see them.

    Getting something like this all the way into production, is easier said than done, just because it defies everything people know about 'glance' functionality today. I hope there's time for it.

    Thanks for reading and dropping a comment. Take care!

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