Posts Tagged ‘iphone’

Random Thought: Twister for iPhone

iPhone Twister

iPhone Twister

It’s only a matter of time before someone comes up with a twister game for the iPhone.

What Do You Want to Be, Touch UI?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about touch-based user interfaces for mobile phone for a project I’ve been involved in.

Louis Kahn, one of the most influential architects of our time, and subject of an amazing documentary film, once said:

“What do you want Brick?”

He was alluding to the fact that each material has properties and limitations and wants to be used a certain way. Whether it be materials, or systems, or UI’s, each has a certain affordance you can either acknowledge and work with, or work against.

Don Norman also describes a similar attitude towards the design of products in his influential The Design of Everyday Things:

The term affordance refers to the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used. A chair affords (“is for”) support and, therefore, affords sitting.

When designing a touch user interface for mobile phones, where do you start? You can start by taking a look at what Apple has wonderfully done with the iPhone. Or you can take a look at how to improve the current mobile UI and make it touch-enabled. Both lead to very restricted designs, since they can’t escape what either Apple or current mobile UI have set up as its affordances.

One needs to ask, “So, what do you want to be, mobile phone touch UI?”

In my mind, some of what it wants to be is the following (these are its affordances):

  • It wants large touch targets: Fingers are less precise than keys, and there are minimun touch area requirements that can’t be too small.
  • It wants simple page layout: touch requires immediate feedback, and quick transitions to subsequent pages. There shouldn’t really be anything to navigate on a page. The interface should be “tap, tap, tap”, i.e. a quick progression of pages to finish the task the user to trying to accomplish.
  • It want to have limited choices: More choices on a pages means more things to touch and this make make things harder to touch with precision. In the web page paradigm, it may be better to present more options on a page, however in a mobile touch interface, with limited screen area, and touch targets, it may make more sense to provide limited choices and more “in-between” pages.

It is also important to select the right everyday metaphor for the touch UI elements. Metaphors allow users to recognize how to use something without learning, since it is something they are familiar with already. On the iPhone you see sliders (unlocking the phone), dials (selecting a date), and buttons.

One great source of metaphors for a touch UI is actually baby toys for many reasons:

  • Interactive elements are brightly colored, allowing the user (the baby) to locate and initiate an action.
  • Interactive elements are easy to touch, pull or twist and have large target areas, taking in to account the users lack of mastery over motor functions and pudgy fingers.
  • Interactive elements provide clear feedback to reward the users and provoke them to repeat the action.
  • The objects are not overly complex and choices for manipulation are simple.

It is no wonder a baby can use an iPhone interface.

Helio’s Blue Ocean

Helio Ocean

Helio’s Ocean handset

I spent last week in Los Angeles on a project with Helio. Helio is an MVNO, which is a fancy way of saying they are a mobile phone operator that leases their network, in their case, from Sprint. They were started in early 2005 as a joint venture between Earthlink and SKTelecom, the largest mobile phone operator in Korea, offering service in the US in May 2006. They have exclusive phones, of which the Ocean is their current flagship. You can read more about the Ocean’s development in May 2007 issue of MIT’s Tech Review (requires free registration).

I’ve had a chance to test out their Ocean handset and I must say I am impressed:


  • Full QWERTY Keyboard: writing an email is actually a pleasant experience considering it’s a phone
  • Messaging and Email Integration: I was using AIM and Gmail, and every time I got a message or email the phone alerts me and it’s one click to view and start my reply.
  • GPS Navigation: Helio was apparently the first to offer Google Maps with GPS.


  • It’s a little bulky.
  • No full HTML browsing: iPhone has set the bar pretty high.
  • Some of its most useful services are hidden under menus or need to be downloaded.
Helio Ocean

Despite its shortcomings, the Ocean has been getting some incredible free press and marketing from the tech community doing side-by-side comparisons with the iPhone. The fact that it is compared at all is impressive.

This started me thinking, in the light of the Ocean and iPhone and a landslide of new cell phones out there, what do consumers now expect from a cell phone? My personal wishlist would look something like this:

  • Full HTML browsing (more for info than interaction)
  • Large screen (I am still on the fence about touch screens)
  • QWERTY keypad (now that I’ve experienced Ocean’s keypad, I can’t go back)
  • Kickass Contacts list (in the end the phone is all about staying in touch)
  • Long battery life (don’t we all need it?)
  • Wi-Fi (for faster, cheaper data downloads and free calls)

In a conversation with a friend who lives in LA and used to work for McKinsey, this last point – free calling through wi-fi, we realized is a disruptive innovation. It is something that could revolutionize the whole mobile phone business. It is only a matter of time that wi-fi (or some better data communications infrastructure) will be widely available. Cities are considering providing free wi-fi to their inhabitants. Google has big plans. If this is so, then services like Skype will make the business model of charging for call service obsolete.

Westwood Blvd looking towards Helio House

In this scenario, it is operators like Helio who have not sunk billions in the network infrastructure that have most to gain. If they can offer a phone that seamlessly switches between wi-fi and the cell network, then the traditional revenue structure of mobile phone operators who charge for the use of their pipes, in the form of usage minutes, data transfer and service fees will have to be rethought. It’s like Apple’s iTunes and the music industry. Once the transfer of music shifted from physical media to digital, the music industry that had the traditional models of charging for the sales of CD could not move fast enough to change and had to relinquish control over distribution to operations like Apple’s iTunes. The shift is only a matter of time – but it seems like the established mobile operators are trying get as much mileage as possible and no-one wants to be the first to rock the revenue boat. I think Helio should do it. They have nothing to lose and in the best position to find what the new revenue model should be.

Fox Plaze (AKA Nakatomi Tower from Die Hard I)

I wish I could have spent more time checking out LA, but I just had to settle for a trip to In-n-Out Burger, and a hotel next to the Fox Plaza (AKA Nakatomi Tower), the site of the first Die Hard movie.

It’s so easy… a child can use it

In this case a baby and an iPhone – I am sure this video has made its rounds, but in case you haven’t seen a baby "getting" the iPhone’s intuitive interface. This is especially relevant for me now that the company I work for is in the business of developing mobile phone interfaces.