Random: Idiot smartphones

of Sep 2019, 16:17

Smartphones might have come to save our lives from the Stone Age, but when looking beyond their devilish grin, one can grasp a sense of their true nature. I have never warmed up to them and I believe this is due to some serious design flaws and lack of focus on what is really important that diminishes the user experience. Here, I want to let off some steam and rant about my gripes with these little monsters and their creators.

Touchscreens

One of the biggest mistakes I believe smartphones designers have done is to put too much focus on touchscreens. While they do offer some benefits, mostly the removal of an interaction layer by promising to simply reach out with your fingertip and touch the element you're interested in, [1] putting all your design eggs into a single basket causes a whole new bucket of problems. By this, I mean tunneling all user interaction entirely and exclusively through the touchscreen.

First of all, they have an issue with moisture. Water does not go well with most touchscreens currently built into phones on the market. Just done the dishes or washed your hands and didn't dry them with a hairdryer for at least 5 minutes? Well, good luck getting that phone unlocked or answering that important phone call. Need to use the phone to call a taxi out in the rain or check the bus schedule? Well, sorry, but that technological wonder will be too confused about what's a finger and what's a drop of rain.

I, unfortunately, have warm hands and tend to sweat more than the average user. With sweat comes grease and this means finger prints. Even worse, though, is the fact that the touchscreen may think that a finger print is type of finger extension. I have spent quite some unnecessary time throughout my experience with smartphones trying to unlock the damn thing or clicking randomly at high speeds because of the touchscreen going wild with all these ghost fingers.

The infamous butt-dial

I cannot figure out, how designers of large phone companies do not have any type of quality control procedure in place – at least one that makes any sense. Because, how otherwise would one explain the fact that the "lock" that should prevent me from accidentally tapping on my phone while it is being carried in my pants does absolutely nothing. This touches heavily on the previous topic: on the one hand it can be frustratingly hard to unlock the damn phone and accept a call while on the other, my pants are somehow incredibly skilled at this, turning on my flashlight and dialing emergency numbers nearly every week.

I understand that this was an issue back with the old brick phone, but locks used to be physical switches you'd have to flip to get anything done. Now, a swipe up or down is enough to get your phone accidentally into airplane mode and secretly preventing you from receiving any call or message until you finally remember to check.

Delicate pieces of...

Brick phones, being called like this post mortem, got their name due to their incredible durability. They had great batteries, being able to run off of a charge for a week was a selling point. Dropping it was not so much of a deal as it is today. Nokia became a legend for this... which unfortunately it has not lived up to.

Today, we have a new legend: that of the infamous spider app. Drop your phone once and it automatically downloads itself to constantly display a beautiful spider web pattern overlay on your screen. If a battery charge can last a day, people may be in awe of you for having such a powerful battery.

What gets me more, though is the delicacy with which you need to hold on to your phone. Keep in mind that this is a mobile device. Gripping it tightly is by design a huge no-no. Samsung gives you "edge-less" phones where I honestly have no idea how you would properly hold onto it without ever accidentally tapping on the sides of it. I tend to keep my pinky below my phone while holding it, but – oh dear! – I cannot unlock it with a swipe upwards or close the current app by accident because it registered the pinky as a finger at the bottom of the screen.

I do not understand why tf designers do not design the phone with it being held in a hand! If I am on a bumpy tram or bus, I am walking in a crowded space or simply in fear of it being stolen out of my hand on the metro, then I cannot grip it tightly and still use it. No. I need to balance it delicately on the flat open palm of my hand, careful not to accidentally touch anything less it is the intentional tap of my carefully placed fingertip. Or, I am to turn it off, put it in my pocket and wait until I am at home so I can place it on a velvet pillow facing upward and pray that no earthquake will make it drop and break the screen. Use it while on the go? A mobile device? I must be out of my mind. That is so eighties wishful thinking. Get real!

The horrendous car crash that are mobile operating systems

Worst of all are the operating systems (OS) of mobile phones. Now, granted I do not have a lot of experience with iOS, but I do consider it a forerunner in mobile OS design with all its fallacies, especially this isolation philosophy and approach: the user is not to be given any rights and privileges outside of those which are absolutely necessary. Having a file browser to see and delete unwanted files on your device? Unthinkable! I remember my very first argument to stay away from iPods and everything i-whatever was the fact that you could not access your music library on the mobile mp3 player by simply opening your browser and copying your files in both directions (as you could with many other makes and models at the time. Android took more than 12 years to finally include anything akin to a file browser. Previously, you had to download dodgy 3rd party app to do so. I also remember being very confused how I can delete a PDF I just downloaded by accident, because I wanted to look at some information just for a second. The viewer itself did not have a delete option!

Sharing images between apps? A nightmare! Copying and pasting text? It was not available until iOS 3.0! [2] I am speechless. Something so basic I would probably have run against wall would I have had to learn the hard way that I simply could not do that after spending prime money on a luxury device like an iPhone. And still, even today copy and pasting is not a given in all situations with Android. Copying a URL from your browser was not intuitive or always possible in all versions. If there is text somewhere, you are not guaranteed to be able to copy it. Why is something so basic not deeply engrained into the OS in mobile platforms? The only thing I can think of is that the focus for mobile OS design was all about user safety and idiot proofing. So we treat the users like babies who don't know anything and pad them in layers of pillow until they cannot move anymore. Simple things like copy & paste were either deemed too invasive or simply forgotten, considering that they finally included the functionality, awkward though it may be.

The keyboard

This invention, the on-screen keyboard, is so rage inducing, I am by far not the first to write about this. Everyone has their issues with it. Autocorrect is a meme so old that it is already dead by the time this text is written. Today, I cannot simply type. No, I need to be painfully aware of the last two words I have just written, because Android might just change them again through some obscure context sensitive algorithm. Even though I think I wrote the exact word I wanted, two words down the road it is changed again without me noticing it, because I am too focused on writing the current one correctly with this shitty little tiny keyboard.

Tiny, smaller-than-your fingertips buttons, no key spacing increasing chances for typos, no tactile feedback on a flat screen to sense buttons without looking and one finger, at most two thumb typing [3] did NOT make typing on a smartphone any easier. Whatever speed I gain through Swype is lost due to the aforementioned issues with autocorrect. Emoticons are now part of the autocomplete bar, causing me to have to delete it and rewrite a word every so often.

Why could we not have a physical keyboard? Enough people have yearned for it, I'm sure there would be a market for a niche product. But I believe that getting rid of the physical keyboard also constitutes considerable savings in production and material. If a phone is already equipped with a touchscreen, adding a virtual keyboard in screen comes at virtually no added cost. Furthermore, a physical keyboard also adds many more moving parts, which makes design and production more difficult. The on-screen keyboard has fewer parts that can break meaning that maintenance is much easier, making it more attractive to both the producer and the consumer.

A UX that makes you go wild!

One interesting quirk that I cannot fully understand is the conundrum of the volume and power buttons. Over the years, we have converged to an agreement that us users should only need a power button and two volume buttons. This is where the fun for product designers starts: where to place them on the device?

What most of them choose to do is distribute the power button on the right, while putting the volume buttons on the left... EXACTLY opposite of the power button. Any decently thinking human would consider that if you want to exercise a force, you will require a counter force. Thus, pressing a button needs something to provide a counter force to press against. How do we create this force? By holding the phone on the opposite edge of the one, where the button that we want to press is located. But, wait a minute, didn't we determine that there is a button also present opposite side. Oh boy, oh yes, and you shall press both!

So, again, phone designers force us to put our delicate babies into awkward positions in our hands, just so we can change the volume or turn it off, because we'd be creating heaps of screenshots constantly. See a discussion of this problem on Stackoverflow [5]. Awkward positions mean less security holding the device in our hands, which results in the device falling. Bang! Off to the Apple store to buy a new device... again! How convenient. If only someone who is being payed good money could think of a better solution.

(Note: this part was added on 05.07.2021. I thought I had written about this issue, but it turns out I only touched on it in context of the concrete example of my Nokia 2.2. I would like to comment, that even newer smartphones from Apple do not feature the power button on the top anymore. Regarding Apple, if only the power button would have been opposite the lock switch, this issue could have been mitigated!)

Mobile data obsession and the constant fight for storage space

Apps like Google Maps are so helpful on the one hand, but so annoyingly complex anymore so that a budget phone is not able to cope with all the unnecessary features. Typing an address or name of a place prompts that autocomplete bar to pop up. Interestingly, choosing the options for then menu takes exactly the same amount of time it takes to realize your correct option is displayed and moving your finger to tap on it. The moment you want to tap on the correct address, autocomplete gets a response of the Google HQ and for some reason decides to update the list with entirely different entries, causing you choose the wrong option. This also happens with entries that are clearly marked as previous searches. Maps knows you have searched this address before and even though you just added a few more letters to the search bar that would still be valid to show this option, it decides that you couldn't possibly mean this previous search option anymore and removes it... only to show it again if you wait a few seconds, but no one tells you this in the heat of the moment.

Especially budget phones are notoriously low on memory. Having a phone with 16GB of space is not uncommon. These phones advertise that you can expand the storage with an SD card slot. But here is the kicker: for what are you expanding your storage?

Applications – not the user – get to decide if they want to run on internal storage or not. Simple messaging apps like WhatsApp require you to run on internal storage only. WhatsApp. An app that sends messages and pictures to friends and family. An app that accumulates heaps of image and video information to reside only in your internal storage...

Why do I, as a user and owner of this device not have the power to decide where to put this app? Why is there a button to move the app to external storage, just to have it greyed out on me, as though Android is dangling a carrot in front of my face and laughing? It is frustrating how by just installing a few necessary apps, I am already at less than a GB of available storage space. A few messages with gifs and images later and the phone starts complaining. Installing a new app? Sorry, I have WhatsApp installed, the SD card is virtually free but no one wants to sit at the table in the far side of the room... and I cannot make them sit there either.

Artificial idiocy

Ah yes, the golden age of speech commands and our not so very helpful assistants. People must be happy with them, otherwise I cannot imagine why they are being pushed down our throats. I cannot imagine putting a corporate surveillance device into my home and I sure as hell don't understand why AI eavesdropping on every moment in my life should be a good thing. Using voice commands is awkward and weird, and only good in marginal of situations. Just because we dreamt of speaking to our devices back in the 60s does not mean we have to force this reality once the future became the present.

The concrete example: my new Nokia 2.2

The Nokia 2.2 boasted a competitive price and was advertised as "[...] something that would fit well in your pocket and be easy to use with a single hand." [4] Well, nice, but there are some flaws I want to point out, that make me question Juho Sarvikas' integrity as a product designer.

First of all, what is up with a slick back surface? Previously, I owned the Motorola Moto G4 with a texture on its back making it easier to hold on to and less prone to be dropped. Now, should I have slightly greasy or wet hands, should it rain, or should I have trouble holding onto my phone properly, it will slip out of my hand more easily and it will eventually download the spider app pretty soon (weren't it for the Gorilla glass, which is good, but dropping your phone due to stupid design decisions still is not good either).

Secondly, their super proud decision to add a new button to the side is good news at first. Finally someone who does not focus on the touchscreen alone anymore, yay! But, alas, the button is for activating the AI speech recognition only. I cannot reprogram it. To disable it entirely, I needed to uninstall the Google Assistant completely, which was probably a good idea anyway.

Furthermore, now the button only functions as an on-button. But I already have a button whose main functionality is to turn on the phone. Here is the ingenious problem only an idiot product designer can come up with: the new button is exactly opposite the regular on/off button. If I hold my phone in my left hand and want to turn it on, I need somewhere on the opposite side to push with my thumb and create a counter force. The only spot this can be done to keep hold of the slippery phone (see slick back above) in my hands is the opposite side of the index finger trying to push the on/off button. This, though, is the new button. The thumb engages the new button first, turning on the device, the index finger second, turning the device back off. Here I am, having to switch my phone to the other hand to create a counter force with two fingers and push with my right thumb again the right button to simply turn by damn phone on, for Pete's sake!

In the end...

The mobile phone world and I were never friends. Android, iOS... they are all enemies of the user. The user is dumb, evil and technically not the owner of their device even though they paid for it. Also, we all just want flashy features like cameras and even bigger screens that do not fit into our pockets anymore. Copy & paste? Never heard of that. I want to play pay-to-win games, yeah! Don't bother me with technical mumbo-jumbo...

Things smartphone designers ask of you:

  • best not type on a keyboard; ideally you should only swipe and stare, swipe and stare...
  • only follow the recommend use, don't even think about doing anything out of the ordinary
  • you should place your smartphone down on a solid surface and avoid using it in mobile situations
  • it is recommended to wash your hands before every use and avoid using it wet situations, like rain
  • don't call anyone with it: it's not a phone anymore but an overpriced toy
  • don't try to repair it, because, effectively, it is not your property, so pay us!

The mobile phone world is depressing. A bleak outlook into the future riddled with surveillance... of us being treated like idiots, and of others telling us we don't know what is best for us... and we haven't even touched on the subject of what governments are able to do with such power. Unfortunately, the smartphone is a voluntary prison. A device we chose that we cannot do without anymore. Getting off the grid feels like locking yourself into a cabin in the woods. Our lives are digital and our smartphone is the primary gateway into this world.

I wish product designers would treat the devices with the necessary respect for the lives that will be using them. One can only wish and rant... wish and rant.

References

[1] Arango, Jorge (2017) Discoverability in the Age of Touchscreens, accessed 22.09.2019 on https://uxdesign.cc/discoverability-in-the-age-of-touchscreens-125fcb392e08
[2] Patel, Nilay (2009) iPhone finally gets copy and paste!, accessed 22.09.2019 on https://www.engadget.com/2009/03/17/iphone-finally-gets-copy-and-paste/
[3] Lambie, John (2013) In an answer to 'Will physical keyboards eventually disappear from mobile phones?', accessed 22.09.2019 on https://www.quora.com/Will-physical-keyboards-eventually-disappear-from-mobile-phones
[4] Nokia Global Updates Youtube Channel (2019) Nokia 2.2 unboxing by Juho Sarvikas (Chief Product Officer, HMD Global), accessed 22.09.2019 on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_aJReg23ZVA
[5] Stackoverflow question: Why do many/most (Android) phones have the power button opposite the volume buttons? accessed 05.07.2021 on https://ux.stackexchange.com/questions/50716/why-do-many-most-android-phones-have-the-power-button-opposite-the-volume-butt