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Nokia' new UI god declares war on clutter

Cleanliness starts at home

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Nokia has seen some high profile departures recently - the CEO, the phones chief, and Psion employee #1 Charles Davies, but one new arrival has begun by hitting the right note.

Peter Skillman was formerly head of UI design for Palm's webOS, the only UI to match or surpass the iPhone for functionality and ease of use. It's well loved by its users (when you can find them), and he's joined to lead UX for Meego, the Linux platform that's the future of Nokia's high-end mobile devices.

Skillman doesn't care much for the iPhone's restrictiveness, and seems to have even more contempt for companies that build information-dense "junk" on top of a default user interface. He picked out MotoBLUR as an example. Motorola piles as much information from the stream of Web2.0rhea as it can muster, and throws it in your face. Here's an example.

Motorola's MotoBLUR

But he could also have mentioned Nokia - which perhaps surpasses Motorola to boast the most cluttered and neurotic widget-infested home screen of them all. But being diplomatic at this stage is probably a good idea.

Nokia's Symbian^3 UI - very zen

Note the "widget" in the bottom left hand corner. Useful isn't it?

One advantage Skillman has with fashioning Meego into a usable user interface is the lack of baggage. When Nokia designed the S60 UI for smartphones, it did so hoping that people familiar with traditional Navikey-UI Nokia phones felt right at home. In that respect, it was a success. But Nokia neglected to develop the UI, and development requires regular pruning as well as innovation. Options remained buried several levels deep, scattered across applications, and while the N95 succeeded by hiding this complexity beneath yet another launcher key, the problem was never addressed.

Here's what Meego looks like so far - via the Meego UI style guidelines for operators.

One experienced designer who interviewed with Nokia tells us he was warned not to show off too many ideas - as "they don't like mavericks". Skillman says he was interviewed by Nokia for nine days. Perhaps he's kept the maverick qualities under wraps.

Skillman criticised the iPhone's one-button approach, too. But as well as being outdated (iOS 4 allows task-switching), the one button approach is an absolute godsend for newcomers. And the webOS-based Palm's, while allowing for much smoother task-switching, didn't really stray too far from this philosophy.

The curse of Web2.0rhea

But a bigger problem, and it's reflected in the work of several companies (and not just Nokia) is that they seem to have a crisis of confidence about who actually uses the devices and for what. For years, the designers emphasised the importance of early adopters in their focus groups, and by and large these were phone nerds with the attention span of goldfish. They were members of dozens of social networks simultaneously, who liked the gimmicks such as widgets, and generally welcomed the information overload.

(For example, they'd say the Mail for Exchange widget I highlight above is "cool". But nobody who uses Exchange mail would regard an unread count and the truncated portion of two emails as useful at all.)

Now designers are finding that this approach has been a terrible mistake. Examples range from widgetisation of home screens, reflecting an obsession with real-time information, to the clumsy co-mingling of social networks and personal address book contacts.

Witness the reaction to the recent BBC iPlayer upgrade - and the blinking incomprehension with which the designers greeted the feedback. Since they like it, everyone else must lump it. The Web 2.0 generation of UI designers simply don't have the life experience or skill set to realise it - a different skill set is probably needed. But they're too busy Tweeting, or planning the next Web 2.0 conference trip. Bless 'em. ®

Related link

Skillman podcast.

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