About Timur Kristóf

Long-time .NET dev and hobbyist Qt fan. Studying electronic engineering. I prefer quality over quantity and I have a strong preference for user interface and user experience development. Follow @Venemo on Twitter, and here's my dev blog.

Home screen survey: initial thoughts

Posted in Core User Interface, Thoughts by

Before moving the Nemo home screen to the next level, we decided to create a survey and ask people about how they use their home screens on their devices. I’m going to publish more details in another post, this is just for my initial thoughts and impressions.

First, thanks to everyone who filled the survey and to those who shared or retweeted it. Without you guys, I don’t know what I’d have done. It also feels very nice that there are lots of people who we can count on when it comes to these matters.

I had the survey and questions carefully reviewed by people, but still, the end result wasn’t perfect. Lots of people didn’t understand what we mean by “home screen”, and this was the major source of misunderstanding. Perhaps we should have used the term “operating system” or something more general, because there was people who thought hey, this or that feature is in the operating system, not the home screen, blah-blah. Of course, from a technical point of view, these features are a part of a piece of software which lays on top of the operating system (this is what I call home screen), but for non-technical people, it indeed might be quite challenging to see the difference. Apart from this, most of the questions themselves were okay, and we’ve had useful answers coming in.

So, let’s go through the first few parts.

9% of people think that a home screen is not important. The rest of them think they are important for this or that reason. The next thing we see is the audience is quite biased, unsurprisingly, towards MeeGo 1.2 Harmattan. Since Nemo is mostly of interest to those people, we must accept this for now. Most of the people who answered have used every sort of OSes, but of course the majority is Maemo or MeeGo users. The things they liked most are Harmattan (57%), Fremantle (19%) and Android (10%). Some people did like WP7 and a few iOS.

The textual info here is very interesting, seems that people like to fill large text boxes with their hearts’ content. Basically, the ideas were mostly the same things repeated. I have here an extract of the answers.

  • According to some people, the traditional app grid is boring. Some suggest to categorize app or allow searching between them.
  • Many people noted that the home screen should allow to find what you need most, either by hiding irrelevant info or pinning relevant info or features.
  • Many people want close integration with IM, calendar, email, calls apps and other events to see what’s happening at a glance.
  • Some people want widgets and customizability, and some specific features related to widgets.
  • Many people (more than the above) have realized that widgets are just cluttering up their space, so they simply want the info they need without any clutter

Obviously, the most challenging here is to find a balance between those guys who want all-customizable widgets and whatnot, and those who actually want to get stuff done. This is an interesting question and it’s well worth a post on its own.

Of the basic features, the app switcher wins. 83% of people want to have it in their reach all the time, with only 6% saying that it’s not important. App launcher has similar figures, but only 68% feel that it always has to be in their reach. The widgets question was tricky (should have been asked in a better way), but there only 58% feel that it has to be always in their reach, despite that most of them are saying that widgets are just clutter and are ineffective at quickly conveying relevant information to them. To the question asking which feature is the most important, widgets win (40%) and social feeds are next (26%).

NOTE: There were a few “easter egg” features in the survey as well (eg. favorite web sites and media) which most people identified as “doesn’t belong to the home screen”.

The gestures part is also very interesting. Most people perhaps don’t know the meaning of the word “flick” and they answered “swipe”. Apart from this finding, the “what gesture do you prefer” style questions were quite useless, as long as the accessibility of frequently used features was the topic. It was nice to find out though that most people don’t care how rarely used features are accessible.

The questions with pre-defined answers are kinda easy to analyze (google even draws pretty graphs from them), but very surprisingly we received lot of long textual data as well, which I haven’t finished processing for all questions yet. I’m going to write another post when I have.

In the meantime, if anyone is interested in the actual survey data, I’d be happy to share.

Of home screens and discoverability

Posted in Thoughts by

Hi! My name is Timur and Qwazix was very nice to invite me to this blog. I’d like to share some of my views and ideas about mobile user experience.

Let’s talk about home screens on mobile devices.

A home screen should get a lot of things right to be able to call itself user friendly. First of all, everything should be available as easily as possible and frequently or recently used things should be reachable in as few interactions as possible. It also has to do this in a consistent, non-confusing manner.
Most of the home screens nowadays can get you to your favourite app in at most 2 taps (+1 if the screen is locked). Examples: Fremantle, where one click takes you to the app launcher and the other click will launch the app. Harmattan can also do this: one swipe to get to the app launcher screen and a tap to launch an app. Android and Symbian offers the same way.

A more difficult thing to get right is correct presenting of multitasking. This appears to be very hard to get right, because most mobile OSes actually get it wrong. Android almost gets it right but makes it very unintuitive, iOS got it wrong by making it totally unintuitive, and Symbian got it wrong by hard navigation and sluggishness. Fremantle is quite okay, but Harmattan is the best because of its obvious simplicity and straightforwardness. WP7 got it totally wrong because sometimes it shows the same app multiple times, apps being freezed in the background, and the actual annoyingness of navigating the multitasking screen.
There are quite a few lessons to be learned here: first: the OS shouldn’t kill or freeze your apps when you deactivate them. The user should be in control. Second: simplicity and ease of use is key. Third: showing thumbnails of running apps instead of their icons makes it lots more intuitive. (And also reduces visual confusion by setting it apart from the app launcher.)

There is also a very important aspect to user experience that has been quite neglected lately. And that is discoverability.

What is discoverability?
It basically means that the user can discover how something works by just looking at it. Yes, this is as hard as it sounds. This involves giving visual indication about certain things. Such as hints to the user about what he/she can do on your UI.

A good example of this is WP7’s panorama pages feature, which indicates very clearly that you can scroll horizontally on it. (It’s not very effective for advanced UIs though because of its obvious disadvantage of losing lots of screen space.)
A bad example is the “hot corner” in Gnome Shell or Windows 8. While it’s fun, it’s totally non-discoverable, because you don’t have any idea that the feature exists until you read about it or accidentally trigger it. Not very nice.
This is where Harmattan doesn’t fare very well either. Swipe is a wonderous gesture, but you need to learn it – anyone who I show my N9 is totally clueless about how to use it. :) Fortunately it at least has a nice tutorial about it when you first turn on the phone, so at least owners of the device will definitely know how to use it.

About swipe to switch between Harmattan’s home screens: this concept works very nicely, but only if you have exactly 3 pages. When you have 3 pages, you can still reach any page from any other page with just a swipe. However if you had more pages, this wouldn’t be true anymore and would be annoying.

To eliminate this issue, I’ve introduced a tab bar to the new Nemo home screen. Right now only two of the tabs are implemented, but I plan to add more. Navigating with swipe remains possible.
With a tab bar, even someone who has no prior knowledge of the layout can easily navigate the interface. Also, if the interface has more than 3 pages, it remains possible to switch to any other page by just one tap. And the tab indicator helps keeping track of where you are now.

The first iteration of the home screen is done and available in Nemo now. It’s not perfect, as from various user feedback and contemplating I’ve got several new ideas on how to improve upon the design.

I plan to write a new post about this and the conclusions (with sketches, of course), but until then, if you have any feedback, I’d be very glad to hear about it from you! :)