Three levels of the same thing

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Recently, a non-tech-friendly relative of mine purchased a high end android phone, and while trying to help them with the basics I realised something. But as always, I’ll leave that for later.

Almost two decades ago, Microsoft released Windows 95. Windows 95’s main screen was not the Program Manager anymore, but the Desktop. I’m certain that there was something else resembling the Desktop before Windows 95, but it was Microsoft that brought the Desktop to our homes. The Desktop had a nice wallpaper image, could hold the files we were currently working on, and shortcuts to our most used programs. Windows 98 added web clips to the mix, to show at-a-glance information. This evolved into widgets.

Fast-forward to 2005 and Nokia’s 770 and other early touch screen pocket computers. The desktop was there, allowing for easy access to program, websites and at-a-glance info like the weather. A nice move from the desktop Desktop to the mobile Desktop. Then Windows Mobile 5 came, with a screen dedicated to unlocking the keys of your phone, requiring the user to tap two buttons in quick succession. Then came Android which took the desktop and the lock screen and put them together. All that time, the application launcher existed, either as a grid or a menu.

The lockscreen is a mostly a useless thing with a bling, and can be certainly be replaced very effectively by a slightly harder-to-activate button like Nokia’s slider. To make that lockscreen less useless, HTC added the possibility to launch some apps directly from the lockscreen. Other android manufacturers followed suit.

So, our poor non-tech user presses the powerbutton of his new phone, waits a bit, sees some flashy animations and is subsequently presented by this. Which if you forget everything you know about phones is a screen with the time, a nice photo, and some icons

Then our poor fellow, after some help from somebody who has had a smartphone before, manages to unlock the phone and sees this

which to the uneducated eye is, ehm, a screen with the time, the weather, a nice wallpaper and some icons

And then his techie friend decides that the most important thing about a smartphone is, well, apps so he helps him to press the app menu button and voila…

what a surprise! A screen with the time, a nice wallpaper, and some icons. Okay, the time is small and cramped in the upper right corner but you get what I mean. Our poor user can’t possibly even begin to understand why there are three levels of app grids and what they do. This user will most probably never know what a widget is and never use one not pre-existing on his desktop. Moreover, when apps start to fight for airtime and auto-pop up on the desktop and on the app grid the situation gets even worse. The purpose of those three layers is in no way obvious and any logical difference in their function is lost in the clutter, to the point that the user doesn’t know anymore where to look for his apps. The similarity is so big that it’s easy to even not know in which of the three layers you currently are.

Wondering why the iPhone and it’s single, dumb app screen is so popular? Think again.