Of home screens and discoverability

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! :)

Comments are closed.