How About a Change in Screen-ery

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I have read a number of reviews about the iPhone and its "game changing" nature, and they make me wonder why my current smartphone forces me to put up with the same blocky, inconsistent, and downright unenjoyable user interface (UI) that I have for so long. And no, I really don’t want to have to purchase another program to do it; I want my device to come with the ebbs and flow of a UI designed for me to enjoy eking the functionality out of it.

I call it an aspect of product design philosophy. And I don’t say it to bash Palm, Microsoft, or even third-party developers who have sought to improve things. I say this as a person who absolutely loves the Treo 680 that I have. I love the feel of it (OK, the buttons could be a bit bigger, but they work and work well for the type of device it is). What really kicks me in the gut though is the user interface: the graphics, fonts, the process of getting from one function to another, and how it fits into the package that I have in my hand.

Before the iPhone, I could only say that there should be better; that years and years of development of the functionality should also have been leaked into the interface processes and elements. But honestly, after seeing what Apple has been able to do in terms of making a functional AND enjoyable experience, I have to wonder if it really is a time for a change in device (as some have made the decision to do), or a change in my approach to using my smartphone (ignoring the better looking grass on the other side).

A Change in the Device Perhaps?

In my opinion, it starts with the screen. Yes, the screen. The 320×320 pixel Treo display that I have come to appreciate after moving from the 480×320 screen of the Tungsten T5 is really suitable for all that I need to do on a mobile. It is large enough to see items without squinting, but small enough to keep a device from feeling too ungainly in hand.

However, I would modify this screen by adding 20-25 pixels in height and making that a status bar area, similar to the Palm’s T5/TX/LifeDrive models. In this area I would add common functions such as Bluetooth on/off, signal strength, SMS, and email notification, and an alarm notification. Notice, this leaves room for other programs to also have notification icons in this area. However, this area is always on, always present in all applications. And at the very least, tapping on one of them should give you either a status balloon or take you to the application.

In one of the articles that I read, it talked about the transition effects that the iPhone employs to give the feeling of flow and disguise the closing and loading of application screens. I have also experienced this with the Opera Mini 4 Beta web browser. This subtle piece of eye candy does more than just look pretty; it gives your eyes something to do without making them have to quickly adjust to a change in the visual space. If you will, it fools your mind into thinking that something has changed a lot slower than it has. Every program on every mobile should be designed with this kind of flow in it. And devices with large screens such as smartphones and Internet tablets moreso because there is more screen space to which your eyes can get lost in during the transition from function to function.

The next change that I would do to the screen/visual area is to increase the number of dots per inch (DPI) that a screen can have. I am not sure what the limit is, but something that has at least 120 DPI should make for not only smoother font rendering, but a better display of still and motion graphics. Again, this is eye candy, but not just for sweet’s sake, but for the sake of making sure that the eyes are allowed room to play while you are getting some work done. Many times I have looked at an image on my mobile, only to be turned away because there is subtle, but jarring distortion in the picture that more dots, not necessarily more pixels, could have alleviated. To some point, I think that this would require some newer screen technologies, but I so think that the current ones are just not being utilized well enough.

Or a Change in the Approach Instead?

Despite saying all of this, I sit and even now continue to use my Treo just as faithfully as I had before. I still find the amount of productivity that I can get from it amazing. And even with the amount of new (and usable) Garnet OS programs coming out at a tepid pace, I still find that the core programs that I use are very well done for what I need.

And that is part of my issue. I am very Spartan in some of my computer usages. I tone down wallpapers to more placid or subtle ones, remove icons from the desktop, use search programs to get to apps on both the desktop and Treo; its all about the shortest distance between thinking about doing something and it being done. I absolutely love that aspect about mobile devices, and Palm ones in particular. There really has to be someone there measuring productivity in milliseconds, and I do appreciate it because sometimes it is a second between me thinking about getting something done and forgetting about doing it.

That aspect of a product design philosophy used to be at odds with a "pretty" user interface. Getting things done used to come before getting it done while looking good. And I do admit that there are plenty of times and instances where I turn off animations and alpha blends because they really add nothing. But the ones that do not go off (like the way applications minimize in Windows) I like to keep because they add to the function. They add to the feeling that I am not just getting something done, but, "Ooh look. It’s going away from my primary focus now, and there is something else taking its place." That approach shouldn’t be left behind, but good design and process should follow that. I believe that Apple has done that, and others should take that approach as well.

And So I Wonder

It all sounds visual and (again) all about eye candy, but in using my Treo, this has really been at the top of my mind. I wonder why we haven’t seen these subtle notes and features added to our devices. I wonder why it took a company like Apple to prove what many of us have been saying all along — we want a pretty and usable mobile — to be done.

For me, now more than at any other time that I have owned a mobile device, I am looking at programming a better UI myself, finding someone who can, or just moving to a better designed device. Because when it is all said and done, sure my grass has been well kept, but I want what they have on the other side of the fence too.

 



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