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THOUGHT: Is the Windows Mobile Touchscreen UI finally single-hand use ready?
Posted by Arne Hess - on Friday, 12.10.07 - 14:38:55 CET under 09 - Thoughts - Viewed 18366x
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If you are a long-time reader of the::unwired, you know that I'm using Pocket PCs and its forerunners since 1998/2000 but you also know that I've moved to the Windows Mobile Smartphone platform, aka non-touchscreen devices, when the first HTC Smartphone, the HTC Canary aka the original Orange SPV, came out in 2003.
Before, I've used Pocket PCs and the first Pocket PC Phone Edition (aka the HTC Wallaby) but also non Windows Mobile mobile phones in parallel and since I discovered to the non-touchscreen Windows Mobile Smartphone, I never went back to touchscreen smartphones as my primary voice device, except if I was testing a device for a review. For me, Windows Mobile Professional devices are connected PDAs which I love to use as text entry and E-Mail devices as well as surf pad while I'm stationary.

However, for one week I'm using the soon to be released O2 Xda star as my primary mobile phone for both - voice and data communication since I want to get a better understanding how well HTC's new TouchFLO works for me and I can say it's a great add-on to the Windows Mobile Professional platform. It's still not perfect, might lacks some functionalities but it improved the whole user experience and makes the touchscreen use way more comfortable!
But during my recent use I also figured, why I moved to the Smartphone (now called Windows Mobile Standard) platform and why the Pocket PC Phone Edition never was my first choice of mobile phone platform: It's the GUI which is still not single-hand use optimized.

I already wrote about single-hand vs. two-hand use in my previous column but today it's not about the keyboard use but about the general touchscreen Windows Mobile user interface experience which is, unfortunately, still so last century and PDA-driven. Sure, since Pocket PC Phone Edition 2002 many things became better and the current Windows Mobile 6 Professional version might be the best Windows Mobile platform we have seen so far. But if you look at it with the user experience in mind, it's not what a mobile phone interface should be today. The main problem, I have with the touchscreen Windows Mobile interface, is that it's neither thumb-use optimized nor single-hand use optimized and basically that's what I requires from a mobile phone. I don't want to use a mobile phone with two hands but with one hand only. If I'm in the bus or subway, holding the handhold with one hand, I still want to be able to use my mobile phone - with the other hand. And if I'm using it with one hand, I don't want to aim to hit the task I want to execute but I want to simply execute it. I don't want to concentrate to do simple tasks like opening an application. I don't want to spread my thumb across the whole device to open and close an application or to select menu items within an application.

The basic problem I see is, that today's Windows Mobile touchscreen user interface hasn't enhanced from the original stylus-based user interface and the current GUI uses the whole screen to force the user to perform tasks. The basic Windows Mobile touchscreen GUI is still using the four corners to open, close and execute applications:

In my humble opinion, the four main points the touchscreen user interface offers/requires to use, are definitely too much but it can be even worse. The task is simple: Open the SMS application and create a new message. Before sending the SMS, select a delivery request:

How many taps - across the screen - has a user to do to send a simple SMS message? At the end, my finger slid across the screen like a figure skater is sliding across the ice. Left, right, up down, right, left, down, up, etc...
And, too many tasks are still too stylus centric but not thumb-use optimized. Menus has sub-menus and gets pretty nested that you either have to use the thumbnail and aim precise or you better use the stylus and we are back at the two-hand use. Alternatively you can also use the D-Pad which breaks the whole user experience since you have to release the thumb from the screen.

Another example of too small menus: Have you ever opened the Calendar and tried to select another day in the current week?

Again, the D-Pad is your friend but not the touchscreen - not if you try to use it with your thumb.

But there are also enhancements like the phone pad became much better over the years and now you can easily select from your contacts by using the thumbs only. This was a real pain, back with Pocket PC Phone Edition 2002 but now, Windows Mobile 6 Professional integrates the contacts database nicely into the GUI but at the end, Windows Mobile 6 Professional emulates a standard mobile phone keypad and uses Windows Mobile Standard's SmartDial functionality:

Sure, using the whole screen instead of just two softbuttons, as used for the non-touchscreen version of Windows Mobile, offers way more interactivity and a wider range of possibilities. For instance selecting a text to copy and paste it is easier to do with a touchscreen device but if I break it down to what I'm doing more - writing SMS messages or copying and pasting texts, I know again why I found it so hard to use the Windows Mobile touchscreen platform as my primary phone.
Touchscreens are great mouse replacements for mobile devices but in my humble opinion, user interfaces needs to be designed that way that a user hasn't have to use a mouse replacement.

Sure, some tasks also depend on the situation - like mobile use vs. portable use. If I want to browse the web while I'm walking, I prefer the keyboard based Standard platform. If I'm sitting on the couch, the touchscreen based Professional platform, either with the stylus or thumb, has its advantages as well but since a mobile phone is a highly mobile device for me, I prefer a reduced user interface with fewer areas I have to tap and click.

What's the bottom line and learning from the above? Well, generally I think Microsoft needs to unify the Windows Mobile Classic/Professional and Standard user interface and the base should be the non-touchscreen Standard GUI. From this starting point, Microsoft can enhance it for touchscreen devices, like providing touch sensitive context menus. That's a quite useful functionality for touchscreen devices but such a pop-up menu needs to be enlarged as well. It might needs to be a full screen grid-view menu, similar to HTC's new Touch Cube interface which is really thumb friendly but it shouldn't be a PC-like line-based menu which is only good to be used with a PC mouse or stylus, but nearly impossible to use with thumbs.

As a result of one week testing I can say, that I'm pretty happy with HTC's TouchFlo enhancements (even if it still not perfect) but I'm still disappointed by the Windows Mobile users interface, which was fine when it was a PDA and competing with other PDAs like the Palm Pilot. But today, where we live in a mobile phone-driven world, the requirements changed but the Windows Mobile touchscreen interface never executed the change.

But well, maybe it's me only who still has a bitter experience with Windows Mobile touchscreen devices; what's about you?

Cheers ~ Arne


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