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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 15598x
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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


Related Articles THOUGHT:

Posted by Steve Gill on 13.10.07 - 10:34:39

I really do hope that MS have taken what they can from the iPhone experience for the new XAML based WM UI. I've just jotted down some of my thoughts:

Be beautiful - auto-rotation, fluid-scroll, bounce, fade. People (Joe consumer) don't care as much about functionality if it looks fantastic and doesn't hide away basic functionality.

If you are not using a stylus but your thumb you need:
- Scroll instead of select - makes scrolling through contacts/inbox a webpage so much nicer and gets rid of scroll bars (the iphone ones only appear as you scroll)

- No clutter - remove temptation and accidental clicking areas where possible including auto-hiding the status/title bar and menu softkeys while touching the main screen area

- Huge menu items! - when clicking on the softkeys for menus make them a lot bigger and scrollable, eg. think menu>drag to scroll>click submenu> maybe scroll again>select.

- Multi-touch? well I think on pro devices yes as they are two handed, but WM Std needs to find a single thumb way of zooming! maybe a circular motion?

- Anything small on a small screen (like the mobile signal and speaker indicators say that are next to each other) need to enlarge for a second click to disambiguate when clicked with a thumb. After using Mobile Safari this might be a good idea for IE as well as clicking on small links often takes you to a random link next to it!

If there was stylus detection some of these features could be turned off so it would behave as it did now, but I'm not actually sure whether you would need to go back except for the problem of "it looks like windows/WIMP so I know how to use this" philosophy which is probably the thing holding back WM UI development, they have to break the mould...

Posted by Fuchsteufel on 13.10.07 - 10:36:13

Wow, a rare voice in favor of WM "Standard" and non-touch UIs! Having used both PocketPC (touch) and Smartphone (keypad only) WM devices, I feel exactly the same as you: Windows touch-screen devices are impossible to use with one hand, and much more fumbly, inconvenient, and slower overall. The smartphone UI is much zippier, plus has the all-important "Back" button!

I thought I was the only one annoyed at the near universal belief that WM "Professional" devices are preferable to "Standard", because of the touch-screen. Do these people really love having to whip out a geeky stylus regularly in order to use their phone?

Alas, the Standard platform is imperfect as well, as it lacks many features, and many applications the PPC platform has. It's quite annoying to have to deal with limited menus, missing Notes and Office functionality, lack of screens larger than 320x240, etc etc. I totally agree with you that MS needs to unify these 2 platforms ASAP (supposed to be WM "Prophet"), and use the smartphone UI as the basis:

* Every function should be performable with the d-pad and/or keyboard, with touch as an option only.
* In fact, get rid of the stylus entirely! If it's not there, app developers won't write UIs that require you to tappy-tap little icons in order to get anything done. Apple proved you can have a great touch-screen UI without a stupid stylus, and MS should go in this direction.
* Please please please for the love of God retain the Back button. The Back button is one of the greatest UI inventions ever: lets you delve deep into option menus and come out again without getting lost. It's the #1 thing I miss on PPC devices.

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