Another Look At Mobile User Interfaces

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Mobile user interfaces have been a subject of heated discussion in the last few years. There seems to be a chorus that any keen mobile enthusiast must be aware of by now – and possibly repeated too. In this article, I will use the user interfaces of the two top mobile OSes as examples.

It goes something like “Symbian is dated; Android is sleek“; “The Symbian folder menu system is unintuitive. You have to go into folders to get to the app you want“. Usually, those commenting are so enarmoured with the swiping that they do on Android that they do not see that they are simply biased.

mobile menu systems1
Left: Flat menu system; Right: Folder menu system

A few weeks ago when Dayo and I met to discuss towards Mobility Nigeria’s maiden Smartphone Show, we discussed mobile user interfaces. As we both explored the subject, we arrived at the same conclusion that both the folder menu system (Symbian) and the flat menu system (Android) are simply equal alternatives to solving the same problem.

The Problem
Basically, the problem is that the main menu (and indeed any single menu) page on any mobile device is insufficient to display all the apps on the phone. In order words, there must be a means of getting to the other apps that don’t fit into the main menu.

The Solutions
Mobile UI designers have taken two major approaches – the folder-based menu system and the flat menu system.

With the folder menu system, the user has to tap to get into a folder to access other apps. That’s one step beyond the main menu. Android fanboys regularly lash out at this extra step of tapping to enter a folder.

With the flat menu system, the user has to swipe to open another page to access other apps. That is also one step beyond the main menu. Both menu systems require that extra action. One is not more intuitive than the other. They are simply alternative solutions to the same problem.

In many cases, on flat menu devices (read android), you have to swipe through up to five (5) pages to reach some apps. I know how many reviews of Android devices that I have read in which die-hard Android users themselves mention that they often have trouble remembering what page an app is – and they have to swipe around to find it.

What people need to see is that the question of whether you are tapping or swiping is simply a matter of personal preference. While swiping may seem like more fun to some people, it can be even more time-wasting and energy-dissipating than tapping through folders to look for apps. You see, folders are usually aptly named, making it easy to find what you are looking for. For example, you know not to tap a folder named “Media” when looking for your calendar app. It can be argued that the folder menu system is more user-friendly.

I have used both devices with folder and flat menu systems and I honestly do not see how the flat system is superior to the folder system. I mentioned in my recent review of the Symbian-powered Nokia E5 that I did not see what was “dated” (as people say) about the Symbian user interface (S60 5th Edition had other issues of inconsistency in number of taps – and that has been noted to have been rectifed in the new Symbian touch UI).

What Is Wrong With Those Icons?
It is ridiculous, I know, but I keep reading about the Symbian icons being dated. I have taken a look at icons from iOS, Android, and Symbian and can not honestly tell what that means.

Perhaps what is going on simply is what is encapsuled in the popular saying, “Familiarity brings contempt“? Maybe people just gripe about Symbian icons because they are familiar. You know, there is always the excitement associated with new things.

Other Issues

Now, I recognise that there are valid gripes with Symbian. For example, that web browser is a dinosaur. No text reflow? No way to open new tabs? Slow javascript rendering? Now, those are valid issues. We are waiting for the new browser supposedly coming in February 2011.

There are probably a few other valid issues. However, whatever is the problem with Symbian, it is not the folder menu system and it is certainly not the icons. If we are going to criticize, it is important that we present credible criticism.

Comments Welcome
Please keep your comments to the subject of mobile user interface. I know how easy it is for fanboys to jump in to defend their platform with every other argument but those concerning what is being discussed. Comments that stray outside of mobile interfaces will simply be trashed. Seriously. 😉

For the records, my current smartphone is an Android device, and I love it to bits. I plan on replacing it soon out of necessity, but I have no Symbian device in view. As a matter of fact, all the devices that I am eyeing as replacements all run Android. There.

5 comments

  1. Interesting arguments. On both side and balanced. Nothing much to add; just to say that the folder system management seems to be better with less clutter!

    Also I would like to ask if the Android OS user Interface does not have any form of a folder menu implemented?!?

    Even the Apple Ios has now embraced the folder menu architecture. AS I said earlier, I believe that the folder menu style is better because of less clutter!

  2. The main thing I will like to see in Symbian is for the phones to be faster and with less memory errors. I could really use a 1ghz and 512RAM esp for the touch smartphone, but looks like Nokia wont be doing that until we have better technology for batteries. What Nokia did with the E5 is awesome, so much power in such a device.

    Seriously, I dont for one byte miss the fact that symbian browser is not that good, many thanks to Opera.

    As for folders, I kind of prefer it, and i can bet that very soon Andriod will embrace it. Apple already has.

    But one thing Nokia needs to do for Symbian is to start introducing new stuffs, yes I know its a matured OS but I bet you more can still be done and people want to see more stuffs coming out of the box.

    With Nokia now taking Symbian in house, the news is that better stuffs are coming very soon.

  3. Another reason why Nokia sucks is what bosun mentioned above! Users need new innovative features on each upgrade! Nokia users have been deprived of that for long. FOr instance if you buy a Nokia 5800 and now want to upgrade from the S60 OS to Symbian ^ 3. You just CANT!!! You cannot upgrade Nokia N97 on Symbian 1 to Symbian ^3!

    Nokia should emulate Apple in this wise. They should try to give their customers a choice to upgrade their Smartphone OS to the latest versions. Only the ios and Android are doing well in this wise.

  4. Yomi said

    “However, whatever is the problem with Symbian, it is not the folder menu system and it is certainly not the icons”

    As a fellow geek, I agree with you, still I was so pissed off when I handled the N8 yesterday and saw the icons were still the same familiar s60 v3/v5 style icons. I changed my mind about asking for it for review purpose.

    Samsung offered us both folder and flat systems in the GT-B7610. Now, the device came with Windows Mobile 6.1 and I have not bothered about upgrading it because Samsung practically revamped the OS with their eye candy menu systems and icons, alternate file manager and settings, and the beautiful Samsung Today screen. Eye candy matters!

    I do remember the loud “WOW” exclamation that came out from my mouth when I held the first N series device, N80, years back. Why? first impression was eye candy improvements of the UI over the previous models.

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