I have been musing over the ongoing craze for touchscreen devices. While it seems that everyone and his dog now uses a touchscreen phone, in

Usability and Non-touchscreen Phones

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I have been musing over the ongoing craze for touchscreen devices. While it seems that everyone and his dog now uses a touchscreen phone, in reality, touchscreen devices still make up a smaller percentage of the mobile market. But beyond that, it is generally believed that touchscreens provide better user interfaces on mobile devices. But do they?

I have been using a very capable touchscreen device for some time now, the Samsung S8003 Jet. Before then, the only other recent pure touchscreen devices that I have played with include the iPhone 3GS, Samsung Tocco Lite, and Nokia 5800.

Besides the pure touchscreen phones, a few hybrids have made my list – Sony Ericsson Xperia X1 and T-mobile G1. But these are not pure touchscreen devices and so do not fall under the category of devices I am examining.

I have asked myself why the Samsung B7320 beat “more capable” devices to clinch for itself the spot of my Samrtphone of the Year 2009.

b73201

In one word: usability.

What? you scream, Impossible! Preposterous!!

But before you cry for my head, read on. By definition, usability refers to the effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction with which users can achieve tasks in a particular environment of a product. In this case, the product is a mobile phone.

In my opinion, two features ensure that non-touchscreen devices provide better usability than pure touch devices:

One-handed Use
I am unable to remember the number of scenarios in which I had only one hand available, but carrying a phone with only a touchscreen slab meant that I had to drop whatever else I was doing to use the phone.

In contrast to this is the sheer ease of use that candy bar or slider phones with regular or QWERTY keypads offer. Pull the device out with one hand and type away.

In my experience, regular phones like the Sony Ericsson T650i and candybar QWERTYs like the B7320, E71, BlackBerrys provide greater usability than pure touch devices.

It is one of the things I remember the B7320 for.

Switching Screens
We love those huge displays, and coupled with a beautiful user interface, pure touchscreen devices just blow our minds away. Yet, those displays very often get in our way.

You are holding your shiny new touch device and showing something to your friend. But a slight tilt of the angle at which you hold it results in the display auto-rotating, messing up your presentation. Probably a minor irritation, but then it is often the minor irritations that make the difference between high and low usability.

You are watching a video full-screen and in landscape on that glamourous AMOLED touch display, and you lean back a bit on the couch, resulting in an adjusted angle. The display simply auto-rotates again, and you have to sit up straight to get back into landscape mode.

That never happens on your non-touch device. The display stays how you want it. That never happens with the E71 or BlackBerry Curve, for example

Conclusion
At the end of the day, much of this boils down to personal preference. Both sides of the divide have pros and cons.

For example, standard keypad phones are the best of the lot if your primary objective of having a phone is usage that mostly revolves around voice calls.

Replacing the standard keypad with a QWERTY improves usability for those who need to input lots of text. One-handed use is mostly possible and the display does not have a mind of its own. The B7320, being a case in point, gives you a fairly large display that does not switch orientation when you would prefer it to stay put, and one-handed usage. Usability.

Yet, though I am sold on QWERTY devices, I have consistently maintained that standard keypad devices provide the best usability on the planet. Those are the type of phones that the illiterate farmer in Owerri or the village in India is able to use without much problems. While the press may make noise about how they think that touchscreen devices provide the best usability, the truth is very far from that.

The most usable mobile phones are those simple, basic standard keypad devices that almost anyone is able to use without getting an education.

Touchscreen devices lend themselves to media consumption – the large screen being vital to that. Even then, the issues of one-handed use and display orientations still remain. Still, it depends on what the individual wants.

The above issues serve to remind us that touchscreens are not the mobile el dorado that many would like us to think they are. I predict that we will continue to ooooh and aaaah over our touchscreen devices for years and then when the euphoria wears out, we will largely return to more usable models – some sort of hybrids, perhaps.

One thing is for sure, pure touchscreen devices are not the future of mobile. They are certainly not the past. Or the present.

What do you think? If you use a pure touchscreen device, how do you handle the twin issues I raised above?

9 comments

  1. @Yom

    I can answer you without even thinking about what to write. If your usability is based on screen orientation problems and keypad one handed usages, then i can safely say that nokia has already thought of that in the 5800. You simply turn off the accelerometer and you set your imput to alphanumeric keypad. Simple isn’t it?

    But then, you have other things reducing usability aside from the above mentioned things. You can’t hold your phone without accidentally touching the screen and activating one thing or the other. Can you? This is the really annoying thing with the touchscreen phones and those Samsung phones with movable widgets are really terrible with this kind of things.

    Even your provider’s name is done in widgets which you accidentally move almost everytime. Yes you can lock the screen. But that reduces the usability the more as you have to unlock before you can use the phone. The funny thing is that the more sensitive your screen is (which is what you want for super fluidity of use), the more you accidentally trigger some action on your phone.

    All said, i still love the touch phones with huge screens. They make sense when you are all for multimedia functions.

  2. deoladoctor,

    Well said! I missed out the “accidental touch” issue. And yes; Nokia did think that one through about disabling the accelerometre.

    I am not so sure that switching to alphanumeric keypad on touchscreen solves the one-handed usability issue in all cases. Have you seen some of those huge displays? Of course, the 5800 display is an execption in that it is narrow enough for one handed-use.

    PS: I looked at my Samsung Jet’s screen this morning, and usability issues or not, its still to die for!!! We human beings are such a complex lot 🙂

  3. It would be a heresy for me not to contribute in this discourse. I have used both traditonal phones with alphanumerical hard ware keys and complete touchscreen phones. If you ask me I would tell you that I have prefer the touchscreen ones for so many reasons. With the popularity of touchscreens, I think that, to me, the traditional phones look more drab and unappealing. why?

    1. The touchscreen phones are more gorgeous with a huge display which would cheer you up when watching movies or browsing a webpage. If you are like me, I watch roughly 60% of my movies on my mobile device.

    2. The problem of accelerometer could be a dealbreaker if certain conditions h were not resolved. My Chief, Deoladoctor wentioned the function of disabling the accelerometer in the Nokia 5800. In the iphone or ipodtouch, you can as well LOCK the accelerometer to portrait or landscape mode in the application you are using or the browser.

    3. Eye-candy user interface! You cannot blame me for my little indulgences. The eyecandy user interface or the touch interface probably makes you happy just operating your phone. Yes, even YOM agrees with me in this wise. His Samsung Jet just smiles at him. Gives him a killer look and he just can’t resist!

    4. Faster to get into the menu. Here, in the touchscreen scenario you are not hampered by hardware keys and all that, associated with that function or submenu pull down dialogue box and scrolling and all. You just get into the apps you want or the menu icon. It is a breeze. AS simple as that.

    So, Dear Yom, I will choose a capable, fluid interface touchscreen phone any day from a traditional alphanumerical hardware button phone. Pertaining, Texting and typing on the touchscreen, I have learnt to adjust to the touchscreen world. With all the problems and all, That’s still my best bet!

  4. Apart from the onehanded useability issue, it appears that the accurate and speedy entry of copious text is a negative too on a lot of touchscreen devices.

    Many Motorola phones offer an autocomplete feature You type the first few letters of a word and software offers a series of words, from which you pick.

    ‘Quickwrite’ does this for Symbian s60v3. There are similar thirdparty software on other platforms too.

    Ever since I started using the nokia 5800, I have been hunting for a software with similar functionality for symbian s60v5. I have finally found it.

    The ‘Dasur SlideIt’ does autocomplete and more. It can even correct spelling mistakes on the fly.

    It would be great if phone manufacturers can install this sort of software outofthebox (for both touch and nontouch). It would solve the major stress of lengthy text entries on mobile phones in general.

    A hybrid phone (with both entry methods) would probably be the best solution, though…

  5. deoladoctor,

    Yes; I am on the opposite side of the fence here. Personally, I will pick a hardware QWERTY over touchscreen any day. The candybar QWERTY is my first love, but a side sliding QWERTY with a touchscreen (that again!) might just do too.

    One of my finest phones ever was the Samsung i780 – candybar, touchscreen and QWERTY all wrapped into one. Now, that’s my style. Those were the early days of MobilityNigeria, and I did not do a full review back then. I wish I did.

    But here is a Comparative Review of Sony Ericsson P1i and Samsung i780, which gives some more insight into the capabilities of the phone. Small wonder that brym!’s P1i is still his favourite phone.

    The i780 is still in service though – the guy I sold it to is a pal and he loves it to death. Once in a while, I still take it from him just to play with it again.

  6. @Yom. Perhaps we are different. I prefer a PURE touchscreen phone. I do not like a slide out QWERTY because of the extra bulk and weight.

  7. @Afewgoodmen
    I know your choice any day and your first love is still the Steve Jobs’ toy. But i tell you, there’s nothing compared to a capable touch screen phone with a side slide hardware qwerty pad. The exta bulk due to the qwerty actually makes the phone feel solid and good to handle.

    @Yom
    The candybar qwerty phones may be good for one handed operations but unless you are using moto Q8 that has evenly spaced out keys, these phones tend to pack the keys too tightly together making ease of use a little difficult for those of us with fairly large fingers.

  8. I agree with afewgoodmen on this one. The sheer size on most ‘pure’ touchscreen is an attraction for many people. Areas that could have been used for physical keypads are used for the screen. This & other benefits listed by afewgoodmen are more than enough reasons to go for them. As for the accelerometer getting in the way of what you are doing on the phone, you simply turn it off (this shouldnt be an issue at all).
    Now with my experience with Nokia 5230(similar to 5800 in every way), I ve made up my mind that all my future phones will be touchscreens.

  9. deoladoctor,

    I see you haven’t met my fingers yet. Inspite of their size, some of my all-time favourite devices have been candybar QWERTY smartphones – Sony Ericsson P1i, Samsung i790, and Samsung B7320.

    Of course, at the end of the day, its a question of what each person finds comfortable.

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