Maemo UI improvements blog.

February 20, 2008

Going from Reading to ReadWriting

Filed under: Light UI modifications — Tags: , , , , , , , — ARJWright @ 20:20

This is a derivation of a post made on my personal website titled “Going from Reading to ReadWriting by Improving the Internet Tablet“, though tuned for this site’s audience. Reading both might bring more clarity towards the idea in its enterity. But I wanted to keep this centered for this audience as much as possible.

Like many who read this blog, I have invested a good deal of my mobile computing life into getting a device (or devices) and a set of services that works best for how I need to be productive in this quickly changing world. Unlike many, I know however, I tend to spend a lot of time in a browser, most of my working day in fact. Because of this association with the browser as a vital part of work and play, I’ve come to understand some of its shortcomings, and laud its benefits on whatever platform that I can.

Unfortunately, I cannot say that I have always been a fan of the Internet relayed to me on the Internet Tablet (IT). The reason is that while it does an excellent job in presenting to me the web that I can read, because of several aspects of the browser (and accompanying hardware/software issues), I cannot interact with it the way that an “internet tablet” should allow. If you will, Web 2.0 opened the door to an Internet that we did not just read but we also could compose. However, this central aspect of the web is not exploited on the IT. Moreover, I believe that this is one central reason why the user interface and user experience misses for the target audience and beyond.

Addressing UI (and UX) via Extensions

As some have already shown, the microB browser on the IT is capable of using extensions originally created for Firefox. However, for one reason or another, this has not jumpstarted the IT developer community towards making UI improvements.

For example, extensions in Firefox enable functionality such as blogging from any screen, saving bookmarks to online bookmarking services, taking screen shots, or even using embedded microformated content.

I propose addressing the UI items spoken about in previous posts here by developing extensions that do things like add a finger-sized scrollbar, or change the appearance of the address bar.

Actually ReadWriting

This does not get us to the point of readwriting the web though. To get to this point, the browser has to facilitate more than just consuming content. The easiest way to address this would be seeing a tighter integration between the microB browser and various web services.

For example, adding a content menu when one taps and holds on an image stating “Send to Flickr” or “Add to Flickr and Tag.” Or how about adding a content menu that would appear when text is highlighted that would ask if the information needs to be parsed into calendar/contact format, or automatically pasted into an email.

More than UI

Pushing the ability of the browser past just a portal to consumer content means that the UI has to do more than look good. It enables the IT user to craft a trend of using “internet anywhere” as a more normative view of using the Internet. When services are tasked with being able to plug-in efficiently to the said browser, a layer of “how” is breached for users so that “go” becomes the new how. We’ve seen how the rise of extensions for Firefox has allowed for users to create a personalized web that is and isn’t a part of the online experience. Given the personal and touchscreen natures of the IT, one could argue that doing the same would enable the same type of UI/UX shift.

Most of what I propose is more along the lines of user experience than the interface itself. Nevertheless, I’ll argue that the two have to dance more when it comes to addressing the usability of the IT. As a platform, until the device starts to push against the status quo, it will continue to just be viewed as a device that is one of many. And that it is, lest someone tears a page out of history and decides to use an Internet Tablet to write another. Then the web really begins to script life differently.

January 24, 2008

More User Interface Generalisations – the Consistency Myth?

Filed under: Light UI modifications — Tags: , , , , , , — kareljansens @ 22:22

As Antoine R J Wright already noted , there is more to a good pocket computer’s user interface than just getting the right screen layout for your user’s home screen. “Consistency” is the magic word, but what does that exactly mean and how important is it really?

Let’s go back to the Psion. The Series 3 has a keyboard-oriented interface, based on drop-down menus, lots of keyboard shortcuts and a zoomable screen. Psion put down guidelines and many developers did indeed follow them. Nevertheless, there are Psion programs that do not follow those guidelines and became rather successful nevertheless (most of JBSoft‘s programs e.g. took those guidelines rather loosely). I think that the explanation for this is that the Psion’s interface, while very clever, wasn’t very intrusive or necessary for efficient use of the computer. Despite their inventiveness, Psion Series 3s were basically shrunk down pcs with keyboards. The user didn’t need to get accustomed to a radically new way to use the Psion, just to a more clever way to use the keyboard.

The Newton was different. For one thing, it’s a true tablet pc so any way to use a keyboard on it would be tricky and uncomfortable. Most Newton users would not be accustomed to using a tablet, so Apple rightly decided that the user interface was very important to the whole “Newton feel”. Then again, that consistency (as far as the user experiences go — I’m not going to delve into the developer’s point of view) is mostly limited to the HWR, the gestures interface (scrubbing to delete stuff, dragging to/from the margins to copy/paste), the placement of menu options (the “send” icon top right, in-program menu options on the baseline) and the look and feel of sub-windows.

The content of Newton programs could vary wildly and mostly escaped interface control. Example: Newtons came with “Newton Works”, a combination of word processor, spreadsheet and various installable modules, that out-of-the-box would not recognize handwriting; you needed a community-developed addon for that! (the reason for this was that Works was developed for the eMate, a keyboard variant of the Newton MessagePad). I still have on my MessagePad an interesting CAD-like program for surveying and drawing house plans, PocketHousMap, that defied several (but not all!) of the Newton’s guidelines. Cigraph stopped supporting it when de Newton was discontinued, but the manual can be found here.

What’s my personal take on this? There is one significant difference between the two environments I mentioned above and Maemo/Hildon: Both SIBO (Psion’s Series 3 OS) and NewtonOS are — very — closed source, and the Itablet’s OS isn’t. The question is whether it is doable (and ethical) to impose strict guidelines to developers on an Open Source environment. Personally, I think it shouldn’t be done, not as mandatory guidelines anyway. On the other hand, the design of Hildon isn’t such that it encourages developers to freely adapt to it; there are too many inconsistencies, flaws and even contradictions in it to make Hildon a “good” user interface. The only reason people “hildonise” their applications, is because there is no real alternative to the Hildon UI — yet.

This is where Penguinbait’s KDE port comes into play again. KDE is a very mature windowing environment, which has been fully GPLed recently. It is also very adaptable (see my earlier remark about putting menus on the bottom) and people seem to really like developing for it. If I were to improve the Itablet’s UI, I’d put my money on tweaking the KDE port, especially now that Cellwriter is claimed to be working in KDE, and give Hildon a run for its money.

We don’t need to turn the Itablet into a Newton copy (although it might be possible with OpenEinstein, one day), but we do need to find better ways to make it interact with us, especially if we want the Itablet to become more than a geek’s network sniffing tool. It’s a fine line between giving developers a set of guidelines they want to follow, and UI fascism, but I believe that less rules is always better. We just have to find the good less rules.

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