Will we love our phones?

UX is in for some interesting times.

Nobody knows the future, but it’s a relatively safe bet that we’re heading into some big changes when it comes to design. Google wants to know you better than your spouse does, and it’s quite likely it’ll get there. SIRI and Google Now are offering increasingly interesting ways to engage with your devices through speech, by simply asking questions and having the answer spoken back to you.

How far will that go? The movie ‘Her’ gave us one possible insight into that recently, with Joaquin Phoenix playing a man who falls in love with his Operating System, and again it’s not hard to see how such a thing can occur. But more interesting was a recent article on the BBC website, that discussed the ethics of robotics in our near future.

We all know they’re coming. Many of us have a toy robotic device somewhere, some of us have a Roomba cleaning the home already. It’s not quite the Jetson’s, but we’re moving into sight of that kind of future. In fact, South Korea is currently drawing up a code of ethicsfor how robots and people interact – not, as you may think, to control the robots and keep us safe – but to keep them safe from us.

As it turns out, that may not be required. The BBC article brought out some interesting findings. At a workshop earlier this year a researcher asked attendees to torture a robot, a small cute device called a Pleo that needed some emotional assistance and training from it’s human ‘parent’. After only an hour the attendees were asked to ‘murder’ the robot with a knife – and all refused. In anotherexperiment in 2011, RadioLab asked five children to hold a doll, a Furbie and a hamster upside down for ‘as long as they felt comfortable doing it’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they could torture the doll for as long as their muscles held out, but both the Furbie and the live hamster got let off much sooner – even children can associate a robot with being alive and feel uncomfortable hurting it.

And soldiers, too.  In 2007 the Washington Post reported on an experiment with a landmine-clearing robot being trialed. The trial was called off by an angry colonel when the robot was still crawling about – because he felt it was ‘inhumane’ to see the device, most legs blown off, still struggling to reach it’s next target.

And exactly why am I talking about robots when this post is about phones? Blame Mr Phoenix. The point is clear, or should be. Humans feel empathy for things that appear to be sentient. The more alive it appears, the more we can feel empathy for it. The more we engage with it, the more we’ll bond with it. Electric Dreams, anyone?

Now we come to UX, and our immediate future.

We are moving into a space where the User Interface is shrinking. I doubt that voice will ever completely take over from the need for an interface, but it’ll certainly reduce and change it. Over time we’ll have a shallower interface to engage with but an increasingly deeper experience with the intelligence behind it. Big data and increasingly smart interpretations of it (and of us) will mean our devices and our systems will begin to interpret us and to serve us exactly as if they were alive, sentient and as friendly as can be.

And that means we’ll bond with them. In turn, that means we have to consider the emotional impact we have. Not just in designing those systems and interfaces, but in changing them.

Imagine you are in love, with the perfect partner. You are madly, deeply in love. One day you come home – and your partner has a leg missing. Or, is lying dead and unresponsive next to the pool. There’s a small card next  to them, telling you to call support for a free upgrade. So you’re fine, right?

We’re not quite there yet, we might upset our customers if we change a design and make it worse, or take away a favoured feature, but few will burst into tears and mourn.

One day soon however, that’ll change. Today we might regret the loss of a phone because we are losing a valuable tool. Tomorrow we might mourn the loss of ‘Eric’, our life manager within that phone.

As UX people, that thought should both thrill and scare us.

Usability of the mobile generation

In today’s world, it seems crazy that communicating with other people should be problematic.

We have home phones, mobile phones, Internet phones. There is a call, a text, an Instant Message, a Tweet – via phone, Facebook & a thousand other apps. We all seem to be so connected we should almost be able to read each other’s thoughts.

So why can it be so difficult to get in touch?

Part of the reason, it seems, is a selfish choice that leads in turn to frustration, cost and a failed experience.

I’m talking particularly about the trend of avoiding landlines. It’s something that seems to be growing, particularly amongst younger audiences, but also in many families. And I can see the attraction, at first. The telecoms companies want a hefty connection fee, and a monthly line rental fee that takes a nice bite out of your finances before you even make a call. And since you’re paying your monthly mobile anyway, why not just cut out the landline altogether?

It’s something that I’m seeing increasingly, particularly amongst my children’s friends. And it annoys me.

First off, you get the expense hit when your child wants to ring a friend. We have an Internet phone with free untimed calls to landlines. so they know they can use the phone to call a friend and chat for ages, for free. But if that friend has no landline, they’ll ring the mobile instead. Instead of a few free calls on the bill, I get a $50-70 hit for long chatty mobile calls.

So I have to school my kids on talking quickly, and cut them off after a few minutes.

Next, you get the reverse call. Child’s friend sends a text, usually along the lines of “hey, call me”.

“Why can’t they call you”, I ask. “They don’t have credit,” the child responds. So, now not only do I have elevated bills to call this kid, I now have to pay when he wants to call our house.

And finally, you get the most frustrating issue of all – the inability to get in touch.

This generally happens when that household has run out of mobile credit for the month. My child wants to organise a trip to the movies with a friend, and rings.

No answer from their mobile, but no point in leaving a message since they are out of credit and can’t pick messages up. So, he has no choice but to ring again later. Then ring again, and again.

Next, he tries ringing that child’s mum (also, of course, on a mobile). Mum picks up, and says the child is off with friends later on. Not sure when he’s due back – but since we don’t have credit right now, call back a bit later.

You also encounter this problem, in a much more expensive format, when non-custodial parents have only a mobile contact. When children want to ring mum or dad every night, or several nights a week, just watch as the dollars fly out the door.

And it’s really not just about the cost – the frustration and pain of repeatedly trying to get hold of people, leaving messages that may or may not get picked up, sending texts that may or may not be read, is a royal pain in the rear section.

It’s a relatively simple choice to decide not to have a landline, but in effect you are passing the costs on to everyone around you who needs to get in touch. You’re also frustrating the crap out of parents who need to get in touch, for one reason or another.

Vent over.

Don’t you just love….?

We all have pet hates, something that makes steam come out of your ears. One of those, for me, is careless voice messaging.

You know the drill. Your phone tells you you’ve got voicemail. You dial the number, and someone chats away for a minute or two telling you who they are, and why they’ve called. Then, when it reaches the end, they leave their number.

Only for some reason, it seems they’re in some form of competition where the winner is the person who can spit out their phone numbers as fast as is humanly possible. What you here is something like:

“…so if you can give me a call that will be great, my landine’s ohtwofourdoublethreesixohtwo or mobile ohfourfourohsixtwothreetriplemumble”

Which might be so bad, if it didn’t all come out on the short side of three seconds.

So, you grind your teeth, wait till the voicemail menu comes up – because if you’re like me you can never remember what number rewinds the message, and guessing will only delete it instead – hit the key, then wait interminably as the message plays all over again. Pen poised, you listen to this long pointless message a second time, then madly start writing when the verbal diarrhea kicks in.

If you’re lucky you get maybe half the number written down. So then you hit that rewind button again, listen the inane message again, and hope you can get the rest of the numbers this time. And if you’re anything like me, it often takes a third replay before you get it all.

Spending five painful minutes trying to catch the telephone number of someone who you probably don’t particularly want to call anyway is amazingly frustrating. How hard can it possibly be to start your message with a clear “Hi, my name is Charlie, my number is oh, two, nine…” etc. If you were stood in front of someone and they had a pen to hand you wouldn’t scream it out as one nine syllable word in half a second, you’d never be so rude – so why do it in a message?

From now on, the ‘last-minute-number-blurrers’ are getting deleted from my message box instead of getting called back. Maybe if we all do they same they’ll learn and stop.

So, what are your pet hates..?

Virgin Mobile doesn't want my money...

UPDATE: Since writing this blog and posting about it on Twitter, Virgin Mobile have kindly contacted me and resolved my problem. Apparently, they do want my money after all..!Recently I made a change of carrier, switching from Virgin Mobile to Telstra.

There were various reasons for this, ranging from poor reception at my house to some previous billing issues and poor customer support, although to be fair to Virgin Mobile the main reason was getting hold of a new HTC Desire from the local Telstra shop. Part of the switch involved paying my last bill and a couple of hundred extra dollars to close out my Virgin Mobile account.

Everything has gone relatively smoothly, but I've hit a small snag; it appears that Virgin Mobile doesn't want my money. Not only that, apparently they don't want to know about it, either...

It started just after I bought the Desire. I had just received a bill from Virgin, and thanks to their new 'we'll charge you more for a paper bill' policy it arrived online. So a few days after I'd switched I logged onto to the VM site, to pay that bill. When I tried to log in (using my pin and phone number) it rejected me, saying that these details were incorrect. I tried again, but quickly realised what had happened - since I'd ported my number to Telstra and in effect closed my account, I no longer had an account to log in to. Ah.

But I figured this wouldn't go on for long - now that the account was closed, Virgin would realise this and send me a final bill.

It arrived this morning. And, you guessed it, it's a virtual bill - which I can access, as soon as I go online and log into my account. Which, as you probably recall, I no longer have.

Hmm.

I tried again, just in case they'd reactivated the login to let me see the bill, but got the same result. Nope, I no longer exist. Okay. So, I thought maybe I'd respond to the email, and tell support I couldn't log in to SEE the bill, let alone pay it. But, as you'll probably have guessed if you've been through anything similar, it was a classic 'no-reply' address.

With the mission impossible theme now running through my head I returned to the site, and selected the support option. Did I already have an account, it asked? Yes, I said. Okay, the site replies, log in. Great. So I tried saying no. It offered to let me 'create one' - not exactly the help I needed.

Giving up, I tried the contact us option. Sure enough there's an email link - which once again asks me to log into my non-existent account to email support about the non-existent bill I'd not like to pay.

As far as Virgin is concerned, I don't exist - and they have no interest in letting me pay the bill that my non-existent self has to pay. Apparently.

There's a 1300 number to ring, so I'll give that a shot - but on past experience, I'm foreseeing around an hour of waiting and a big headache.

If only these companies realised how difficult they are making it on their customers to actually hand over the cash they want to pay..!!!

HTC Desire: Usability review

There are plenty of reviews for the HTC Desire out there, so this blog is going to focus on one area relatively close to my heart – user experience.
First though, a bit of background.
I’ve been looking for a new phone for a while now, and a way to replace my iPod Touch. Whilst the iPhone was the most immediate and obvious candidate, I avoided that choice for several reasons – not least of which was a desire not to simply follow the crowd. I also have to say I’ve been somewhat concerned of late over Apples approach to controlling content, usage and directions for its platforms.
So, I was looking for something else. My primary requirements were a good strong business phone (though server/corporate mail weren’t big issues for me personally), that could handle good music playing with the ability to watch a movie every now and then. I wanted an app market to ensure I could expand it a little, but apart from that I was relatively open to the options.
When I read reviews of the HTC Desire, I felt personally that this phone was going to hit all the marks. It had a good screen, music/video playing abilities, access to the Android marketplace, and initial reviews stated it was a well designed phone. When I finally got a chance to see one in action, I decided to buy and give it a shot.
I’ve had the phone for a little over two weeks now, and this review is going to focus on the user experience rather than the overall features of the device (which are covered more than adequately in other reviews here and here).
I’ve broken the review down into core areas as they apply to my own usage: moving around the phone, calling, entertainment, bells and whistles.
Moving around
Moving around the phone is actually one of the easiest experiences I’ve found on a phone in a long time. The Desire has seven home screens, which can be populated with any combination of shortcuts you wish to use – programs, content links or quick dials. A swipe moves you back and forth between them, and a pinch drops them as icons into a single screen so you can hop instantly between them.
There’s a Home hard button at the base of the phone, which returns you to the central home screen from anywhere, at any time. There’s also a Back key, which moves you back through any application or content page, one step at a time. This is extremely intuitive for moving within applications, for example backing out of menus/popups. There’s also a Menu hard button, which opens context-sensitive menus from most applications. This is slightly less intuitive (since you’re generally looking on-screen for your visual cues) but still works well.
Swiping up or down scrolls content, and this can move quite quickly and continues for a good length of time. This means that scrolling your programs takes generally just one downward swipe to scroll the entire list – negating the need to swipe again and again and again to keep it moving. There’s a central scroll button too, but this is slower and in my opinion a little less rewarding to use.
In general, this makes for an extremely fast and smooth method for moving into and out of applications on the phone. Everything can be reached within one or two clicks/swipes.
It doesn’t always work entirely smoothly though. At times you find yourself within an application, and pressing the Back button returns you to the Home screen, rather than moving back one screen within the application itself. This is a touch frustrating at times, particularly when navigating the calendar. Overall though, this is a minor gripe and doesn’t happen frequently enough to cause major pain.
SCORE: 9/10
Calling
The basic interface for making and receiving calls on the HTC Desire is good. A soft key appears on-screen for all home screens, that launches a dialler with a numeric pad. Type the first few numbers or the numbers corresponding to a name, and a shortlist of options appear. Click one and it rings. Or you can enter the number and it dials.
But all is not quite as rosy as it was with the general navigation – there’s a few gotcha’s here, waiting to catch you out.
The first issue I’ve found relates to contacts with multiple numbers. Many of my contacts have mobile, work and home number, which is not exactly out of the blue. The Desire allows you to create and store multiple fields of data for each contact, so this in itself isn’t an issue, until you try and dial.
The name appears in the matched list with one of the numbers showing, but not the others. Touch the contact and it will dial this number. Touch and hold, and it provides a context sensitive option allowing you to view or edit the contact, etc. Sliding left and right doesn’t work, this gets registered as a touch and starts dialling.
This meant it might automatically dial someone’s mobile, but wouldn’t give you the option of ringing them at work. For the first week I was reduced to going to People (instead of the phone dialler), finding and viewing the contact, and then selecting to manually dial their number from that screen – a complete pain.
It took me quite some time to realise that you needed to use the touch scroll button to move left or right through the different numbers – a far from intuitive option, since your finger is already on the touch screen scrolling through the matched numbers.
The second problem took me almost as long to solve, and I’m still not convinced I have it.
On most phones you can add a contact to a speed dial – though to be fair, this isn’t always easy to find (Sony Ericsson, you know I’m looking at you!)
I know there are speed dial options on the HTC Desire as pressing and holding 1 in the dialler launches a call to voicemail, but for the life of me I can’t find how to assign one. I’ve managed to find a way round this, by dropping shortcuts to common numbers on one of the home screens I’ve kept aside just for this purpose – but it’s not ideal.
SCORE: 7/10
Entertainment
One of the things I loved about my iPod was that it took complete control, and helped me manage my content.
But that’s also one of the things I disliked about it too. Whilst helping you out is one thing, barring you from using your own things goes a little too far.
The HTC Desire makes it extremely simple to place content onto your phone. With games there is the Android market, which offers a nice (though not exactly overwhelming) level of games to trial and download. Some of those I’ve tried so far are of a great level, and easily good enough to keep me busy when I fancy a challenge. Downloading and managing them is easy to do, and similar in approach to the iTunes store.
With music, photos and videos, the phone appears on your PC as an extra drive. You simply drag/drop the files you want onto the phone. Whilst this lacks the benefit of an automatic sync, it does provide all the freedom you could want in terms of what you copy and what format they use.
Playing music and reviewing photos are both pretty simple affairs, and all of the controls and options you’d expect are there. The same is also true for playing movies, although for some bizarre reason movies appear beneath the Photos application – if I hadn’t read that in a review, I’m not entirely sure I’d have found them.
Overall, the entertainment experience is a positive one.
 SCORE: 9/10
Bells and whistles
I use this category to describe features the device offers that go above and beyond what you might expect; the little touches that help push a useful device into an irreplaceable one.
This is a category where the HTC Desire is beginning to shine – at least based on my own experience.
When the phone rings, pick it up and the tune slowly fades out. If you have a ringtone set and you walk into a meeting, place the phone face down and it automatically switches to vibrate only mode.
Switch the phone on, and if it’s a cloudy day you’ll see clouds slowly move across the screen. Receive new emails or messages, and you’ll see notification appear at the top of the screen. Click and drag down, and a notification area appears telling you everything you’ve missed. Clear that, and they all disappear.
Type on the keyboard, and the phone will pick up the keys it thinks you meant to press, rather than those you actually hit. Nine times out of ten it guesses the right words, which is an excellent tool on a touch phone.
SCORE: 9/10
Overall, this is a phone that’s definitely worth checking out for user experience.
It’s not a complete winner, though. There are definitely some rough edges that are a little too hard to remove or can’t be taken off at all, and the phone makes hard work of a couple of basics that shouldn’t need it. But taken as a whole, it’s a great example of moving user experience forward without simply copying the competition.