I’m truly lucky to have now lived with a Windows Phone for nearly two weeks, so it’s time to write about it! This isn’t a phone review or even a UI review – it’s about what it’s actually like to live with, in the spirit of seeing if it lives up to Total Experience Design standards!
First, cards on the table. I have used an iPhone, Blackberry, Nokia E72 and most recently settled on an Android handset as being the most useful and enjoyable phone I had ever had. So that’s where my preferences have lain up until now.
I want a lot from a phone, but have been always underwhelmed by every phone I have had. They keep getting better and better, but never live up to expectations. But if you asked me to pin the missing elements down to a set of functions, I would have struggled. All of these phones had features galore, and more recently, apps that did pretty much anything you want. Of course things like battery life and the UI could have been improved, but that still wouldn’t have nailed it.
What I really wanted was not a phone, but a multi-use device, something that I could rely on in a variety of situations to connect me, to entertain me, to talk to people on (weirdly), and in all of these situations, it never… well, I guess the phrase would be that it never “flowed”. Things were always fiddly or annoying in some way, or took too much time.
I guess that like Spock on Star Trek, I wanted to whip out my multi-function communicator or tri-corder and it would immediately tell me the answer to whatever was on my mind at the time. Or the seemingly magical all-powerful ‘PDA’ used by Jack Bauer in the supposedly real time “24”, where one button press would instantly reveal everything from real-time satellite coverage of his location, to accessing the building control system of a skyscraper so he can shut down the lifts!
The reality of life with a so-called smartphone is that things aren’t that simple. Want real-time satellite coverage of your present location Jack Bauer? Well first, unlock your phone, scroll to find the Department of Defense satellite app, then realise you need to turn the GPS on because you turned it off to save battery life, fiddle around in the settings, wait for it to lock on, then your 3G connection drops because you went in a tunnel, buffering… buffering… excellent got it. Except now the bad guys are right on top of me…
So without talking about the device, or even the interface, the reliability of the connection, or the nature of the on-screen keyboard, let me try to describe what Windows Phone is ‘like’…
Windows Phone is a flowing experience. You just have to tell Windows Phone three things in order for it to start to bring your world together. Your Facebook login. Your Windows LiveID. Your work email details. From this point in, you stop thinking about it…
With other phones I have to think about which calendar my itinerary is stored in. I have to think about which phonebook my mum’s phone number is in. None of this with Windows Phone. Once your details are in, you just have to think about ‘people’ – people you know, people you work with, their phone numbers, their email addresses, their facebook status, their photos, everything is in one place… in fact, this takes a little retraining for an old smartphone user like me. You would think that for a user experience pro, ‘people first’ is an easy thing to remember, but it takes a while to sink in. The ‘people hub’ is really the place to be regardless of whether the communication is inbound or outbound, work or social, email, voice or facebook. One long list of people you know and the stuff that they’re doing.
Windows Phone is not an ‘up and down’ or an ‘in and out’ experience. It feels flowing and linear. What I mean by this is that I’m not constantly thinking about menu structures. Any combination of operating system and applications has a means of navigation, to which each of us applies their own cognitive model – “go up to the top level” is an indicator of the type of mental map someone has made of a particular system for example. With Windows Phone, I don’t have a mental model of its hierarchies. Instead, it feels like I have an anchor – the windows button that takes me to the live tiles, but after that, I have no concept of what ‘apps are open’ and it doesn’t matter. When I am doing something and go on to do something else, then want to go back to what I was doing, I hit ‘back’ and I always seem to get there. What this allows you to do is use short term actual memory rather than a mental model. “What was I doing before I went to look at the map? Oh yes… “ and before you know it you’re back trying for a new high score on Bejewelled.
When I say that the Windows Phone experience is ‘flowing’ I also mean more than just navigationally or interaction-wise. Here is a story from yesterday that totally sums up what I mean by this. First, though, let me tell you that I have never synced music to a phone. Just seemed like too much of a hassle, and I prefer to have a wider variety of music available, so I usually carry a much larger capacity music / video player with me. Anyway – bearing this in mind,.. yesterday I was in a store in London. The store sound system was playing a song. I liked it, but didn’t know who it was by.
I grabbed my Windows Phone and hit the Shazam app. Shazam listened to the song, then (much more quickly than my Android used to) told me what it was. Whilst I was thinking to myself “I must remember to go find that later” I saw a little Zune icon at the bottom of the app. I touched it. I was then in the phone’s music player, looking at the album art, a track listing and the first track on the album playing. I could have listened to the whole album for free (courtesy of my Zune pass) right there and then. Being a savvy geek though, I wanted it downloaded in my local collection rather than streaming, and one tap of the screen later it was all downloading. I never went back to the screen that showed the download progress, but next time I went to play music that album was all safely in my collection.
There were no walls in this process. There was no visibility of the fact that Shazam is an app built by a third party, no wait whilst the music player app opened, or even any acknowledgement that I had moved into the music player, or that it had to log in to Zune, or that the music was streaming, no retrying of downloads because the 3G connection dropped… none of that.
The phone simply heard the track, and gave me the whole album. That actually took three taps of the screen, although I wasn’t counting at the time.
This is just one example, but there are lots of others from sharing of stuff in to social spaces, to simple map look up of a meeting location, and so on. In fact one of the ways Microsoft justify the lack of cut and paste (at the moment anyway – I guess we’re only a software release away) is “why would you need it?” and in many respects they’re right. I no longer need to copy the postcode of a meeting and paste it into the map application. There is a host of other examples where you’re pondering how to do something, and you notice the button for it, or a link on a name or a menu option, or something that allows you to go straight to that function, or in some cases you realise that you don’t need to do it at all. For example, there’s a host of random pics on my facebook page right now because lots of people say to me “How easy is it to post photos to Facebook?”. In this instance, when you select to share to Facebook, and are prompted to write a comment on the photo – you are left wondering where the ‘upload’ button is – only to notice a discrete uploading status message that indicates that in the time it took you to think that, the phone has already gone ahead and uploaded it.
So as an experience, Windows Phone just feels really tight and integrated. There are no gaping holes between the different discrete parts of the phone’s operation that reek of the fact that different development teams worked on them. None of that stuff. It all just flows, without you ever really thinking about what apps are open, or what menu option will lead you to what.
Interestingly, one of the biggest feature of this device is something it doesn’t do and I nearly missed it, because it only just occurred to me that in the two weeks that I have had this phone, I haven’t turned it off. I’ve run music, apps, games, downloads, web stuff, email, everything.. and it has never skipped a beat. It hasn’t frozen, given ANY error messages, nothing has stopped responding, no long waits between things opening, and no need to reboot or reset it. It didn’t even drop any phone calls!
Us geeks are generally pretty forgiving of sexy bits of technology – and are understanding of the fact that memory can fill up, and sometimes things just need a bit of a reset – but we shouldn’t be, and Windows Phone obviously thinks so too, as it has been rock solid.
There’s loads more to talk about on living with Windows Phone of course that I’ll only touch on here briefly:
- The neatness and speed of the interaction with music and camera when the phone is locked. Like Spock’s tricorder; when you want it to be a camera it’s just a camera – no need to unlock it, or open an app… just turn it on and take a picture. When you want to turn up the volume, you just turn up the volume – regardless of whether the phone is locked, or the display is turned on or off.
- Gaming – I am not a massive Xbox Live kind of guy. I only just got an Xbox, so that I could get Kinect – but I’ve already connected up my Xbox live accounts, and massively got into games that give me Xbox points, and so on. I eagerly await the day a games publisher comes up with a game that has good reasons to play across both Xbox and phone, and has interaction with your Xbox Live friends because it all works so seamlessly. I’ve sat and changed my avatar on my phone, and seen it just appear on my Xbox. I’ve played more games on this Phone than I ever played on any other phone.
- The Metro UI – well, there’s a lot been said about that already, so I won’t.. but suffice to say, it ‘feels’ really good. As well as working really well, it’s the transitions and interaction design that really makes this phone feel pleasurable to use.
In summary, living with Windows Phone is quite amazing for a Microsoft version 1.0 product. it’s also a device that changes a lot of the smartphone UI paradigms. You find yourself having to think ‘how would I do this if I were 7 years old?’ And I mean this literally, so when you can’t find the camera app, and your 7 year old son picks it up, holds it like a camera and presses the shutter button which fires the camera into life, remember that way of thinking and apply it. It’s how the technology should have been designed in the first place, but we ended up with a complex way of doing things that we do not have to be stuck with…
Could it be improved on? Of course... everything can, but in its first incarnation it brings something new into the smartphone market that I feel will be seriously challenging to a number of existing marketplaces – not least of which will be the corporate email device market, where it will push back the rise of the iPhone and take the game to Blackberry.
My suggestions for improvements are pretty minor…
- Add the day of the week to the day and agenda dates i.e. Mon 8th Dec rather than just 8 December, otherwise you lose track when scanning a few days…
- Make the top status bar a shortcut to related settings – e.g. if I tap on the wi-fi status icon, I go to the wi-fi settings. Ditto for Bluetooth.
- Encourage app developers to make the behaviour of their apps consistent. Many remember their state when shut down, but many don’t… this can be annoying, especially if you accidentally hit one of the hardware buttons whilst frantically playing a game! But at least, Windows Phone apps can keep state, unlike some other devices, and I guess we’re only one software release away from multi-tasking…
- Integrate Twitter in the same way that Facebook is integrated. Ditto Flickr I guess…
- Expose more Live Tiles functionality to developers so more app tiles can be live
- Make the Zune music and video marketplace the best it can possibly be. It’s pretty good now, but they’ll need to keep on top of content deals, and the like to keep it tip top. Spotify has convinced us Brits that it’s ok to pay a small amount of money monthly for unlimited on-demand music, and you can have your Zune content on 3 computers, and 3 devices (and in your living room via your Xbox 360), so this may be the time we Brits finally buy into the monthly pass idea.
I do hope that Microsoft will take feedback on the UI, and continually improve it without complicating it. Ongoing subtle enhancement I think is the way to go.
If you want a phone that you don’t have to think about, but you’re equally proud to own or show off... then Windows Phone is for you.
Now – the only thing left is to ask the battery industry to give us all some new batteries for whatever smartphone we own that will last longer than a day! Although my HTC Trophy came with a battery charger that is so slim and sexy that my dear friend @clemency is proud to say she keeps it in her (Vivian Westwood) handbag, so if she can, so can you! it’s worth it.
(The T-Shirt art Oliver Kenton and Michael Alves from our interactive media team created for Microsoft in celebration of the Windows Phone association with this year’s BIMA awards. They didn’t run with the death of the paperclip artwork that you also see as crafted by Xan Perez-Lopez.. not sure why.)