Dating a Dancer: Living with Windows Phone 7

15 Oct

by chris-kaminski 15.10.12

For about a month my only phone was a Dell Venue Pro running Windows Phone 7.5. It was like dating a stripper: at first it was sexy, unconventional, and exciting; but as time went on I learned it was also shallow, difficult, and sometimes acted like it was smoking crack.

Sexy, Unconventional, Exciting

This is a beautiful piece of software. The buttery-smooth animations, minimalist graphics, elegant typography, and dramatic background photos are sex on a screen. The ‘Live Tiles’ start screen is undeniably unconventional — and the better for it. And Microsoft’s ‘hubs’ offer the exciting prospect of seamless integration of disparate communications media. Microsoft needed something that would attract attention among opinion makers, and among designers and geeks this phone attracts attention like a Chippendale at a hen party.

Shallow

When I first started using it, I could forgive WP7 anything. It was just so pretty. But infatuation was gradually replaced with frustration: I never quite got comfortable using it. And the problem was precisely the thing that makes it so gorgeous: its spartan, no-pixels-wasted aesthetic.

To start, WP7 lacks perceived affordances. Is this bit of text a label or a tappable widget? The lack of borders, icons, or other indicators often made it impossible to tell. Even after you’ve tapped to see, the absence of visual cues means you have to memorise the result. Skeuomorphic buttons may be kitsch, but they put knowledge of which bit is tappable and which not into the environment so you don’t have to keep it in your head. The result is less cognitive load and a more fluid experience.

WP7’s lack of chrome, economy of typefaces, and limited colour palette also means there is little variation from screen to screen or even app to app. The lack of variation gives you few signposts to signal which screen you’re on or which app you’re using. You have to keep that information in your head, too. Yet more cognitive load.

More, the app model includes no wayfinding beyond which screen you’re on — if you drill down in a screen you don’t know if you’re 2 levels down, 3, etc. Cognitive load again.

The result is a UI that’s taxing to use, rather than feeling as slick as it looks. This is a soluble problem, of course. But like educating a dropout, it’s going to take time and effort and I need a phone now, not after it’s gotten it’s GCSE in night school.

Difficult

WP7 makes some things more difficult than they should be. Playing music, for example, is part of the Zune app. That means it’s mushed in with watching videos. And I listen to music on my phone a lot more than I watch videos, so drilling down from a top menu to get at my tunes. While there’s an icon on the opening screen you can tap to just start playing music, it’s not obvious what music it will play.

Once you get into the music player, shuffling a playlist requires first tapping it’s name to play it, then selecting ‘shuffle’. You end up either listening to the first track an awful lot or always skipping it. A minor irritation, but it’s an oft-used function that takes more taps than it should.

While I’m on the subject of music, there must be a way to search the Zune library on WP7. But I couldn’t find it. And it doesn’t seem Microsoft can either.

Then there’s the Maps app. At maximum zoom, you can only use ‘aerial view’. After providing too little information many other places, WP7 suddenly does just the opposite. When you zoom in fully it’s usually because you want a clear view of intersections, street names and so forth. A satellite image clutters all that up with trees, buildings and the like which. It takes more effort to comprehend the image than it would a good graphical map.

Another ‘convenience’ in Maps: search for directions and Maps helpfully starts you off on the first step of turn-by-turn directions. That’s great, except it obscures the route you’ll be taking. So how do you get a view of the route? Why, you hit the ‘Back’ soft key, of course. ‘Back’ to a screen you’ve never been to before. Obvious, really.

These things can be fixed, of course. And probably will be in WP8, which is due out soon. But added to the cognitive load from WP7’s excessive minimalism they just make it feel like too much work.

Smoking Crack

WP7’s ‘Back’ soft key is about as predictable as a loaded crackhead. Depending on which screen you’re on, tapping ‘Back’ may mean:

  • ‘Cancel’ (if you’re editing an email)
  • ‘Go to the previous page’ (in IE — but only if there is a previous page)
  • ‘Open the previous app’ (if you’re at the top level of an app, there’s no history to browse, and the app was opened from another app as when you tap a link in an email)
  • ‘Go to the home screen’ (if you launched the app from the home screen)
  • ‘Go to the previous screen’ (in the Twitter app)
  • ‘To to previous step’ or ‘Stop doing step-by-step’ (if you’re using Directions in the Map app)

As a special treat, if you hit ‘Back’ while on the first entry in IE’s history — meaning there’s no web page to go ‘back’ to — it takes you to the previous app (or the home page, if you launched IE from there). And IE promptly loses your history.

Do you see the pattern? I don’t. I’ve met panhandling junkies that were more consistent. You have to memorise what the ‘Back’ button does in different situations based on app, function, and what you did right before you hit it. Cognitive mother load!

That’s WP7 in a nutshell: it looks great, promises lots of excitement, but makes the user work too hard. That’s probably down to Microsoft’s priorities. It’s version 1, and like a 20-year-old gym rat in a mankini, it doesn’t yet have the skills to do a real job. But it certainly draws attention, which Microsoft desperately needed in the mobile space.

The important thing will be whether the soon-to-be-released Windows Phone 8 starts getting more of the mundane things right. There is a lot of smart, original thinking in this OS. And it certainly looks the part. But like that gym rat, WP7 needs to grow up, get educated, and start acting like a mature platform. Because good looks only get you so far.

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