Friday, June 13, 2008

what I don't understand about smartphone design

I have the best PDA phone I've ever had, Sprint's Treo 700wx. I like it because it has decent one-hand navigation and the rest of the PDA options. I think this is what most people want from their phone's interface, and so give Palm a pat on the back for giving us most of what we want. It's not perfect though, and even took some small steps back from older designs. But let's talk about steps forward... the design that PDA phones should have adopted months or even years ago.

I think about the market for text/data entry on a smartphone, and it is most efficient right now with two hands and a QWERTY. But designers jam the keyboards two inches long onto the bottom of a candy-bar smartphone. Who wants their thumbs jammed into such a little space for longer than a few seconds? You'll notice that console game controllers have gotten wider and wider; probably because we have more than 2'' of body between our shoulders. I tried to find a picture online using the Google image search of someone using the Treo 700wx keyboard with two hands, but photographers probably know how awkward it looks, and marketing wouldn't work in such awkwardness. I only could find images of people holding the phone with one hand (as seen far above).

I did find this awkward picture of a two-handed "thumbboardist" going-at-it on an old, dinosaur Palm device (Vx?). And this QWERTY pictured might actually be slightly larger than the Treo's. I'm getting tendinitis and other non-ergo syndromes just looking at that image. Ouch!

The other keyboards on smartphones have been slide-out keyboards that then auto-rotate the display to landscape mode. The major problem with slide-outs is that the phones are thicker, and the transition to landscape gets slower and slower as the phone gets older and older. Plus the moving part is going to break more easily, right?

So why am I complaining? I'm only complaining because there is a better way (Maybe you're thinking voice recognition, BUT that doesn't work well when you're in a quiet place: meeting, bathroom, public transit, etc.) What would be great for all the time?

Here is the design that smartphones should have had a long time ago. They should space the keyboards out with keys on either side of the screen, a la GameGear or the Samsung Q1. I made a quick picture with Photoshop of what this would look like below. I used the Treo 800w as my reference and edit-source. See the UGLY, but temporarily effective mock-up below.
Look at this bad boy! Directional pads on either side. Space for my hands to grab and move! I feel like I can breathe! This is a side-by-side to compare size to the original Treo 800w.

I made just a few changes to buttons, and I made the screen a bit wider. Basically, though, I just split the QWERTY on either side of the screen. The keyboard lay-out could be optimized, obviously. For example, the keyboard would probably look and function better as a FROWNY-face shape ;-(, instead of the SMILEY-face shape it was on the old Treos :-) . There is a lot of wasted space and awful trim, etc, but the phone communicates my idea well-enough. Also the number-keys should be on the right side of the keyboard instead of the left; this would help with one-hand operation.

Here's a "frowny" version I made with the liquify option:

Let me know what you think. I've gotten carried away, and here's the unannounced Treo Pro with the horizontal set-up. I will nickname it the Treo Lat or maybe I should jump on the starbuck's wagon and call it the Treo Latte. Imagine what you could do with the dual directional pads!


Blogger Victor said...

I think you are right!!
The last image of that handheld PC looks an awesome design to me!

1:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've used the Palm slide-on keyboard shown above, and it is larger than the Treo's. The UMPC you show does not have a great keyboard. I can type faster on my Treo 680 (The Centro has rubbery keys that do not "clok" under your thumbs; the smaller size is not a problem, the lack of tactile feedback is).

The slide-out on the OQO Model 02 is by far the best rubbery keyboard I have used, and for high-speed texting, nothing I have seen matches the 650-755p hard plastic thumboard from palm. Even blackberry users shamefully admit to having more typos on their smooth little flat keys.

The real reason you haven't seen more split keyboards isn't the fact that they make the device wider (any non slide-out would do that), it's because you *can't* use them one-handed.

A tiny keyboard that can be used one or two handed is more useful than a keyboard twice it's size that can only be used with both hands. Especially on a cell phone, where people are usually eating, driving, and applying lipstick while flipping someone off with their other hand.

6:08 AM  
Blogger christovich79 said...

Thanks for the response anon. Allow me respond to your comment.

First, I agree that the Treo keyboards have a pretty good feel, but this blog article isn't about keyboard design beyond the fact that it should be split.

Second, if you look at a Treo and split the keyboard, you can move the control pad down on the right and left sides. I personally don't use the QWERTY keyboard one-handed. If I need to type stuff it's much faster to use two hands, so that's what I typically do.

Thirdly, you say that a tiny keyboard is half the size of a split keyboard design. That just simply isn't the case. It might be only 10 % longer
(calculation: split keyboard into two pieces, each 1 sq inch. Then subtract 1/2 an inch from the length because you can rearrange the control pad and OK, phone control keys, etc. So then you can put that rotated 1 sq inch keyboard on top, with only 1/2 an inch additional lenth. 4.5'' vs 5'' is exactly a 10% difference.) And let's not forget that we then have the option for an additional control pad with the additional space of about 1 sq inch.


If we're redesigning the phone we should also have a removable speaker/mic bluetooth headset that fits flush into the phone.

5:57 PM  

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