Smartphone usability and my parents

I just watched my mother try to take a photo with her Nokia smartphone for the first time. An orchid in the home was blooming, and it was the closest camera within reach. She only uses it as a regular phone, and as the least technically-minded member of the family, is strangely the only one not using an iPhone. Needless to say, she was baffled by the Symbian OS. A primary hardware feature on the device, and the icon was buried in a submenu. Afterwards, she asked my father where to find the file so she could email it to herself, and he couldn’t readily answer her.

His last phone before the iPhone 3GS was a Nokia E90 Communicator, a top-of-the-line Symbian workhorse business machine. He’d spent so much time understanding how it worked, that the iPhone’s simplicity initially confused him. He’d ask how to access the file system so he could manage his data. Coming around to a task-centric model (photos are always available in the Photos app; music lives in the iPod data well, managed with iTunes) took awhile, but now that he gets it, the Nokia way is unfathomable. Managing a nested file system on a mobile device is no consumer’s idea of fun.

There’s always been the image of Macs being for stupid/lazy people who can’t work “real” computers and handle complexity in the user interface. Now the iPhone has inherited that reputation in the face of competition from Android, a system that David Pogue calls “best suited for technically proficient high-end users who don’t mind poking around online to get past the hiccups” in his review of the new Droid X. This became clearer as I got older, but I don’t consider most people over the age of 40 who struggle with technology to be stupid or lazy. It comes down to privilege, familiarity, and priorities.

One of Apple’s most prominent user experience attempts at improving accessibility involves mimicking real-world interfaces, such as using a yellow notepaper background and handwriting fonts in Notes, and superfluous flipping page animations in iBooks. Marco Arment has a good post on this: Overdoing the interface metaphor. It’s a divisive strategy that works well in the early stages of familiarization, but soon becomes a hindrance as one grows more proficient/confident. One of the best metaphors I’ve ever encountered on a mobile device was the lens cover on one of my old Sony-Ericsson cameraphones. Slide it open, and the camera application started up. Along with a physical shutter button, it was perfect, and my mother would have understood it instantly. Such a design benefits even experienced users who know how to start the camera up from the main menu. It’s easy to see how a physical feature can offer that experience, but the real challenge is finding that middle ground in software.

* I ended up taking the photo with my Panasonic LX3.

➟ Smokescreen

If I hadn’t just seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed this was possible. Smokescreen is a soon to be open-sourced technology that converts Adobe Flash content to HTML5/Javascript, in real time. It’s essentially Flash without a plugin, and it works with animation and sound just fine in my desktop Safari.

The company behind it describes itself as “an ad network” that wanted to see the richness of Flash ads come to devices like the iPad, without the need to rewrite code. It’ll be released soon, but have a look at the demos they’ve got up now with your Flash blocker on.

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Hipstamatic – a new iPhone toycamera app

I was going to write about this on, but decided to contribute a properly useful review to the iTunes store instead. I am republishing it here for those not using the Singaporean App Store, in the hopes that it brings some attention to this rather exciting new camera app. My one sore point: it is sooo very close in execution to an iPhone app I wanted to have built earlier this year. A different concept, but maybe someday I’ll convince the guys at Synthetic Corp to take it up.



I discovered this app by accident whilst absentmindedly searching for the keyword “Holga”. The preview screenshots in iTunes don’t do it justice.

It’s also the first camera application I’ve seen with in-app purchasing, which made me quite wary of this being something I might become tempted to sink a lot of money into, unnecessarily, over time. Everyone else gives free updates with more features, why should this be any different? The answer might be that the app itself is very different. It features a polished user experience that almost puts a real, no-longer-in-production camera in your hands, and the quality of its image processing is superb – some of the best I’ve ever seen on the iPhone. Its creators no doubt know that photography geeks are more than a little bit vulnerable to buying new equipment for a camera they love, and in-app purchasing is a brilliant way to exploit that. What’s 99c for a new lens, 3 colored gel flashes, and a new black border on all your pictures? If only things were so cheap in the real world with Lomography and Superheadz products.

But freshly installed, one can get some brilliant results out of the two included “lenses” (film choice only affects the borders/frames, except in the case of the single B&W option available in one of the in-app purchase packs), but I’m willing to bet you’ll be so impressed with the whole experience that you’ll pick up one of the extra add-ons within a day. So budget for the price of the app (currently at $1.99, a so-called introductory price) plus 2 x $0.99.

More than any other photography app out there – and I have bought more of them than I’d have liked – this one gives you the feeling of owning a whole new camera. The UI design is a big part of this. You constantly see the front and back of the camera as you change settings and take photos. You have a tiny and inaccurate preview of your shot where the viewfinder is supposed to be. You don’t change the look of your photos by moving sliders or pressing radio buttons, you swap in visual representations of “films”, “lenses”, and “flashes”. Sure, it’s little different from any other photo app under the surface, except the results are up there with the best of them, but that surface gloss makes you forget Hipstamatic is taking shots through your iPhone’s camera. And the results back that up. Night shots taken with the “Jimmy” lens and the fake flash are soaked through with warm light, almost devoid of speckled color noise. It’s the kind of result you’d expect from a film camera that left its shutter open until the film was fully exposed. Marvelously rich and much more analog than you’d have thought was possible from an iPhone.

Moreover, like ShakeItPhoto before the last update, Hipstamatic doesn’t give you the option of processing photos you’ve already taken with some other app or the built-in camera module. I wouldn’t like to see this behavior in every app, but it makes perfect sense here and really sells the illusion of a unique toy camera with risks involved. You don’t get a safety shot, you just get the one you take, which makes every shot somewhat precious. It also gives you a bit of a heart attack when you’ve captured something you think might be great, and then the app crashes. It does this quite a lot when saving at the highest resolution of 1050 x 1050px, even on my freshly-rebooted iPhone 3GS. I’m hoping the next update brings more stability, but even so, this fully deserves a five-star rating today.

iPhone app review: Ramp Champ

(This iPhone review and others like it have been moved to my new app review site, Why not have a look?)

Ramp Champ (Game)

Price: $1.99
What it is: A carnival of sadomasochism.

Every retirement home has one old man who used to be a championship boxer, tough enough to still knock out two young men bigger than him. Likewise, every group of cowed nerds has among their numbers one who will eventually arm up and shoot up the school in a black trenchcoat. Ramp Champ has a lot in common with these people.

It lives amongst the feeble pursuits most call “casual games”, a candycoated term cooked up by executives to describe alternative entertainment for normal people – those don’t play first-person shooters and airplane simulations eight hours straight at a time – or as we like to call them, “games for pussies”. But don’t be fooled by the company it keeps. Ramp Champ is a prison-hard motherf*cker. I suspect it broke out of hardcore gaming prison and into casual gaming prison just because it was bored.

Ramp Champ is like the serial killer who wears thick glasses and tucks his striped shirt into his pants and talks with a feigned speech impediment and holds a boring desk job at a government agency, but really goes home every night and becomes like Christian Bale or something, with ripped muscles from pumping rusty iron in his basement and hunting animals in the woods naked.

So what looks like an innocent game of skeeball is actually an elaborate psychology experiment. I mean, it must be! The physics simulation suggests that you have full control over where the ball goes, if you’re good enough, and then when you need to score the most, it lets some blind Parkinson’s patient take over the shot. But sometimes, it does exactly what you expect, making the time spent smearing goat’s blood on your own face seem completely worth it. It frustrates, it makes a mockery of your so-called skills, and it’s completely addictive. I know because I’ve mastered it at the cost of my sanity.

Slammer Rating: 4/5 shivs

Buy Ramp Champ in the iTunes App Store.

Above: What you’ll see when you become a ramp champ. Each of the levels’ three goals filled in with a yellow dot.

iPhone app review: Paper Toss World Tour

(This iPhone review and others like it have been moved to my new app review site, Why not have a look?)

Paper Toss World Tour (Game)
Price: $0.99

What it is: Same sheet, different cans.

The original (and free) Paper Toss introduced a new casual game genre so shallow, it threatened its own sequel possibilities. A ball of paper is flicked into a bin. To increase the challenge, the bin could be moved farther back, and a fan provided wind. What more could be done?

Fortunately for the developers at Backflip Studios, that question had already been answered by millions of poncy fat cats who regularly jet around visiting manicured gardens that charge thousands of dollars a year for the privilege of hitting little white balls into holes: change the scenery.

The result is Paper Toss World Tour, an armchair tosser’s dream. Wait, that came out wrong. By virtue of having 8 different cities to visit, the game finally has something that resembles a career mode. You begin in a Japanese Zen garden, and unlock others from there. The distance between paper and bin varies in each city, and you get some nice environmental effects like the sandstorms in Egypt. I only wish they’d included Singapore as the final stage, whereupon missing the trashcan, SWAT teams materialize with shotguns and rottweilers to end your career. Oh well, there’s always the next version.

Confusing New Ratings System: 3/5 and B+

Buy Paper Toss World Tour in the iTunes App Store.
Get the original Paper Toss for free in the iTunes App Store.

Below: The original Paper Toss game.

Below: Paper Toss World Tour