Two approaches to design: iPhone versus Nokia

Well, this one’s gonna be a grudge­match, isn’t it? Apple and Nokia both make smart­phones, and there the sim­i­lar­i­ties end. Nokia and Apple fans flood the Inter­net with debate, each think­ing the oth­er has missed some­thing crit­i­cal. The con­flict goes deep, root­ed in the philoso­phies of the respec­tive com­pa­nies and how they try to meet demand for products.

Apple has been crit­i­cized by its detrac­tors for mak­ing sub­stan­dard but pret­ty prod­ucts. They cite a lack of fea­tures or a lack of access to fea­tures in Apple prod­ucts and dis­miss Apple as hav­ing noth­ing going for it but an abil­i­ty to adver­tise and mar­ket their prod­ucts in a way that cre­ates an irra­tional, hyp­not­ic response. They say that Apple users are dupes who are fooled by the hype. Look at the fea­ture list of the iPhone, espe­cial­ly in its first incar­na­tion, and it’s easy to see that point of view. The fea­ture set of Noki­a’s low­est-end phone puts the orig­i­nal iPhone to shame if you are count­ing each fea­ture as a line item.


Apple fans make excus­es for Apple prod­ucts by throw­ing around big terms like «user expe­ri­ence» and «human inter­face». And there is some truth behind those terms. Apple puts a lot of effort into guid­ing the user through the expe­ri­ence of using their prod­ucts. If an Apple prod­uct does what you want it to, gen­er­al­ly it won’t be that hard to fig­ure out, and it will be acces­si­ble fair­ly quick­ly. There are some hid­den fea­tures that a small­er set of users want, and often a set of fea­tures where you just can’t get there from here.

For exam­ple: if you want to view the raw source of an email on the iPhone, you’re out of luck. If you want to add CC or BCC head­ers, you have to change a default in your Mail set­tings in the iPhone Set­tings so that the To and CC fields are shown. Then you can tap on it in your com­pose email screen. Some­one who is suf­fi­cient­ly moti­vat­ed to use this fea­ture can find it, but most peo­ple won’t use it or need it so infre­quent­ly that it can be hid­den by default. If you want to read an incom­ing email or write an out­go­ing email, the crit­i­cal fea­tures of any email client, you are two taps away from either task from the iPhone’s home screen. Apple’s design­ers clear­ly made some con­sid­ered choic­es about what to include and how to include it. From a quan­ti­ta­tive point of view, iPhone mail is lack­ing in the «view raw text» fea­ture and has hid­den the CC/BCC fea­ture away. From a qual­i­ta­tive point of view, iPhone mail makes it quick and easy to do what most peo­ple want it to do most often. Lim­it­ing the avail­able fea­ture set is part of a design phi­los­o­phy that does not treat all fea­tures as equal.

The antithe­sis of Apple’s «lim­it­ed fea­ture set» approach can be found at Nokia. Noki­a’s top-of the line smart­phones have tru­ly impres­sive fea­ture lists. On these lists, in var­i­ous con­fig­u­ra­tions you’ll find hard­ware QWERTY key­boards, high-res­o­lu­tion cam­eras with flash, FM radios, infrared ser­i­al con­nec­tions, mem­o­ry expan­sion slots, includ­ed instant mes­sag­ing apps, VOIP capa­bil­i­ty, mul­ti­ple hard­ware but­tons, includ­ed office suites, teth­er­ing (to use the phone as a modem for your lap­top or oth­er devices) and Flash sup­port: all fea­tures miss­ing on the iPhone out of the box, many of which are total­ly unavail­able for the iPhone. 

Over the years I’ve had sev­er­al Nokia phones. My favorite of them all was the old 6310i with its 96×60 pix­el screen with no shades of gray. In 2002 it had blue­tooth teth­er­ing to con­nect oth­er devices to it’s then-fast GPRS con­nec­tion for Inter­net down­loads as fast as 38.4kbps. It’s still the only cell­phone I’ve ever had that was as good as a land­line. Noth­ing since has come close.

I tried out a top-of-the-line Nokia (the E75) last month. The E75 has Office soft­ware, WiFi, a cam­era with a flash, an FM radio, MP3 play­er, text mes­sag­ing and email, a full QWERTY key­board that slides out in land­scape ori­en­ta­tion. While there are high­er-end Nokia phones in the mul­ti­me­dia and sub­note­book cat­e­gories, the E75 is pret­ty much the top of Noki­a’s busi­ness-class offer­ings in Amer­i­ca (many of Noki­a’s best phones are not offered in the cel­lu­lar fre­quen­cies used in North Amer­i­ca). In com­par­i­son with the iPhone, it takes three key­press­es to start to write an email, more if you want to read incom­ing mail.

An extra key­press might not seem like much, but it’s just the begin­ning. In order to spec­i­fy a recip­i­ent from your own address book, you have to type sev­er­al let­ters, then push a but­ton to tell it to search, then select a name and an address. Com­pared to the iPhone, which starts guess­ing at the email address you wish to use for the mail’s recip­i­ent as soon as the first let­ter is typed, this is a long, cum­ber­some operation.

When I decid­ed to try out the FM radio, it took me 30 min­utes with the man­u­al and Google’s help to fig­ure out how to find the appli­ca­tion. It took anoth­er 10 to fig­ure out how to tune in to a radio sta­tion. Yes, it’s a fea­ture that on paper Nokia can claim as a win over their com­pe­ti­tion, but I have to won­der if there is any point to includ­ing a fea­ture like that oth­er than to pad the fea­ture list. As far as I’m con­cerned, adding this fea­ture detract­ed from my expe­ri­ence of the phone. Can any­one fault me if I say that on the ques­tion of the FM radio the iPhone beats Nokia—even with­out an FM radio?

One would think that a phone with a built-in key­board is just built for text mes­sag­ing. Here too it seems that Nokia was focus­ing more on get­ting the fea­tures out the door than with actu­al­ly cre­at­ing some­thing that would be use­ful to some­one. Cre­at­ing a text mes­sage has the same dif­fi­cul­ties that cre­at­ing an email would, and worse. The list of incom­ing text mes­sages is pure­ly sequen­tial, with no thread­ed view and no way to search for mes­sages from a par­tic­u­lar recip­i­ent. You can laugh all you like at iPhone’s car­toon word-bal­loon dis­play of text mes­sages, but mes­sages are seen there as a con­ver­sa­tion, not like a pile of ran­dom post-it notes on your desk. It’s pos­si­ble to look at the his­to­ry of mes­sages sent to and from your device. 

Noki­a’s text mes­sag­ing screen looks almost as though it has­n’t been mod­i­fied since the days of my 6310i. There’s blocky text full of redun­dant and most­ly use­less infor­ma­tion. For any one of these mes­sages if I want to see more than the first three char­ac­ters, I have to select and open the mes­sage. Then to reply I can 1) push the OK but­ton 2) push it again to con­firm that I want to reply 3) select the option to reply by text mes­sage instead of reply­ing by some oth­er method.


To be fair, the Nokia here is pro­vid­ing more options. On the iPhone, there’s no direct way to send an email in reply to a text mes­sage; you essen­tial­ly have to do it Apple’s way. But I’ve got to ask: how often will you ever reply to a text mes­sage with an email? I’m not say­ing it will nev­er hap­pen, but will it hap­pen so often that I have to take extra steps with every mes­sage I reply to, choos­ing the method by which I will reply? Apple’s mes­sag­ing app also does­n’t require me to con­firm that I real­ly want to com­pose a reply. If I start typ­ing a mes­sage, it knows that I want to reply. In total, if I stay in the Mes­sag­ing app on the E75 receiv­ing a mes­sage and reply­ing to it requires a half-dozen key­press­es in addi­tion to what­ev­er it is I want to type.

As a side note, it is not entire­ly true that you have to do it Apple’s way—there are but­tons at the top of the mes­sag­ing «con­ver­sa­tion» for call­ing or going to the con­tact infor­ma­tion for the per­son the con­ver­sa­tion is with. From the con­tact infor­ma­tion it’s just one more tap to com­pose an email. It’s out of the way, but it is there. My point stands though: Apple put the infre­quent­ly used options out of the way and made the most used option the default. 

I sup­pose it could be argued that hid­ing the FM radio away in the image gallery, as Nokia did, is the same thing. The FM radio is not as fre­quent­ly used, so it can be stowed out of the way. But the FM radio is a stand­alone fea­ture, not a less­er-used option of a fea­ture. The fact that the loca­tion of the appli­ca­tion that plays and tunes the radio isn’t even includ­ed in the user man­u­al just makes it worse.

The actu­al expe­ri­ence of typ­ing a mes­sage shows Nokia — once con­sid­ered to be the king of user inter­face — to be even far­ther asleep at the switch. Both the iPhone and Nokia have pre­dic­tive text options, and hon­est­ly, some­times I find Apple’s pre­dic­tive text to be annoy­ing. If the word I’ve typed is one that Apple thinks should be a dif­fer­ent word, I either have to notice and tap to over­ride or end up with the wrong word. Most of the time, though, Apple’s pre­dic­tive text gets it right.

Noki­a’s pre­dic­tive text is just frus­trat­ing. Here is a sys­tem that assumes that if you put a ques­tion mark at the end of a word, that you real­ly must have meant to hit the apos­tro­phe. Maybe it’s an easy mis­take, as the apos­tro­phe and the ques­tion mark are on the same key. You have to hit a mod­i­fi­er key in order to get a ques­tion mark. That just makes it all the more unfor­giv­able. It’s not as though I might have meant to hit the key next to the one I did hit. The Nokia pre­dic­tive text engine assumes that I hit the shift key by accident.

Nokia also makes it darn near impos­si­ble to get accent­ed char­ac­ters or spe­cial typo­graph­i­cal char­ac­ters in my mes­sages. Apple made it pret­ty easy. Press the let­ter key that is most close­ly relat­ed to the char­ac­ter you want, and it presents you with choic­es. Press the C and hold it and you can choose from c, ç, ?, or ?. I still haven’t fig­ured out how to make a cent sym­bol. Nev­er­the­less, it’s eas­i­er to get at some of the accent­ed char­ac­ters on the iPhone key­board than it is on my key­board at home. 

In the end, how­ev­er, no amount of user inter­face mag­ic can make up for a miss­ing fea­ture if that fea­ture is one that you want. There are no soft­ware tweaks that will give your iPhone a flash for tak­ing pho­tos, and no fan­cy tricks for lis­ten­ing to your local radio sta­tions unless they hap­pen to offer live streams over the Web. With­out jail­break­ing your iPhone there is no way to use the 3G net­work­ing to turn your iPhone into a mobile hotspot (that was add on soft­ware on the Nokia, and it came in very handy when my cable went out ear­ly this month). 

Per­son­al­ly, I don’t think the iPhone is real­ly a very great phone. It’s a darn nice hand­held device but the 3G net­work­ing inter­feres with voice calls. It also isn’t shaped like a phone. I’d much rather be hold­ing the Nokia 6310i up to my ear — it felt like a phone and looked like a phone. The iPhone is too wide to cra­dle in my hand com­fort­ably. It’s not bad that way, but not great. The E75 is bet­ter, but the slid­ing key­board makes the whole thing sort of clum­sy. I wish they’d bring back some­thing the size and shape of the 6310i.

My point here is not that Apple rules and Nokia drools—in fact, I think on bal­ance Nokia makes bet­ter phones than Apple. They offer a zil­lion dif­fer­ent mod­els with dif­fer­ent fea­ture­sets and they make some of the best sound­ing phones out there. That is the point of hav­ing a phone, after all, right? So that you can hear oth­er peo­ple? (The E75 by the way, is not the best exam­ple of this. It had accept­able call qual­i­ty, but it was­n’t what I expect from Nokia.)

My point here is just this: user inter­face mat­ters. User expe­ri­ence mat­ters. Ergonom­ics mat­ter. They make the things we do with our soft­ware and devices eas­i­er, and they save time (as long as you don’t count the time spent blog­ging about the top­ic.) Apple isn’t the only one pay­ing atten­tion to user expe­ri­ence, but Apple and Nokia here present two ways to think about design. While on bal­ance Nokia makes bet­ter phones, Apple makes a device that, despite hav­ing few­er fea­tures, allows me to do more than the Nokia.

It’s not because Apple makes things pret­ty. It’s not because Apple has embed­ded sub­lim­i­nal mes­sages into their adver­tise­ments or because they lie about their prod­ucts bet­ter than any­one else. Apple’s suc­cess comes from mak­ing things that are intend­ed to be used by actu­al human beings, things which are designed around a pur­pose. It’s not enough to stuff a prod­uct full of fea­tures. If you’re ignor­ing the end-user, the end-users will ignore you.

2 Replies to “Two approaches to design: iPhone versus Nokia”

  1. iPhone as a phone

    I agree with much of your sen­ti­ments about the iPhone. I refer to dropped calls as the “iFail”. On the oth­er hand, as you not­ed, the iPhone is one heck of a good per­son­al com­pute device.  So I’m mixed about the iPhone, but I’m lucky that my employ­er is cov­er­ing the bill, so I can sit back and enjoy it and not think about how much mon­ey it’s costing.

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