My fortnight affair with Nokia – a review of the N8

Nokia N8 handset

For the last two weeks, my HTC Desire has been off for repair, and Nokia very kindly sent me an N8 to try for two weeks, so I wasn’t stuck with the terrible handset T-Mobile gave me. The only condition…. this review.

So here it is the highs and lows of my first Nokia handset, from a user experience designer’s perspective.

I was impressed at first, the N8 offers some haptic feedback, which I think is very valuable when dealing with touchscreen interfaces, but in my opinion it’s too indiscriminate, as you get feedback for any action you perform, including scrolling. However the button feedback is very subtle and effective, with a down and up feedback, much better than other touch screen devices I’ve used.

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The handset itself ok, about the same size and weight as my HTC Desire, complete with audio jack, USB, camera and MicroSD expansion in a sealed unit like an iPhone. In addition it has a HDMI output, which makes more sense when you look at the camera on this handset.

The camera is pretty outstanding, it’s 12 megapixels and has a Carl Zeiss lense and includes a flash. The handset has a dedicated photo button, making it very easy to switch into camera mode. Although the case doesn’t offer a way to protect the lense cover, which is a shame, but would add bulk. The camera is so good that if that features heavily into your phone choice you should definitely consider this handset.

The problem for me came with the operating system, it does do a bunch of cool stuff, but Symbian is still feature rich at the cost of usability. Holding down call, allows you to open apps by voice, but you have to know what to call it, e.g. Internet got me nowhere, while it recognised Contacts and Calendar.

The biggest failing for me was the difficulty with which to get to applications. The desktop space, has multiple screens and is easy to customise, but you can only add widgets, not shortcuts to applications; an option called “shortcuts” just offering four pre-populated shortcuts and if these could be customised I couldn’t work out how. Instead accessing the apps requires I press the home button and navigate through a screen that looks like a slightly improved version of the old ‘mystery meat’ Symbian menu, to an application menu, where all the good stuff sits. It’s only saving grace is that it highlights which applications are open with a little green ‘o’ next to the icon in this menu, and that it is easier to close applications than in either IOS or Android.

It seems fair at this point to talk about the application ecosystem, Nokia has its own ecosystem called Ovi, in the same way Android has Google and the iPhone has iTunes and Mobile Me. You can buy apps and backup your contacts in the same way you can on any smartphone . The problem here is that with any smartphone the apps have a really important part to play. The usual suspects do make an appearance, so you can still play Angry Birds on your N8, but there will be less applications available for general consumption. The Ovi store works smoothly and is not unlike using Android’s marketplace, so it works well, but doesn’t offer anything new. A shame as I think the app stores are the areas that now really need reconsidering in terms of usability.

I did get frustrated when I couldn’t find the handset MAC address, so was unable to add it to my wireless network. Information like this can be well hidden, but it should be available somewhere, after a google I found out you need to put a code into the call screen, which for me is beyond obtuse.

The compact charger is a delight, much lighter and smaller than most, although why it isn’t a USB charger I don’t know.

Overall I did struggle with this handset a bit, but this may be largely because I’m already heavily invested into the Google ecosystem, so once I sync my phone with my Google account everything else comes to life. But I have no investment in Ovi and despite creating an account for this review, it’s unlikely I would ever use it in the same way – seamlessly across multiple platforms. I think that the hardware is pretty good, the camera especially is outstanding, but it needs an operating system that has been built from the ground up as a smartphone OS and Symbian still fails on that front.

Thanks to the great guys at WOMWorld Nokia for the loan of the phone, and credit should be given to Nokia for supporting a venture that engages with social media in a smart way. I expect this will be the first and last review I ever get to do thanks to Twitter, but it has been a great experience.

Next generation wishlists for Christmas

Writing letters to Santa has changed over the years… normally about this time of year I have to vet my Amazon wishlist and co-ordinate with my family via http://www.alliwantforchristmas.com/ to swap wishlists. The site works, but it's done nothing new in the four years I've been using it, at best it offers some possible sites you might find the item you are looking for. The advantage it offers over Amazon's service is that you aren't tied to one retailer and you can offer a link to the best place to buy an item.

There is a new site in town with appropriate Web 2.0 name too; Wishli.st is a site created for the UK market. It has some great unique features, but also some critical downfalls. It breaks the mold by allowing micro-payments towards gifts on your wishlist, so you can pick the things you really want and allow your friends and family to chip in until you have the funds to buy the item outright. The shortfall is that items have to be chosen fromand puchased at a limited list of retailers, meaning you can't find the cheapest on the market and you are restricted on the items you can actually choose.

The existing retail partnerships are predominantly with the websites like Firebox and I want one of those, sites that are aimed at people buying presents, the problem is the stuff they sell tends to be lowcost or at least fun and frivolous with a wide target audience, rather than the kind of items you want to add to a wishlist i.e. specific and specialist items that often relate to a hobby or an interest – where you need that expert existing knowledge to know which item is appropriate. I don't see the point in adding stuff from Firebox; pretty much all their stock is passable and fun, thats the point, but none of it is stuff I really want – it's the stuff i'd buy someone if they didn't have a wishlist.

The micro-payments concept is a good one, but for the idea to succeed they need remove the dependancy on retailers to allow it's use for niche markets. A Web 2.0 app that ignores the Long Tail needs to reconsider it's approach.

Power of Recommendation

Recommendation has always played a significant role in purchasing decisions. This is why customer service is so important; because you knew if someone had an exceptionally good/bad experience that they would be in the pub that evening telling all their friends. So along comes the internet and suddenly that highly vocal individual can be shouting your praises/damnation to a much wider audience and much quicker. Even if the individual involved doesn’t contribute to a blog, the internet and technology means we are much more connected through means such as text message, instant messenger, Twitter, Facebook etc; meaning we have a much wider circle of influence.

Circle of Friends application on Facebook

It is much easier to maintain relationships with people over greater distances in time and space than ever before, as we aggregate our relationships and syndicate our own personal status. So now we can share with a much wider circle our opinions, as they relate to a product or service, or politics. Facebook is particularly interesting in this context because it is viral by design, pushing out your actions across your network and vice versa.

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So currently we can maintain very wide networks, but we have very little control over the depth of the network. Everyone is blanket labelled a ‘friend’ and it doesn’t reflect that there are some people with whom I’d be willing to share far more information than perhaps I would want to share with the more casual acquaintances on my network. We are just beginning to be able to start adding this depth through services like Plaxo; where we can aggregate our online presences and push them out to filtered groups. Currently the groups are very restricted to just Family, Friends, Work Colleagues. This is a gross simplification of our real very complex relationships. However as we see our ability to connect online develop we are sure to see more complex dynamics reflected. We have already seen some Facebook apps try and make a start at this e.g. Cirlce of Friends and Facebook recently introduced the feature where you can filter your news feed, weighting it more heavily towards certain people and reducing the amount of news you get from others.

Once we have this meta-data layer defined against our network, any recommendations that come out of our network can be weighted appropriately. So if a close friend says she has found a fabulous new product, this will naturally carry more weight with you. Also if a friend who works in a particular field recommends a something related to it then they are already an established voice on the matter and their reputation gives this recommendation more value. We have already seen companies paying individuals with good reputations and networks to recommend their products. However this can be detrimental to reputation as the individual is no longer seen as offering impartial advice, but rather being a walking talking advert.

This dimension of reputation occurs in a tangible way in e-commerce websites like e-Bay . but being able to define a value to a relationship, either through individual and pro-active choice, or through a passive analysis of meta-data then we can add further value to these interactions. This is quite an unusual concept to us currently – to give our relationships a value; it is something we tend to do in a subconscious way and it may seem harsh to us now, but our attention is increasingly valuable and as such I think it is inevitable that we will want to filter the information from our network.

Purchasing decisions need no longer be based on anonymous reviews of third party websites, but by drawing on the knowledge of your network. In some ways we have come full circle from when we were in the pub getting advice from our friends, only now the network we can draw on is much larger and much faster.