Sunday, January 14, 2007

(Side)Talking Your Way Out of Bad Design

After a long hiatus, the cryptic vampire is back on cyberspace for another blogging assignment, or rather the start of another chain of digital writing. But of course, the context this time is VERY different. Out with games (damn!), and in with design, NM4210 User Experience Design to be specific. Oh well. The harsh reality of the academic life I guess.

Anyway, as a Warm-up Assignment, design-guru Reddy had us source out a badly design product, set-up a poor victim in using it, and capture the user's reaction to the product. From there, we, or I rather, am supposed to reflect upon it and blog about it.... and my product of choice: the ORIGINAL Nokia N-Gage. And the poor victim, my dear cousin, who's identity i will not disclose as to not have the world think her as an idiot.. (aww.. how sweet a cousin I am).

Back in 2004, Nokia released the original N-Gage to attempt to steal market share from the king of handhelds, the Nintendo Gameboy Advance, and tried selling the idea of multiplayer mobile games. Basically, to the technophile, the prospects of the device looked good as it was "a device that can serve as a mobile game platform, a tri-band GSM phone, an MP3 player, an FM tuner, an e-mail client, and a personal information manager." But being the game enthusiast that I am, I had my doubts about it as a game device and seriously doubted that it could penetrate the games market. Lo and Behold! 2 years later, Nokia is still not even considered a player in the handheld game market. But the reason for the N-gage's failure was due to a number of bad design choices made my Nokia. So, after much sourcing, I managed to source out and old N-gage and put it into the hands of my poor cousin.

Some things about my cousin. She plays games casually, but is far from being considered tech-savvy, hence, it would be great it put the N-Gage in her hands to gain a layman's perspective on the design of the phone. First, I had her try out a few games. Unexpectedly, she was quite entertained. Then I told her to try another game, and to do so, she had to change the game (MMC, the format on which the games are stored on).

She: "Hey, how do i change the game? I don't see any slot for inserting or ejecting cartridges?"

Me (refusing to divulge any info): "Well, you can try searching a bit more, I'm sure you'll find it eventually."

(She continues rotating the phone over and over, searching for some sort of cartridge slot but to no avail. Finally, she gives up and slams the phone on the table.)

Me: " Let me give you a hint. You have to remove the back cover."

(She quickly reaches out for the phone and remove the back cover.)

She: "What the? Who would know that the stupid slot is inside the damn phone? And i still have to take out the battery every time i wanna change the game. Isn't that just damn stupid?"

Design Flaw #1:
Well, my cousin is right, it IS damn stupid, and in actual fact, many critics of the N-gage actually point to this as a serious design flaw of the N-gage. Especially considering that in part, it attempts to be a handheld gaming console, gamers would probably wanna change games rather frequently, and shouldn't have to go through so much hassle to change a damn game, isn't it? Good work, Nokia.

Anyway, that is the lesser of the two main problems in the N-Gage. The second design flaw is a lot more serious, in my opinion, probably to the extent that it is slightly demeaning, perhaps.

Me: "Ok, now i want you to try to use this phone and call me."

She: "Hmm, ok, what's so hard about that?"

(She proceeds to dial my number and press the Intuitive Green Call button. Suddenly, she realizes something... there was no visible speaker or microphone on the top side of the phone, where all the buttons where. Instinctively, she flips the phone around to its backside, and still, no speaker or whatsoever. So, she starts examining the phone again. And finds two suspicious rectangles on the side of the phone.)

"Are these actually the speaker and the microphone?" She asks skeptically. I nod in response.

She: "You got to be kidding. How the hell do I hold the phone and speak into it? Like this?"

(She proceeds to hold the phone sideways with the screen-facing up.)

Me: "Yup! Welcome to the world of 'sidetalking.' Try it."

(I proceed to another room as we attempt to hold a short conversation.)

Me: "So, what do you think? Or rather how does "sidetalking" feel?"

She: "Uh. Stupid for sure. I mean, couldn't they have just designed the damn phone to be a little more, like, normal. I can imagine this doing wonders to your image if you were caught using your phone this way."

Design Flaw #2:
Indeed. "Sidetalking" was what really made the N-Gage infamous amongst the consumers. Not only did the critics cite the level of (dis)comfort associated with this choice of design, which Nokia states that "Sidetalking was there for a practical reason: if placed elsewhere, the screen would get in contact with the cheek and become smudged," (Bullshit! Aren't ALL conventional phones like this, anyway?), the whole image of "sidetalking" looked utterly RIDICULOUS. Don't believe me? Watch this

Ultimately, the Nokia N-Gage failed to achieve what it was supposed to do, hardly making a ripple in the handheld gaming market, due to the poor design and poor software line-up. Even though Nokia did try to rectify most of the design flaws of the original N-Gage with the N-gage QD the following year, the brand image of the N-gage as a gaming platform had probably already been tarnished, and like all other phones, its novelty value wore off after a while, and like all other phones, the N-gage became "just-another-phone."

Perhaps its for the better as well... after all I always believe that its much better to be focused on one aspect of focus for your product and to design your product around that aspect, and design it to accomodate the feature as well as possible, rather than try to aim to be a little bit of everything, and in the end, end up being nothing really. Guess that was the case for the N-gage, it sounded absolutely appealing on paper, like the be-all-end-all phone for its time, with so many functions in one phone, but in the end, it was a half-assed phone, and an even more half-assed game console.

R.I.P. sidetalking. You will NOT be missed.


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