I met with Eldad Eilam, CTO of Else Mobile, to learn more about the unique approach they’ve taken to create a handset with a new type of interaction flow and a back-end architecture to deliver a suite of connected services.
I first saw the product when it was announced at CES in January and it was immediately apparent it offered a very different approach to the mobile user interface. I was keen to learn more about a company which had obviously made a conscious decision to research user behaviour and develop a new form of interaction for an experience best suited to the needs they identified.
This willingness to risk the development of a new UI is rare within the mobile business and Else stands out as a stark contrast against all the iPhone-inspired imitations.
After the arrival of the iPhone, mobile UI designers responded by trying to recreate the results, as opposed to the design methods, employed by Apple’s engineers. As a result, the industry is now swarming with UIs which draw their visual clues from the iPhone’s distinctive homescreen layout, but few UI designers have yet woken up the reality that an imitation will never offer the same clarity and integrity of the original.
Else is one of the few who has had the courage to present an original concept. The results are remarkable.
The entire device has been built for genuine one-handed interaction, which is still a key factor for truly mobile products, despite the increasing trade-offs being made between additional features and greater reliance on two-handed input in new devices such as the N900 (see my recent UX review).
It is difficult to describe in words, but this video below from ZDNet gives a good insight:
One of the principles behind this UI is the idea that application level actions can be completed from within the top layer of interface. Individual content items can be located and an specific action applied from the main menu, without diving down through additional icons or application layers.
Another distinguishing characteristic is how the finger never leaves the screen surface. The First Else is not designed for touch by tap – instead, the user navigates through gentle movements of the finger tip, which remains in contact with the screen until the action is completed.
The applications themselves have not yet been finalised ahead of the mid-year commercial launch, so I will reserve comment on the functionality and instead focus on other experience elements.
I found it particularly interesting when Eilam described the how they’d started to develop the back-end service infrastructure before the handset UI. While you can argue the merits of this approach, it is indicative of how deeply the cloud services which support the UI an applications have been embedded in the overall experience.
Eilam was clearly very passionate about ensuring the connected nature of the device, which syncs and backs-up almost every user action to the cloud, never compromised the user experience. He told me about his constant battle with the engineering teams to ensure there was no cloud-generated fault event on the device which could cause an impassable roadblock on the device. Put simply, if you lose connection, you don’t lose your experience.
This layer of smart middleware will become an ever more important part of the user experience as manufacturers and operators rely on cloud-based services to enhance the UIs and functionality of devices. It will also be crucial to multi-platform experiences which span several digital touchpoints.
It is an major engineering challenge to get this right and very few companies have the right expertise. Microsoft acquired it by purchasing Danger. Google have built it internally. Nokia are attempting to do so. Else Mobile has constructed this from the outset.
The First Else is an inspiring example of how user-centred design processes can create remarkably different products, where form follows function. It should prompt larger manufacturers to examine their own approaches, especially in the area of connected UIs.
However, Else Mobile has a mountain to climb if it is to succeed with the First Else. They need to build developer support, win operator relationships and show they can operate a trusted infrastructure to power the cloud services. These are not challenges which will be solved overnight, so I will await the commercial launch later in the year with considerable interest.