Reviewing the N8 and the future of Nokia’s UX

Reviewing the N8 and the future of Nokia’s UX

In February 2010, Rafe Blandford of All About Symbian conducted a remarkable interview with Anssi Vanjoki, then Executive Vice President of Markets at Nokia. Vanjoki, the man in charge of its consumer smartphone products, had agreed to answer questions about the N97, Nokia’s flagship product for 2009 and a device criticised by users for its many software and hardware problems. It was a rare example of a senior employee publicly acknowledging and dissecting the user experience failings of highly anticipated product.

Blandford asked Vanjoki if Nokia had changed its quality control process to ensure the issues witnessed with the N97 would not happen again. Quoting from the transcript, Vanjoki’s response was as follows:

“Yes, actually, it is exactly like you say – it is [a] quality control process. These things are not quality control at the end of manufacturing; they are quality control measures that are taken at the outset of setting up a programme to deliver this whole thing. And that is exactly the learning we have taken and that has gone into Symbian^3 as well as the products that are coming based on Symbian^3.”

Vanjoki, of course, has now left Nokia, along with others lost in the high profile reshuffle which accompanied the arrival of new CEO Stephen Elop. However, the first of the Symbian^3 products to which he was referring – the N8 – has been available for a couple of months and taken over as Nokia’s flagship smartphone.

I’ve been reviewing the device in an attempt to understand whether Nokia really did learn from the lessons of the N97 and what the user experience of the N8 reveals about the future of the Finnish company.

Unfortunately using the N8, like the N97 before it, is a broken experience. Normal activities, from re-charging the battery to answering emails, are made frustratingly difficult by a mixture of bugs, performance issues and poor design choices.

I have found the device freezes or resets itself for no apparent reason approximately once every two days. On one occasion it became locked in a re-charge cycle, where the N8 continued to think it was charging itself even after I had removed the battery cable and wouldn’t allow me to access any other functions.

When I lent the device to a colleague to film some interviews at our recent event, he handed it back after it became stuck in a never-ending loop of dialog boxes requesting a connection to the network. Despite my best efforts and a lifetime’s experience with Symbian products, I am yet to make sense of the N8’s mixture of network, connection, APN and internet settings – as a result, I have to clear a network connection dialogue from the screen every time I try to use the camera.

The user experience is compromised at many levels by the legacy of Nokia’s Series 60 design, which remains evident throughout the interface, despite the supposed advances of Symbian^3. Series 60 was designed for keyboard-driven products and to be operated with the same hand that was holding the device.

A very different interface architecture is required for a touch-driven phone, held in one hand and operated with the other. The result is that Symbian^3 on the N8 is an uncomfortable hybrid of both methods and fails to succeed with either.

The reactions of the users I introduced to the device tell their own story.

“Wow, I’ve not seen one of those in a while…”

…was the response of one individual when a virtual 12 button keypad popped up to enter text.

She was astounded that there was no way to enter text through a QWERTY layout when the phone was held in portrait orientation (bizarrely the N8’s virtual QWERTY keyboard only works in landscape mode).

Another user’s first action was to try opening a web-site:

“What does no valid access point mean?”

Despite the device being connected to Wi-Fi, it was refusing to connect.

These kind of complicated and badly designed interactions are found throughout the software experience of the N8 to the extent I could only recommend it to a very small number of people: those who possess both an existing understanding of Series 60 and judge a mobile device primarily on the strength of its photography and video capabilities.

This is one of the areas in which the N8 excels. As I write this in February 2011, the 12 megapixel camera is the best you’ll find on a mobile phone. The photography is sharp and colours accurate. The level of detail captured in close-ups is of sufficient quality for almost any form of reproduction, as evidenced by PiX Magazine’s use of the N8 to shoot a recent cover photo.

Nokia devices are consistently among the best for camera quality, combining hardware such as the Carl Zeiss lens with the software tweaks required to deliver excellent photos.

N8 Camera Module

On the N8, the experience is enhanced by the inclusion of a beautifully tooled shutter release button, which has a satisfying action, and a dual Xenon flash, which delivers impressive low light and night time performance.

N8 Shutter Button

The quality of video recording is also better than any other phone I have tried.

The N8 is equipped to play back sound and video on larger screens and speakers. Users can store 720p HD videos on the N8 and watch them on their home cinema, with Dolby surround sound, all from the N8’s mini-HDMI port and bundled full HDMI adapter. It is a remarkable experience to sit back on the sofa, watching a device as small as the N8 powering such an immersive audio visual capability.

Nokia N8 in orange

At 86cc and 135g, the N8 is a beautiful piece of hardware. I chose the orange anodised aluminum version and the texture of the metal, the build quality and shape of the device all contributed to a positive initial customer experience. Nokia also offers several colour options, with blue, green, silver, grey and orange giving users the opportunity to express their individuality.

The quality of machining where the camera button emerges from the main casing is a testament to the attention to detail shown by Nokia’s engineers. As a user, this level of finish creates an overall impression that you’ve bought something of real value.

There are highlights in the software too. Nokia’s Ovi Maps suite is excellent. Free and accurate, it means anyone buying a Nokia device has turn-by-turn navigation as a core part of the user experience. I am surprised Nokia does not make more of this capability in its marketing.

In a similar vein, Sports Tracker (spun out of an internal Nokia project), is still the best third party application on any platform for keeping track of your outdoor activities. The speed with which it acquires your position and the way it uses power optimisation to keep tracking you long after other devices have exhausted their batteries makes it the benchmark user experience.

However, as an overall product, the N8’s failings outweigh its benefits. The strength of the hardware and its imaging, mapping and audio visual capabilities are overshadowed by the poorly designed user interface and weakness in core areas of communication, including the web browser and email.

The user experience of the N8 provides a warning for the future. Presented side-by-side with comparably-priced devices, few new customers are likely to choose an N8. Existing Nokia users who purchase the product will find the experience frustrating enough to migrate to another platform when they next upgrade.

Nokia should take several steps to address these problems:

  1. Build a touchscreen user experience specific to its touchscreen devices. Current products are compromised by the legacy of a key-driven user interface.
  2. Deliver the best web browser on a mobile device. Browsing has become a core activity for the majority of users and Nokia’s current browser is slower, more difficult to use and crashes more frequently than the iOS and Android equivalents. With fewer native applications available for its platform, it is in Nokia’s interest to encourage the browser to flourish as an applications platform.
  3. Integrate all forms of messaging into a single architecture. Configuring email, instant messages, texts and tweets on the N8 is a complex experience distributed between several application silos. There is an opportunity for Nokia to provide the simplest, people-centric interface for communications.
  4. Enable users to share the high quality images and videos captured with their phone to any service or screen with a single click. Nokia’s image capture capabilities are the best among the major handset manufacturers, but this advantage is meaningless without a sharing architecture so simple it compels the user to share content to as many locations as possible.
  5. Introduce further hardware innovations, including new form factors and material choices. The N8 demonstrates that Nokia’s hardware engineering team is capable of differentiating its devices from competitors.
  6. Increase the amount of real world testing and introduce it earlier in the product development phase. The N8 is compromised by UX inconsistencies and technical faults. The only way to ensure these are never repeated is to test, test and test again. The N8 should be the last device Nokia releases unfinished.

I’d be interested to hear opinions from other N8 users on the device itself and what lessons Nokia can learn to improve the user experience. Please post a comment on the blog below.

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  1. 2
    Dhirendra Rai

    I am happy with N8 performence…it is much batter than other nokia devices.
    But also i want to 1 GHZ Processor like Xperia x 10..

  2. 3

    A very thoughtful blog post. Nokia is probably trapped by its legacy platforms and ways of doing things. If I were CEO, I would put one dream team to design one dream device first — not a semi-optimized mixture of features and capabilities.

  3. 4
    Roland Tanglao

    unfortunately i have to agree with everything you wrote about the N8. If it weren’t for Nokia’s fantastic camera in the N8, I wouldn’t use it. I have 700 “workouts” on sports tracker but stopped using it because nobody else in Vancouver that I know uses it. After your positive review, perhaps I’ll go back 🙂

  4. 5
    Ms. Jen

    I love my N8’s camera, love it. I cannot wait for the first big firmware update, as I am truly hoping that they will fix many UX issues and inconsistencies.

    I got so frustrated with the native email client that I stopped using email on the device and downloaded the Gmail client, which has its own issues but at least is straightforward.

    I do like the threaded messaging and like you would like to see the text, chat, and email be all of one piece.

    I would also like to have the ability to turn off/on the sensors when listening to music and walking as when I swing my arms the music app changes songs. To disable the motion sensor, I have to go all the way into the settings and back again after my walk to turn it back on.

    But I do love the camera.

  5. 6

    Marek – am completely in agreement with you. I’ve been a die-hard Nokia user but the past two months with the N8 has been such a let down.

    The hardware is beautiful, the camera is brilliant, but the simple activities that I used to take for granted in the keyboard-based nokia phone of old (still love my earlier N95), are such a trial now.

    I keep getting disconnected when on a call- if you move the device even an inch out while holding it near my cheek – then accidental inputs will put the other person on hold or ends the call.

    The default browser is awful – the Acid3 test didn’t even get to 40. Nokia maps are great when they work – but unfortunately they havent the coverage spread of google maps(i’m in India), and the inconsistency means I choose to launch google maps when I need to get somewhere.

    The newer features like the home widgets + longpress, message conversations and the hardware lock switch are very useful and usable, but the older features that I had taken for granted didn’t get the same attention to detail – very likely a comprehensive quality process/testing issue.

    I love the hardware but am thinking it’s time to bring android to this party.

  6. 7
    Henry Sinn

    I’ve had my N8 for 3+ mths and haven’t experienced anywhere near the levels of errors / issues you describe.
    In saying that, I have logged no less than 4 faults with the on-line Nokia Care centres with 2/5 of nothing as a response [no surprise]. These are all related to A/V connection problems with both the HDMI and the 3.5mm A/V jack.

    One element most see as a negative, I see as a positive – is the T9 portrait text entry.
    Why – one handed use. It just works no matter what I’m doing or carrying in my other hand when out and about.
    Landscape text entry on any phone is a two handed job – and even then if you’re walking you’re probably [like me] going to constantly hit the wrong key.

    Summary – Yes. Problems a plenty, but positives [camera, Nav, A/V capabilities] all outweigh the negatives.

    Upcoming firmware update better fix the bugs or I’m off to anything Android.

  7. 9
    Richard Bloor

    As with Henry Sinn I’ve not had any of the connectivity or recharge issues you report. (My Android device by contrast rarely bothers to connect to a network, probably because the battery is always nearly flat despite barely getting used.) In addition, no issues with AV or, well, anything else. Also, I’m with Henry on the portrait keyboard. Opera offers a reasonable portrait keyboard in app on the N8, but it’s simply not as accurate or easy-to-use as the built-in “numeric” one, however I can see that those who have not grown up with txt would see it as a negative.

    I am a long time Symbian user, so perhaps I have an advantage and simply, somehow, avoid some action(s) that trigger the problems reported.

    It might also explain why I find the interface on Android childish and the phones generally useless. But UX is a frustratingly relative thing.

  8. 10
    Marek Pawlowski

    Thanks for all the comments. Picking up on a few of the specifics:

    Richard – with regards to the keyboard, I found the landscape version to be accurate and above average for speed of entering text. The strong haptic effects helped and were enjoyed by other users I showed it to. However, the inconsistency of switching to a 12 button keypad in portrait mode had a negative impact on usability by slowing down completion times and increasing complexity. My preferred solution: QWERTY as the default in both orientations, with an option to switch into 12 key if preferred (as you say, it has advantages for one-handed input scenarios).

    Ms. Jen and Henry – I was interested to see your reference to upcoming firmware. Nokia tends to support its devices with new firmware updates much longer than other manufacturers. It is an admirable commitment, but I do wonder how many customers are prepared to buy a product knowing it will be some months before core issues are fixed via an update?

    It seems there is a general theme among the comments of wonder at the capabilities of the camera. I too was impressed by this, as was another user who spent time with the device and found it out-performed her Nikon DSLR in some niche situations. Nokia should continue to build on this advantage, but I believe the experience would be greatly enhanced for the majority of users if they focused on the usability of image sharing before adding more pixels.

  9. 11
    Richard Bloor

    While I can appreciate your point about the consistence in providing the same keyboard type by default, isn’t it ironic that the ‘best’ usability argument involves advocating for a keyboard that was designed with the opposite goal.

  10. 12
    Marek Pawlowski

    Richard – agreed on the irony! It is one of those quirks of usability which only becomes apparent in practice rather than in theory. Logically, it would make sense you’d achieve faster completion times by switching into a keyboard layout better suited to one-handed input. However, a disproportionate amount of the total interaction time tends to be taken up with ‘thinking about the action’ rather than ‘doing the action’, so anything which places a greater cognitive strain on the user – i.e. ‘the keyboard switched, what do I do now?’ – has a big knock-on effect on total efficiency. An analogy would be stopping distances in a car – a certain period is travelled before the user’s brain even engages, recognises the hazard and transmits the ‘brake’ command to the rest of the body – only then does the technology used to operate the brake become relevant.

  11. 13

    i own a xperia x10 mini pro. i had a chance to browse n8. i found it very difficult to do very common tasks, like chat and email. my x10 works far better than n8 in terms of ux. n8 is a heavy device as well.

  12. 14
    MEX – the strategy forum for mobile user experience – Symbian Anna re-invigorates Nokia’s smartphones

    […] I’ve spent time using a Symbian 3-based Nokia E7 as my day-to-day device, but have been constantly frustrated by its glitches, inconsistencies and poor user interface. I will typically spend a few weeks persevering with it before being lured back to an iPhone. It has certainly never been a device I would recommend to anyone outside the mobile industry and I recorded a similar verdict in my review of the N8. […]

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