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____________________[PRO] Thumbs up for easy use

While we in the real world labor over the small screens of our mobile devices, trying to figure out which menu button gets to our contact list and which key makes an exclamation mark, researchers and sociologists in assorted ivory towers are contemplating how to make our interaction with gadgets easier and more productive.

We need their solutions, and fast. The amount of information we sift through on mobile phones, tablets, remote controls and electronic organizers is only going to increase - spurred both by consumer demand and the possibility of making money from it - and if it doesn't start getting simpler, buyers and sellers alike are going to be disappointed.

In April, a human-computer interaction conference in Portland, Oregon, collected papers with titles like "Readable Overviews for Small Screen Web Browsers" [PDF] and "Two Designs for One-Handed Thumb Use on Small Devices" [PDF] from researchers like Richard Harper, a sociologist for Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England.


"What we're interested in is stretching the different communications channels and throwing out the ones that don't work," Harper said in a recent interview. "What would you want to navigate to with something that's in your hand? What are the graphical tools you would use to get there? And what would you do when you got there?"

One thing is clear to mobile researchers, he said: You can't just export the ways you use a personal computer, with its keyboard and TV-sized screen, to a mobile phone.

The icon that you use in PC instant messaging, for instance, to indicate to others that you are online doesn't work in the mobile world. Just because you have your phone with you and it is turned on, that doesn't mean you are available for a phone call or a text exchange. Different rules apply, Harper said.

There is, as he says, "an ecology of different size screens." When you communicate via the smallest screen, the mobile phone, the information you impart is personal, intimate, private, emotional.

That has consequences in graphical design. On your phone, you are more likely to click through information sent to you by one person with a picture of that person.

But that doesn't work the same with a "smartphone" or PDA, Harper argues. Those are more like little windows on your office, a "herald," if you will, of work news. It is not intimate or emotional.

This supports the argument that in the future, people will be inclined to carry two portable devices with them, one for work and one for play. The personal one, Harper predicted, will never be turned off, but the office device will be powered down when the workday is done.

John SanGiovanni, a researcher in Redmond, Washington, for Microsoft, has been working with professors at the University of Maryland on a more concrete problem: how to get information from your mobile phone at a glance or with one-handed ease.

He and his colleagues have figured out a way to get at 36 discrete "streams" of data this way. His prototype software, LaunchTile [ppt], divides the mobile screen into quadrants.

Let's say sports scores are in the upper right. If you glance at the phone, you know the score. If you want more detailed information, you drill down by clicking or touching on that quadrant.

If you want the weather forecast, and it is not on one of the four quadrants showing, you can zoom out to show a total of nine visual "thumbnails," each divided into quadrants, giving you easy access to 36 categories of information.

"Humans are very good at that kind of spatial navigation," SanGiovanni said in an interview.

All of this work is in the research stage, and both Harper and SanGiovanni are powerless to put them into actual products.

"We're very tightly engaged with the product teams - they all know about this research," said SanGiovanni, who is an ace high-speed thumb texter on the side.

"It's completely up to them whether to take this work and technology transfer it into their products."

Thumbs up for easy use
By Victoria Shannon International Herald Tribune
SATURDAY, JUNE 4, 2005

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