UI design in modern smartphone operating systems

After reading Om Malik’s article about the Nokia N900, where he states, to my surprise, that the user experience is a tad confusing, I thought it would be good to dedicate some words to the aspect of UI design in terms of how to move through the UI and to get done what you need.

I should preface this by saying that I understand what Malik is referring to. He is clearly referring to the 4 customisable homescreens, the multi-tasking dash board and the application grid. These are three different aspects of  the UI and to move around in them takes some getting used to, I’m sure. He compares that to the iPhone, and with all due respect to the iPhone users and the success of the device, I don’t think there is anything more simplistic as the iPhone out there. Of course, in comparison the Maemo UI looks daunting.

I should also say that people like different things, from the simplest UI to the more sophisticated UI. I have no data to confirm how large the groups are on the different points of that spectrum, but as the iPod and iPhone have shown, there is a large need for very simple UI design.

In this article, I’d like to compare 4 different modern smartphone platforms: WebOS, Android, iPhone and Maemo. I’m leaving out S60 and Windows Mobile, as these two are in the middle of UI overhauls.


It is only fair to state right from the start that the iPhone UI was incredibly revolutionary when it was presented. It made a smartphone easy to handle. And still the iPhone is praised for its straightforward use. Just about anybody can find their way around the device. In terms of user interface or user experience elements, I’d like to highlight the following:

  • One button on the front that always brings you back to the home screen. Long-pressing that button allows you to control the device by voice.
  • The home screen is really an application launcher, where you have application short cuts. The short cuts can be organised over multiple screens.
  • The screen to the left of the first home screen is the spotlight screen where you can search for just about anything on the phone, e.g. applications, contacts, notes, calendar entries, songs, etc.

What the iPhone does not offer is real multi-tasking in the sense of an easy way to switch between recently used applications. Furthermore, the home screen does not allow you to show different bits of information (widgets) or allow you to easily access certain functions (shortcuts). Lastly, in comparison to other modern platforms, it does not offer a very advanced notification system.

In summary, I believe that the iPhone has a very low barrier of entry in terms of usability. However, this goes at the expense of personalisation and fluid movement between different functions of the smartphone. Many people will find it a very acceptable solution, and in fact it has attracted many non-smartphone users, but I personally find it to simplistic. As a side note, I should add that the lack of multi-tasking is in part outweighed by the speed of the system, allowing someone to flip through screens and applications very quickly.


About a year ago, the G1 was launched. This was the first phone to carry the Google operating system called Android. Though the “gPhone” had been rumoured, the fact that it came in the shape of a OS instead of hardware was slightly surprising. Moreover, the actual look and feel of the OS were a very pleasant surprise as well. Let’s not forget that before its launch, the smartphone market mostly had S60, Windows Mobile, Palm, and Blackberry (besides de iPhone). None of those were really user friendly and modern. Android’s user experience, on a top level, can be summarised as follows:

  • Multiple customisable home screens with room for short cuts and widgets.
  • An alphabetically ordered application launcher.
  • A multitasking key to show the most recently used applications to facilitate switching between them.
  • A rather advanced and non obtrusive notification system at the top of the screen.

It is not really lacking anything, in my opinion. However, that doesn’t mean it is perfect. I guess we can say, because Google only controls the software and not the hardware, that sometimes a particular device can have multiple ways of doing something, which inevitably results into confusion for some people. On the other hand, the fact that the home screens are customisable adds a level of complexity that is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Efforts by the likes of HTC in the case of the Hero partly address both issues. First of all, they add a sexy looking Sense UI to the OS. This in itself already makes the experience more attractive. The HTC widgets for the home screen also look more attractive and inviting, perhaps facilitating usage.


A little less than half a year ago, Palm launched its first device on the WebOS platform. This platform represents Palm’s effort to reconquer the smartphone market, after coming from very deep. WebOS is already running on two phones – Pre and Pixie – though the latter still has to come out. Going back to the OS, I think it is fair to say that it has a clean and pretty look to it. However, besides that it also applies several good usability features:

  • It has a rather simple home screen with 5 customisable application shortcuts.
  • Like the Android it has an application grid that can be called in order to launch any application.
  • It has a system wide quick launch wave that raises from the bottom of the screen as a “ribbon” on which you can add your favourite or most used applications for easy access.
  • It can multi task as well. By means of a innovative card system you can switch between open applications, move them around and close them. The card view can be invoked by simply pressing the single button on the front of the device.
  • Similar to Android, it has a rather advanced and non obtrusive notification system.
  • Universal search, though not as exhaustive as spotlight on the iPhone.
  • A gesture area below the screen the execute certain actions, such as going back.

I think the only thing really missing, in terms of completeness, is widgets on the homescreen. Besides that, the list is quite comprehensive. I believe that Palm tried to make good use of the touch interface by creating gestures to take certain actions (e.g. going back, closing an app, or launching the quick launch wave) instead of pressing hardware or software buttons. The down side is, though, that the user has to familiarise him or herself with these gestures.

This video by PreCentral shows these features in action (starting from 3:00):


The last of the modern OS that I want to review here is the 5th iteration of Maemo. In contrast to the previous devices, Maemo 5 only works on hardware with resistive touch screens. Part of the pleasure of the User Interface’s from iPhone, Palm and Google are that they work on capacitive touch screens. Two weeks ago Nokia mentioned that Maemo 6 will feature multi-touch and capacitive screen support; however, the current OS does not. The first device still has to be launched, so it is perhaps a little early day to cover this OS, but as it is supposed to launch this month, and we have seen enough materials on the Internet, I think I am capable of giving you the details in order to compare the different user experiences. For Maemo 5 I’d like to high light the following aspects:

  • It has no physical hardware button on the front. It has only touch screen interaction.
  • Similar to Android, it has 4 customisable home screens on which one can place widgets and shortcuts.
  • By pressing the button in the upper right corner, one accesses the Dash board where you find a matrix of thumbnails that represent the open applications. This allows you to easily switch between them.
  • Once on the Dashboard, if you again press the button in the upper right corner, you access the application grid.
  • Notifications of incoming messages and the like are shown through a pop up on the screen that than minimise into a yellow thumbnail on the dash board.

The following video summarises these features quite nicely.

After having reviewed these different user experiences of the 4 most modern OS on the market, what can we learn?

  1. iPhone has by far the simplest interface. One button to rule them all and hardly any customisation of the interface. Perhaps for me that is too simplistic, but it is clear that it is rather attractive for lots of others as it is the single most popular smartphone out there.
  2. Though perhaps more functional, neither the Pre not the Android devices have been able to eat away at the iPhone’s dominance. Is this perhaps because the UI is too complex? It is obvious that many things influence the purchasing decision of a smartphone, but it may play a role.
  3. Maemo 5 and Android are the most customisable of the 4 UIs covered. Is that something the market wants? Only time will tell. On paper it looks interesting, but will it translate into mass market acceptance?
  4. Apparent multi-tasking functionality as in WebOS and Maemo 5, does increase functionality. Will it be adopted by the iPhone in future iterations?
  5. It is really interesting to see how more sophisticated UIs appear to remain more niche, while a simple UI a la iPhone gets accepted by the mass market. We’ll see whether in the future Apple incorporates more functionality when the users are more mature and ready for it.

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