As someone who can appreciate a good user experience when I see one, I’ve long been a fan of the Windows Phone operating system.
Microsoft’s 7-Series mobile software has been critically praised by everyone from Gizmodo to the New York Times, and I tend to agree with these reviews. There are so many fantastic UX ideas expressed in Windows Phone that help make for an incredibly personal and social experience. For example, I like how the OS puts people, not apps, at the center of communication. While a conversation with a friend may technically employ text message, Google Chat, Facebook, and Skype, all these platform threads are pulled together as a cohesive narrative on one screen. It’s so simple! This hub-based approach to social computing makes the totally discreet desktop metaphor found on iOS and Android seem downright outdated.
Microsoft doesn’t actually make their own phones, though. As good as the software is, the hardware that Windows Phone has been paired with has always been… underwhelming. Cheap black plastic, crappy cameras, and awkward forms abound.
Enter Nokia, the Finnish phone company with a history of great mobile phone design. They’ve always made quality hardware, but they never managed to nail the software experience layer that gives charm and powerful functionality to today’s smartphones. When Nokia and Microsoft partnered last year to begin work on a true flagship phone for WP7, I decided to hold off on upgrading my iPhone to wait until this make-or-break phone would be released. After more than a year, the moment I was waiting for finally arrived with the North American release of the Nokia Lumia 900 on AT&T.
I went to the AT&T website on Friday and saw that the Nokia Lumia 900 was being promoted on the homepage. However, since I’m already an AT&T customer, I had to go through an upgrade path to replace my old iPhone with the new Nokia. When I pressed the Upgrade button, instead of seeing the brand new Lumia 900 — the phone that AT&T is supposedly giving the most launch support to in their history as a company (including the original iPhone launch) — I saw three upgrade options: iPhone 4S, iPhone 4, and the iPhone 4 (Refurb). What?!?
I’ve designed countless pages for websites just like this one, but this page had me puzzled. Since I currently have an iPhone, I’m willing to concede that putting the iPhone 4S as the primary upgrade path makes sense from a continuity standpoint. I’m even willing to concede that maybe the older iPhone 4 makes sense as a cheaper alternative to this primary upgrade path. However, even I was confused as to how I might proceed to choose a phone that WASN’T an iPhone.
Well… Do you see that box at the bottom of the screen that looks like a banner ad — the same type of banner ad that users have been trained to ignore? Well, guess what? Instead of opting for clarity with a basic link to ‘Choose Other Phones’ or, better yet, to simply display the other available phones below the fold, the designers at AT&T deliberately chose to try to dead-end users on this page. Believe me, UX designers try to avoid banner ads like the plague — we all know that users ignore them. Hell, we don’t even like to put useful information in a spot where users expect banner ads to be. It’s that bad.
So, when a designer uses the language of a banner ad to house an otherwise meaningful communication, the message intended for the user on this page couldn’t be clearer: these three iPhones are the only upgrade choices you’ve got.
Since I wasn’t about to be bullied into an iPhone 4S after I’d waited all this time, I nervously clicked on the banner ad — going against every fiber of my being — hoping that perhaps this was indeed the path to more phone upgrade options. It turns out it was. With a sigh of relief, I finished purchasing the Nokia Lumia 900.
However, this little piece of UI trickery bothered me enough to write this article. It just seems so… shitty. When carriers do sketchy things like this, it’s no wonder that it’s so hard to turn the tide of momentum against a particular mobile OS. A good user experience or a great piece of hardware might not be enough to break through the noise of politics and social pressure surrounding the iPhone. Even though I prefer the ethos and experience of the Windows Phone OS, I know I tried to think of a million reasons not to switch.
The subtle and omnipresent pressure to align with Apple is really intense within the design community, and increasingly within pop culture at large. While Apple tends to make beautifully detailed products, and I will probably stick with the MacBook Air as my productivity device of choice for the foreseeable future, I grow wary of the Cult of Mac when it starts to do more harm than good.
A perennial problem with revolution is that revolutionaries are cute in the jungle before they’ve won, but quickly become decrepit and sadistic once in power. Aspirational Che was sexy but empowered Castro was cruel… This is a familiar dilemma, and it is often said that the only response is constant revolution. - Jaron Lanier
I, for one, am looking forward to the exposure to a different digital flavor — a wholly unique mobile OS. Like that feeling of open possibility I get when I travel to a foreign country, I think it’ll be a breath of fresh air. There’s nothing that weakens the spirit of creativity more needlessly than a perceived lack of choice.
After my hard-hitting reportage on the subject this morning, AT&T has capitulated (slightly) and has changed the design of their upgrade page. It now includes a link to see all available phones down at the bottom of the screen. Perhaps someone at Microsoft or Nokia put the pressure on. Anyways, I hope they eventually create an even more user-friendly solution — one that can, of course, feature a phone or two, but that treats the other phones AT LEAST as second-tier contenders. In this day and age, users expect to be treated with respect, even when they’re on an e-commerce site.