Saturday, 25 July 2009

The G1 android trackball and usability

I've got a G1 and I've noticed a few comments on boards where people aren't sure about the trackball which for me acts like the mouse I'm used to on my pc. Since they've done away with the hardware keyboard on newer android models and finding I can type really fast on the G1 but haven't got to grips with the software keyboard I'm concerned the trackball may go the same way.

Thought I'd just show how I first couldn't figure out how to use the trackball but now I often find it in dispensible. During this post I've made a bunch of mistakes. The G1 doesn't have the magnifier the iPhone does so it isn't as easy to move around the text box and fix mistakes. I've found the simple solution is to spin the trackball to move the cursor and get where I want really quickly. It's really easy and intuitive once you get used to it.

Ok, so the fix is to do something like apples magnifier to make this easier and you wouldn't need a trackball right?

Well in my experience with the iTouch it wasn't that simple. I ilke the G1 because it has a lot of ways to get things done. It's got a hardware and software keyboard. It has a trackball a touchscreen and a bunch of buttons. As a software developer I know how easy it is to make a user interface ( a screen, a button, a menu) and provide only one way of working with it. You'd be suriprised how easy this is given that many interfaces must now work on all sorts of devices with all sorts of capabilities and inputs.

The concept used in designing for all this variation is degrading gracefully. That simple means that any interface must work on the simple device with the simplest input. The must be an effective way for the users of each device to get the task done.

Sounds simple enough but you'd be surprised how often that this rule is broken. This is when you need a device with the number of input options the G1 has.

A relevant example is rich text editor boxes. These are the text entry boxes you get that allow you to do word processor type stuff like making words bold, adding headings and justifying paragraphs. I've just done a bit of research on these at work because it turns out the one we use, tniy mce, will not allow an iphone to actually select the text in order to style it up. In fact you can't actually enter any text at all.

This is a real pain since we use moodle and we use this editor throughout our courses to educate people. So you can't use an iPhone to write forum posts or submit text in many of the courses. Not a good state of affairs. The thing is that when I tested with the G1 I found the same problem when using the touvhscreen. I couldn't focus on the editor textbox so couldn't do anything. But then I remembered the trackball and voila I could focus on it use it fine. Strike one for the trackball.

When we looked around for an editor without this problem we couldn't find one. They're all essentially built the same way and have the same bug. I then browsed as many sites I could think of to find editors to see if anyone had got round this. Again no one had. They just reverted to a plain textbox for mobile devices. Meaning you can't tidy up your response and if there are html chunks in the text and you don't speak html you won't really understand the message you're reading.

Bit of a pain, but also part of life. Since things now change so fast this kind of problem is more common. Thankfully the guys I work for care about accessibility so they already had a button that disables the editor and leaves a textbox everyone can use. So the answer was to tell mobile users this is what we'd done so if they wanted to see the rich text version they just had to toggle the button. So it all degrades gracefully.

But we couldn't fix the underlying issue and we don't know how many people have tried and failed to submit things to our site because of this problem. And of course they couldn't tell us because they couldn't write a note and send it.

So I'm not saying we must keep the trackball or hardware keyboard. I am saying that having innput options like these makes sure that I can always get things done. I'm sorry to say that the extreme lack of buttons and input mechanisms in the iTouch put me off it from the start. I knew Ild run into usability problems and I did often enough for it be a pain.

I prefer devices that give me choice that adapt themselves to make the situation easy for me not the other way around.  And on this score I feel the G1 and newer android devices win.

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