Earthcomber Explores the World of UX
‘Find all of your personal favourite things anywhere for free’ is the appealing tagline of Earthcomber.
This website and accompanying mobile app, available on Nokia’s Ovi Store, helps consumers find and share the locations of shops, cash machines, post offices, hotels, restaurants, and more — anywhere in the United States.
In fact, so focused was Earthcomber’s development team on delivering this functionality, that they sometimes overlooked the app’s user experience (UX). ‘We would ask, “Does this menu make sense?” But it wasn’t holistic’, says Jim Brady, president of Earthcomber LLC, the app’s River Forest, Illinois-based publisher. ‘We didn’t go through the app and see what people encountered at different points’.
But earlier this year, Earthcomber was offered the chance to have its mobile app reviewed by a Nokia user experience expert, as well as by test users in a usability lab. The results, Brady says, have made a big difference in the app’s overall ease-of-use. ‘Until we did this’, he says, ‘we were just fixing bugs, patching holes, and solving feedback observations. It makes you feel busy, and it does improve the app, in the strictest sense. But it doesn’t give you the big picture’.
Among other ‘big picture’ observations, Nokia’s user experience expert flagged the absence of a way to return to Earthcomber’s main view, and built a layout that incorporated this navigation. This lack of navigation to the main menu is against recommended best practice for Nokia’s UI guidelines, which states that the user should always be able to return to the main view with no more than two screens. Another comment from the expert: The 3-mm arrow used for setting a new location was too small for a touch UI, where the style guidelines call for UI elements of at least 7 x 7 mm.
After receiving this first round of feedback, Brady and his team made an ambitious choice: Not only would they implement the suggested changes, but they would also rethink the entire app. ‘We decided to go for a departure, to use what was said as a wakeup call’, Brady says. ‘So even though we got a good evaluation, it rung home that this was going to be an endless polishing exercise — unless we took the bigger message’.
So the Earthcomber team began to include a ‘reward’ on every screen, freeing users from what Brady calls ‘being forever in setup’. They also combined some of the highly visual screens the team had been developing for a newer version of the app, one designed to run on Nokia’s N900 Maemo-based device. This involved simplifying what had formerly been several complicated screens. ‘We were trying to lay out all the choices, but that was overwhelming people’, Brady says. ‘It was making our dashboard look like a jetliner, with 50,000 gauges, and not a car’.
After the team revised their application, it was put in front of test users who had never seen the app before. Within a lab environment, they were asked to perform several typical functions using the app; for example, ‘Search for information about nearby places in San Francisco where you can buy a gift for a friend’.
This time, a few new issues turned up. For one, a warning screen that read, ‘Don’t Touch This Screen while operating vehicles or walking’, bothered some of the test users, who found it overly harsh, even condescending. Ultimately, the ‘Don’t Touch’ screen was replaced with a welcome. ‘We took a lemon’, Brady says, ‘and turned it into something that was actually a plus’.
The user testing also led to some hard thinking by Brady and his colleagues. ‘We discovered we were mixing three clearly different experiences’, Brady says, referring to the functions of choosing a mode, ‘Earthcombing’, and customising. ‘Everything was complexing, not compelling’, he adds. This led to a new version of the app that features several themed profiles, making Earthcomber more useful, even without customisation. Currently, the Earthcomber improvements are available only for the Nokia N900 device, but similarly improved versions will come soon for the Nokia N97, Nokia N97 Mini, Nokia 5800, and other devices, Brady says.
While implementing these changes may sound like an enormous task, the Earthcomber team found the work to be relatively easy, thanks in part to help from both Nokia — Brady is a Nokia Champion — and Nokia’s Qt development framework. In one instance of how Nokia helped, the Earthcomber team was stymied by a system message that appeared when users lost their network connection. ‘Nokia basically figured out a way to write a loop around it’, Brady says. With this help, the Earthcomber team wrote a script that got through the network-interruption message. ‘Now the app goes back to normal before the user has to spend too much time thinking about what they need to do’, Brady says.
Similarly, the team found that working with the Qt framework sped their work and made it easier. ‘Qt is a real rocket booster for us’, Brady says. ‘You can pay attention to your core experience, and Qt puts it out pretty much ready to go on any platform’.
Now that Brady and his team have completed their first UX evaluations, he says there’s no turning back. ‘Once you do UX evaluations and user testing and see how essential it is, it becomes clear in your mind that this is every bit as essential as having the application work, having it hosted, and having it distributed’, Brady observes. ‘If people don’t use it, all of that work is for naught’.
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