Friday, May 11, 2007

Part II: Soul of a New Mobile Machine

Continured: Inside the design of a multimedia communications gadget.

"D-Pad Dilemma
But while the hinge spring made the dual-slide concept feasible, the dual-slide concept brought on the d-pad problem. "D-pad" means direction pad: four arrow keys with a center button. For messaging and Web surfing, the d-pad should be to the right of the screen. This is because most people use their right thumb to navigate. But in gaming, the right thumb has a more important job: it must keep up a rapid staccato on a firing button. So for game consoles, the d-pad needs to be on the left. Another Korean engineer at Helios, gaming-product manager Leo Jun, insisted that if the Ocean was really going to be the best of everything, there could be no compromise on the d-pad. The device had to have a left-side pad for gaming--whether or not it also had a right-side pad for messaging. It was another "conflict of requirements."

Jun's solution: give the device not two orientations but three. The first orientation, of course, is vertical--for the phone. The second, with the QWERTY keyboard open, is horizontal; in this configuration, the d-pad is on the right, for scrolling through messages. The Ocean's software changes the orientation of the displayed material depending on which slider is pulled out. But Jun asked game manufacturers to give Helio versions of their software that essentially played upside down. Flip the device 180 degrees, keeping both sliders closed, and the game is now playing right-side up--with the d‑pad on the left. "That was a nice move on his part, so it doesn't undermine the gaming experience," says Duarte.

Now there was the problem of the "soft keys"--keys that do different things at different times, such as navigate options or open up an e-mail list. Most users expect these soft keys to be in the same basic place, relative to the screen, no matter what they're using the device for. "The mind builds up relational patterns," says Duarte. "You remember the thing at the lower right of the thing I am looking at. You associate this with function--to bring up your contact list, for example." But since the Ocean has different orientations, the user will anticipate soft keys in different places, depending on how the device is being used. So Helio gave the Ocean four soft keys, two on either side of the screen. The dual-slider problem begat the d‑pad problem, which in turn led to radially symmetric soft keys.

Once the layout problems had been solved, size became a concern. Early in the design process, the Helio designers had settled on a pill shape: they thought it elegant, and they believed it would make the Ocean stand out in a market crowded with squares and rectangles. "The pill is beautiful, but hard to make," says Duarte. "Most [internal] components are rectangles, and the most efficient space for packing them is a larger rectangle. We had a lot of trouble [getting] manufacturers to do a pill, because it had never been done before." And the shape indeed created some problems.

The Helio designers had wanted to keep the device to about 100 millimeters long by 55 millimeters wide. But in fitting square objects into that area--chips, screens, batteries--they had to square off the round corners, losing the pure pill shape. Eventually, Helio mocked up an advanced version of this revised design--one of several that were made along the way. It had looked fine on paper, but when the prototype came back, everyone knew it was wrong. It just didn't have the strikingly different pill-shaped form. "It had all the negatives of a pill shape--we couldn't use the corners--and none of the positives," Duarte says. So the

... To further the illusion of slimness, a thin silver band encircles the device, in the middle of the soft black bulk. The eye sees the silvery line; the brain perceives thinness. And as a final touch to make the exterior as sleek and unobtrusive as possible, the buttons were made to appear black when the device was off but to light up when it was on. On the verge of the gadget's debut in late March, the design team rushed out to make this last-minute change."    (Continued via Technology Review)    [Usability Resources]

Helio - Usability, User Interface Design

Helio

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