Jakob Nielsen, cofounder of the Nielsen Norman consulting and research firm, is a widely-respected expert on usability and user interface design who’s not afraid to voice his opinion on what he thinks works -- and what doesn’t.
In an interview with TabTimes, Nielsen criticizes Amazon’s Kindle Fire and explains why he thinks voice interfaces could “kill a lot of people.”
TabTimes: You’ve been playing with Amazon’s Kindle Fire and started user testing. What’s your impression?
Jakob Nielsen: I was disappointed. I had greater hopes for a 7-inch tablet. As a concept I still think it holds some hope, but this particular version is pretty bad. The only thing that works well is Amazon’s own shopping application, which at least shows that you can do a nice UI in a 7-inch tablet.
What sort of problems did you see, what irked you?
The pageview feature is useless. Any magazine text is hard to view. The formatting of information is not at all suitable -- images are big and small. It would be better if the publishers would bother to encode the right information for the display.
I was also surprised that a lot of operations are slow like when you click and point at something. And when you swipe to move a page there’s a kind of ripple effect that’s unpleasant. They call the browser Silk, but it sure isn’t smooth.
You also saw problems in user testing?
Yes. One guy trying to log in to Facebook was constantly clicking in the wrong place and this was a problem we saw with people with fatter fingers and skinny, it’s a design issue. Also the Kindle Fire is much heavier than a Kindle e-reader which is okay for simple shopping but you notice it if you’re trying to read a book.
Were the user’s testing it disappointed?
Actually no, some users were pretty happy with it. If you compare using the Kindle Fire to a smartphone it feel quite nice with the bigger screen. If you don’t realize how much better it can be you might not see that there are problems.
Do you see Kindle Fire competing with iPad or really going after a different market?
I realize not everyone can afford $500 for an iPad, but right now I think Kindle Fire is a bad bargain. The problems can be overcome but it will take tighter coding so you don’t have the roughness in the user experience and information encoding and design optimized for the display. Full-fledged websites on the iPad work reasonably well, on the Kindle they’re misery.
It’s ironic that with phones and tablets we have to be aware of the possibility of the kind of slower download times we had to put up with on our desktop computers in the ‘90s.
How does a slower speed affect UI design?
Because the user is going to be hesitant to click and move around when the penalty is higher for doing the wrong thing. Touch has more accidental activations because the screen is so small it’s easy to make a mistake. It’s particularly bad on devices where the controls are small and tightly packed together, which of course we advise designers not to do.
The iPad gets almost universal praise, but if you could wave a magic wand are there things about it you’d like to see implemented differently?
The main thing would be the weight. For long term use it’s unpleasant to hold. It has to be lighter, but I’m not sure if they can do that with different materials or by other means. The old Kindler e-reader had a plasticky feeling but it’s a little bit pleasant or comfortable and cozy because it’s lighter and the plastic material is more touchable where the metal of iPad is harder and alienating though it does make it look more shiny.
A higher precision in the multitouch would be nice, but that’s hard to retool. They do have things like the magnifying glass you can hold down to be more precise but it feels clunky. You have the fat finger problem with all touch interfaces where on desktop computers any word you can read is big enough to click precisely.
What are some of things that in your view mobile designers are missing or not implementing correctly?
One big one on the iPad is swipe ambiguity; it varies depending on where on the screen you swipe. That’s very confusing to people. Sometimes it works or doesn’t or does different things. The problem with all these gesture-based interfaces is they aren’t as precise as mouse-based. Where there’s an icon you can double click, that’s visible; gestures are invisible there is no feedback. You have to rely on a small number of gestures.
Apple has gotten a lot of kudos for the Siri AI program for the iPhone. Putting aside whether computers will someday read our thoughts, is voice the ultimate interface?
I don’t think so, I think it’s going to kill a lot of people because it encourages a lot of people to use it while driving. We know it’s dangerous to have a phone call while driving. Anything that introduces overhead and distracts you from the road is dangerous including handsfree. Imagine a simple example like controlling a music player. How do I phrase things? Up? Down? Skip? Mute? You have to think it through and that’s a distraction.
And then start thinking about operating a contact manager or scheduling appointments or dealing with email while driving. It’s very dangerous.
Let’s forget about how it might it be used in a car.
I still think a voice driven interface has problems. The fact you can say something instead of write it is an advantage particularly for a mobile device say if you’re doing a query. But it brings us back to the command line interface. You have to compose your commands instead of just seeing something that you recognize like an icon without being prompted.
I’m not very optimistic that natural language recognition will be truly good enough. We have the image of Star Trek where you talk to the computer and it seems like a nice interface, but notice that the main reason for the Star Trek interface is for the audience watching the show. There’s no privacy on the bridge.
The thing about tablets is that with a bigger screen than smartphones they should rely more on a visual UI. You can pump so much more information to people using a visual interface than auditory. The smaller devices favor voice. Maybe someday the phone becomes more like an earbud.