The Nokia N9, unveiled last week, is a beautiful device with an exceedingly difficult job: improve upon the iPhone's UI without totally admitting that it has become a universal standard for touch phones. At its best, the N9 succeeds at diverging from some of the sillier interactions that we take for granted with Apple and Google phones -- proving that even those two companies could learn some things about UI design.
The N9 is Nokia's first meaningful response to a global smartphone market that has largely passed it by. Where past devices like the N7 seemed gleefully unaware of the interactions being defined by iOS and Android, the N9 feels like a critical response to Apple in both hardware and software. In many places, those critiques are admirable.
Nokia's SVP of Design Marko Ahtisaari, who is the first design in many years to report directly to Nokia's CEO, tells Co.Design that his team began by narrowing their focus to just two usability priorities, which underpin both the phone's physical and interactive design. ""We knew we wanted full mobility," he says. "And we didn't want the UI to immerse you if you didn't want it to. We wanted it to be glance-able."
A "glance-able" UI
To this end, Nokia has revamped the OS's typeface (called Nokia Pure) to be larger and clearer, and you'll notice that in some places in the UI, such as the browser bookmarks, the size of the typeface actually scales with available space.A big screen
Ahtisaari says Nokia has made the N9's screen "as big as possible" while still fitting comfortably in one hand: 3.9 inches viewable. Importantly, the slab of custom-formed Gorilla Glass actually extends wider than this, because the bezels of the phone are touch-sensitive and act in navigation. More on that in a moment.
Also aiding in on-the-go usability are those extra-wide screen bezels mentioned above. They effectively frame the entire screen with one large touch target -- swiping over any screen-edge brings the user back to the main view. This is Nokia's version of the lone hard key on every iOS device: call it a "Home" gesture.Part Homage, Part Heresy
The newest iteration of MeeGo, the OS that underpins the N9, feels like an all-star roster of interactions inspired by other platforms. Nearly every task flow involves motions and controls you've encountered before on your iPhone or Android device, but in many cases they're used differently. In some places, Nokia has improved on these paradigms. (A notable example is unlocking the screen: to get to the Home view, the N9 merely requires a double-tap anywhere on the glass. No "unlock" sliders here.)
The biggest, most obvious innovation are the three Home views in MeeGo, which can be toggled by swiping in from the edges of the phone with the "Home" gesture. These effectively allow you to access content far more directly than you might on Android or iOS -- instead of following each app down a long tunnel, you get three separate screens dedicated to three distinct types of information:[From left to right, the three main screens of the N9: Feed view, home, and open apps]
1. Grid View
Allows a user to viewing their inventory of apps in traditional Android style, with a flowing list of icons. While Nokia says they plan to push MeeGo phones in developing countries where iOS and Android have less foothold, the company has recently divested itself of commercial app licensing for the platform, apparently to focus on Windows Phone 7 development, leading some people inside and outside of Nokia to wonder if existing MeeGo developers will want to keep building apps for this platform.2. Feed View
This view of the Home screen might have seemed more innovative before Apple's preview of iOS 5 in early June, but it's still beautifully done. This view merges your upcoming calendar appointments, notifications, Twitter timeline and/or Facebook News Feed into one river of content that refreshes automatically.3. Open apps
Reminiscent of the "View Windows" button in iOS's Safari browser, or Expose in Mac OS X, this view puts all open app instances into a big grid to let you switch between apps or kill instances you're not using. IOS doesn't allow true concurrent multitasking, so there's no comparison to make here -- but this solution is vastly more elegant than Android's.
You'll see Android and iOS in other corners of the OS as well. Tapping the top bar reveals a pull-down menu a la Android. As in iOS, there is a five-button nav bar at the bottom of most apps, and each control acts as a tab. Even for the most entrenched of iOS or Android fanboys, the N9 is an incredibly seductive device, in part because it preserves just enough of what we love about iPhones and Droids while presenting an entirely novel physical design.Ship in a Bottle
On to the body: the shell of the N9 is a seamless polymer body infused with inherent color, so scratches don't show. Ahtisaari says the plastic body improves reception, but what's more significant is the weight savings over metal and glass construction like the iPhone's. It feels great in the hand: not heavy enough to break itself with a fall, but not flimsy or cheap, either.
Then there is the mystery of assembly: how did Nokia sink the guts of this phone into a seamless body? Ahtisaari is reticent to answer ("it's like putting a ship in a bottle,? he says) but the effect is tantalizing: with almost no viewable ports or seams, the N9 feels like a device that truly lives wirelessly.