Some people argue that software is the way forward for big button phones. That easy to use mobiles can be easier to use if they have a touch screen.

One of the most interesting areas in phones aimed at older users is that of touch screens.  It’s something which divides people very badly. Some, and I’m in this camp,  think that you can’t beat real buttons. Knowing that you’ve pressed a button because you feel it click is a level of re-assurance you don’t get from a screen. I think that motions such as swiping and pinching need a level of motor control which is asking too much of a lot of users. Apple has recently patented the motion of sliding to unlock, and Mobile Industry Review has trumpeted this as A Good Thing. Sliding is such a pain it would be great if no-one else used it. The bigger the screen the worse it gets.

Gestures are like icons: great if you know what they mean but impossible to master if you don’t. The flexibility a powerful user interface offers is great if you want to make complicated things easier, but it also has the effect of making simple things more complicated. Mobile phone designers call this the “usability knee”. Imagine a phone with three buttons. It’s great if you only call three people, but if you add a fourth you might have to press the first button twice. That’s a lot more complex. By the time you have nine people, pressing the third one three times, for nine it becomes horribly complex. If you have nine buttons it’s initially more complicated choosing the right one but easier for all the functions.

This is exactly the decision Doro has made, the Doro 410 big button phone has a simple, 12 key keypad. The Doro 610 adds three quick dial keys and a messaging button. For the slightly more advanced user it’s much more of an easy to use mobile phone, but for the less advanced user those extra functions are baggage.

There is little difference in button size between the Doro 610 and Doro 410

Keypads for the Doro 610 (left) and Doro 410 shown side by side show that adding an extra row of keys for three quick dial numbers and messaging will make those functions very much easier for some users while others will find the simpler 410 easier to use.

Choc-a-block buttons

When a phone is built the different specialists want their feature promoted. The camera people want a camera button, the messaging people want a message button, if it has wifi, navigation, a radio, music player or whatever then all the interested parties want a button for their pet purpose. I once had Western Union say they wanted a phone with a Money transfer Button. Pretty soon you have more buttons than a Cadbury’s factory.

It’s all about balance. Just having the right buttons and the right level of complication to suit the user. You can easily see how a smartphone can be the answer to this. Big buttons which just show the features a user wants the design however has to be completely right. Almost right isn’t good enough. Those of us familiar with technology like user interfaces to be context sensitive. To only present us with the option that are relevant at any one time. Less tech savvy people find it confusing.

Dependable buttons

Imagine your car having a button on the dashboard. When it’s dark it turns on the lights, when it’s raining it turns on the windscreen wipers. If it’s dark and raining it does the lights first and then when they are on it does the wipers. The answer to the question “what does this button do” is “it depends”, which is cognitively quite difficult.

If the software design doesn’t understand how the user thinks it fails. It’s not straightforward that you should never change the appearance of the screen, you could have a software wizard, a set of steps the user follows step by step to get the phone to do what they want but again this needs to be very carefully thought through.

Perhaps the most interesting work in this area is being done by the Brighton based software house Ribot. Their Threedomphone software is a simple user interface for Android smartphones.

This however is still in the research and development stage. To answer the question I keep getting asked “what is the best smartphone for a senior”, the answer is. “There isn’t one”.



Simon Rockman.