November 3, 2007: I've been meaning to write up my experiences with a couple of mobile phones for a while. I used a Nokia 6682 for a year or so and recently switched over to a Sony k790a.

My experience with the k790 is a great lesson in why product managers and designers continue to fight about whether features or experience should drive product development. I bought the phone primarily because I wanted a phone with a "real" camera and at the time it was (arguably) the best cameraphone out there (3.2 megapixels, auto-focus, xenon flash, etc.). I did lots of research and so on and bought it primarily on a features basis. After using the phone and camera for a few weeks, however, I realized that while the k790 has an amazing camera for a phone, especially for stills, it's going to be a while before any cameraphone is going to hold a candle to a decent dedicated point-and-shoot camera (e.g. Canon Elph) let alone a digital SLR. So much for features.

So, you'd think I would have been disappointed but in fact I had already grown to love the phone based solely on the software interaction design. It's among the most impressive pieces of small-device UI design I've encountered (and that includes the iPod which is obviously amazing, but has a much, much easier job description). It's far from perfect, of course, and there are some patently silly things as with all phones (for example, when looking up contacts, you can only search by first name rather than first or last, so typing "JO" gives me "John Zapolski" but not "Oliver Johns"). But, there are so many places where the designers got it right. And, what I mean by getting it right is that they understood the context the phone would be used in, figured out the most likely thing or things that you'd want to do, and then designed the interface to make those things either extremely easy or automatic. I regularly find myself pleasantly surprised by the interface which is rare indeed, as we all know from countless bad experiences. And, as an interaction designer myself, I can tell you that it is incredibly difficult.

It's the little things like when scrolling vertically through a list of your contacts you can then scroll horizontally through their different contact methods (home phone, work phone, email) and choose the one you want. It (mostly) just feels incredibly fluid.

By contrast, the Nokia suffers from having to support a lumbering, generalized operating system so that I have the option of downloading lunar calendars, golf handicapping systems, and all kinds of other pseudo-useful Symbian applications but at the expense of doing the things that matter with any degree of subtlety.

(Note: This was all written pre-iPhone, which generally out-fluids the Sony.)