Hits, No Errors: The Secret of Mobile Success

on December 11, 2013



When Jeff Hawkins was designing the original Palm Pilot, he had a simple rule for his team. If a feature was generating error messages, it either got fixed fast or it was removed.  The Palm user experience was designed to be error free. ((Here’s a note Hawkins wrote explaining his design philosophy in response to a 1998 column of mine in BusinessWeek.))

The Palm was designed to do just a few things, but do them very well. Unlike just about every other high tech device of its era, it almost never threw error messages. And nearly 20 years later, I still believe this commitment to user experience helped Palm successfully create the category that eventually became today’s smartphones.

A great deal has been written about the reasons of the consumer success of today’s tablets, particularly the iPad, at the expense of traditional PCs. Of course, there are the obvious factors of their ultra-portability, relatively low price, and the availability of a plethora of clever apps that are either free or very inexpensive. But I think the is another, at least equally important factor: Tablets, to steal a phrase, just work. They don’t offer a lot of complexity. They don’t scare or confuse users with incomprehensible and vague threatening error messages.

Things have gotten better from the days when Mac and Window users frequently saw messages like these:

errorsBut after 30-plus years of dealing with these things, I still see Windows and OS X error messages that I do not understand. An example: when editing a complex document in Word 2011 (Mac), it is not unusual, after a lot of changes have been made, to get a message saying that Word has run out of room to store the document. Since I am working on a system with 12 gigabytes of physical memory and an all but unlimited amount of virtual memory, something other than the stated cause is behind the message. And I’ve learned that the correct response is to close and reopen the document. Despite the message, it always saves correctly. But why should I have to put up with this? And on a tablet, I don’t.

Features, not bugs. The iPad is the leader in tablet simplicity. A number of design decisions, for which Apple has been roundly criticized by those who dislike the locked-down nature of iOS, contribute to the iPad’s error-free nature. There’s no USB port, no installable device drivers, no user-accessible file system, no direct way to print to standard printers, no way to install apps not approved by Apple, very limited communication between apps, which run in a sandbox. This Apple-knows-best approach to software design has eliminated a large number of ways that things can go wrong and cause baffling errors. (In the early days of Mac and Windows, a common source of crashes was one program overwriting another’s memory. Throughout the history of Windows, error analysis has shown that the overwhelming majority of application and system crashes were generated by installable device drivers.)[pullquote]A number of design decisions, for which Apple has been roundly criticized by those who dislike the locked-down nature of iOS, contribute to the iPad’s error-free nature. [/pullquote]

This is not to say that apps and even the OS in tablets never crash. But they do it quietly and gracefully, without generating an error message or requiring any action. When an iOS or Android app crashes, it usually just quietly shuts down and restarts itself, generally without loss of data and without affecting any other running apps. Even a system crash, rare in my experience causes a reboot in which the tablet mostly or completely restores its pre-crash state.

App updates are another place where tablets shine. Both Android and iOS automatically install app updates in the background. By contrast, as I was working on my Mac today, a Window popped up informing me that skyDrive needed to be updated. I gave permission for the update, which then proceeded to open at least six more windows–I lost count–each of which required some action on my part. If the software needs updating, just go ahead an update it (the auto-update feature can be disabled on both Android and iOS, but I doubt that many users do.)

Good behavior. I think the geekiest among us underestimate how important this well-mannered behavior is to a lot of users. Especially folks who write code are used to complex and hard-to-diagnose errors and consider them part of a day’s work. The Mac system bomb was always a bit of a joke, though on some particularly nasty versions of Mac OS, it was rare to get through a day without seeing it at least once. But I remember people who became genuinely upset after getting that Windows “illegal operation” message, believing they had sone something seriously wrong. Microsoft made matters worse by sometimes including a “Continue” button in the dialog box that invariably did nothing when clicked.

People like tablets because they don’t behave this way. They just do what you want them to do. And both system requirements, UI limitations, and the prevailing ethos of app design cause developers to write apps that only do one thing, and more often than not, do it well.

Windows struggles. This may be one reasons why Windows tablets struggle so badly. Metro-style apps, for the most part, behave like tablet apps should. But there is still Windows underlying the whole thing and the ability to run any (Windows 8) or a few (Windows RT) legacy Windows apps makes the tablets prone to all the ills that Windows is heir to.

I sometimes chafe at the restrictions imposed on the iPad (and to a lesser extent, Android tablets) compared to a traditional PC. I would love for it to be easier to print, easier to share files among apps, easier to load content. But when I think about what I have gained by giving a few things up, a realize it is a trade I would make again in a second. I love the power that a traditional PC gives me when I need it, but I value the simplicity a tablet offers when I don’t.