The idea of a test drive is notorious for automobiles and other large investment pieces of technology. Walk into the computer store and you can try out the new laptop before buying it and take snapshots of the clerk with the on display digital cameras. You can even walk into the store and try cell phones. But what if you don’t want to go to the store? For users who do not want the overbearing sales person, online tutorials are a saving grace. One market capitalizing on this trend is the mobile phone arena.
Blackberry is one high-tech company offering an online trial of their product line. Log onto Blackberry.com, navigate to the Blackberry 101 tutorials and you will be presented with a flash based user guide of the phone you select. The entire interface is truly an experiment in adapting physical products to a digital realm. The tutorial is presented in a booklet like fashion with details on the left and animated images on the right. To further ‘enhance’ the translation of the physical booklet, users are required to actually page through the tutorial by clicking and dragging the corners of pages to navigate forward and back. Now, I mentioned this tutorial first as it seems to offer the best overall navigation and interaction. Simple chapters list the current progress and the consistent use of animation keeps the entire interaction very pleasant. I can’t help but be bothered by the direct translation to paging though. To reference Alan Cooper, it is important to take into consideration the technology being used when a product is digitized. The fact that a physical product allows paging, thumbing through corners, and tabbing is completely lost in this digital world.
Still, Blackberry is not the only company trying to solve the problem of how to present a physical form through a two-dimensional screen. T-Mobile has a different solution to the online tutorial. Seen here, the G1-Android is displayed in a combined flash and html tutorial. The use of video sketches to show real world applications of the system helps understand what makes this device different and how easy it is to use. The separation between ’See’ ’Learn’ and ‘Do’ provides laymen terms of how to use the device. Still, there is almost no interactivity here and it is near impossible to navigate through the chapters. Another oddity of this tutorial is the mix of digital ‘form’. As you navigate through the three main topics, the site switches between flash and html. Not only jarring to the user this shows a lack of communication from the design teams.
To change paces, we cannot discuss mobile device tutorial without mentioning Apple’s iPhone. The product is presented in a one-on-one discussion with the user highlighting the events and actions the phone can take. Not to dwell on this too long, as this has been on the market for some time, the personal face to face discussion helps bring a human connection to the product. Still, it is near impossible to navigate to a specific section of the tutorial and to know what’s next in the discussion.
Regardless of how you feel about any of these devices, these three examples show hands down the possibilities of online tutorials and interactivity. All of them are better than the standard pogo sticking method of archaic terms and static images. I can’t help but feel the use of flash needs to be checked at the door and more thought needs to be put towards combining interaction methods. I look forward to when the Flash obsession has truly passed and we are able to experience more cohesive tutorials that not only engage us like Blackberry, but have the emotional content of Apple along with a natural and easy interface.
This is by no means an all inclusive review of online tutorials but by reviewing the three self proclaimed leads of mobile technology an overall feel of the direction the industry is going can be reached. Let’s see what the next generation of smart phones has to offer technically and how the companies behind them market themselves as standing out from the pack.