Jul 05 2014

A UI Parable: The Smartphone Phaser

Phaser on a smartphoneLast night, I had a dream that I had the latest Starfleet-issue phaser – and it was integrated with my smartphone. The result was truly a nightmare.

In my dream (and yes, I really dreamt this; I often have science fiction-themed dreams) I was in a room full of aliens. These were Star Trek: The Original Series aliens, so they looked just like humans – right down to the smooth foreheads. But it was important that I stun them all with my phaser.

So I whipped out my brand-new phaser which was now just an app on my smartphone. Of course, I had to unlock the phone first. Then I had to find and launch the Phaser app.

The Phaser app's menu, offering a choice of Heat, Kill, Stun, and VaporizeThe app first displayed a screen that allowed me to choose the power level. It was easy to find the power level I wanted, because they were listed in alphabetical order. Note that this puts Stun right between Kill and Vaporize. You’ll be sad if you touch the wrong one.

A screen showing pictures of all the different aliens I can choose to shoot at.Next, I was shown the Targets screen. It’s very important to select the target you’re shooting at. After all, if you were to shoot the dwarf Alexander from the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” at the same power level you would shoot a Fat Klingon Klingon (as opposed to a Human Klingon), you might injure the li’l guy, stun setting or not.

Remember that I had to shoot a roomful of aliens, of all different sizes. And after I shot the first one, the others started showing some unwelcome interest in my activities. They started towards me, but fortunately they were slower than the slowest zombies. Still, I was frantically scrolling through the cell phone, looking for the right targets to select (notice the squares at the top of the Targets screen, which indicate that there are five pages of targets that I can scroll through).

I woke up thinking about smartphones. It’s undeniably handy to have so many tools packed into a small box. My smartphone is a still camera, a movie camera, a flashlight, a compass, an inclinometer, a map, a scientific calculator, an alarm clock, a dictation machine, a computer, and oh yes, a telephone.

But while none of the UIs for those functions are as bad as the phaser UI in my dream, the fact remains that they’re still crappy UIs compared to the dedicated devices they replace.

(Give yourself one Trekkie Point for each character and episode you can identify on the Targets screen. Give yourself a Nerdie Point for identifying the non-Trek character.)



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  1. Dave

    Thanks for a good laugh.

    (BTW, I’m amazed you actually bought a smartphone.)

    Your UI comments are dead on – I’ve often thought that smartphones ought to have 3 or 4 physical buttons that you can program to launch the macro of your choice (maybe when held down with a 2nd button simultaneously, to prevent butt dialing).

    If there are only 3 or 4 of them they don’t need to be labelled; you can just remember what they do. (you could use e-paper labels if you really want; those don’t draw any power).

    Ctrl+1 = Stun
    Ctrl+2 = Kill
    Ctrl+3 = Check email


    1. admin

      Yeah, I wouldn’t want to “butt dial” a phaser!

  2. Rich

    Interesting that the target named “Vulcan” is actually from the Mirror universe.

    1. admin

      He’s still Vulcan, and you’re more likely to want to shoot him than if he were clean-shaven.

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