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Palm PreIt’s the question on everyone’s lips these days. Is the Palm Pre going to make an impact large enough to save both Palm and Sprint? We shall see how this plays out once the anticipated savior descends to earth on June 6, 2009 AD.  But launching alone will not a savior make. Rather, Palm’s destiny lies largely in the hands of the passionate, talented and empowered individuals who have defined and designed the Pre’s user experience.

To better understand the Pre’s design and differentiators, I caught up with user experience colleague Michelle Koh, a member of the human interface team at Palm. She played a large part in designing the user experience for Palm’s new WebOS platform and the core Person Information Management (PIM) applications that Palm is legendary for. Specifically, she designed the global device search, phone, and contact applications, as well as contributing to the overall device navigation and system UI design.

BRADLEY HEBDON: You haven’t always designed mobile experiences. Why did you make the transition from web to mobile?

michelle kohMICHELLE KOH: There are probably several reasons why I made the move to mobile. Firstly, there is something magical in canonizing all the design thought and work into an actual physical product that people can touch and I wanted to get close to that process.

Then there’s the impact a mobile experience has. It’s frequent and daily, and therefore makes an impact to people in their everyday life.

Curiosity is another reason. Why is my phone like this? How come it’s so hard to use? Wouldn’t it be better if it could……

BH: I think most users have been used to a very poor mobile user experience until the iPhone came along. Perhaps your frustration drove you?

MK: I’ve always had a healthy dose of “dissatisfaction”, so yes.

BH: What else pulled you into the mobile space?

MK: I had a desire to get out of my comfort-zone and design in an industry, medium, and technology where I would have to learn from others and also contribute from my own experiences.

Also, I recognized the social and technology blips on the radar and had a wishy-washy feeling that the Smartphone was the next milestone in this information age. So I wanted to adopt it and adapt my design thinking and skills.

BH: Now that you’ve immersed yourself in designing for the mobile experience, do you have anything in mind going forward?

MK: My next area of focus might be to try and find meaningful and useful ways to breed the web and mobile experiences together … it’s vague … but vagueness is typically the starting point for further discovery and viability. I think we are seeing really good glimpses of this with the web version of Facebook and the iPhone version of Facebook.

BH: What were the biggest challenges in moving from web to mobile?

MK: My biggest challenge in making this transition was honestly a personal one filled with excitement, doubt, and uncertainty. When I started my career in web, it fortunately coincided with the birth of the “web designer” and so as this field was maturing, I was as well. I couldn’t get a degree in this so I taught myself and learned from others in the same position. I learned everything as it was being invented, ingested the innovations, and practiced them. I hope I can say this without sounding prideful and self-proclaimed, but I became pretty good at it.

BH: So you were in a comfortable place then?

MK: Yes. At that point, it was easy to stay where I was comfortable. But I was once told that your biggest challenge as a designer is when you take a leap. So I jumped! And so transitioning to mobile was a challenge in that I did not mature in this industry, relatively, there was more that I did not know, it’s very technical in nature, and I doubted myself. The challenge was more personal. Right now, it’s so exciting to be in this chaos of change but it is challenging.

BH: Speaking of exciting, the upcoming release of Palm’s Pre must represent a climax to what must have been a thrilling time for you and the design team.  And it seems the pundits are matching up the Pre against the iPhone, how do you think the Pre differs from the iPhone?

MK: I remember when i saw the first mock-up of this over a year ago. The inner industrial designer in me screamed “brilliant”! The slight curve felt comfortable in my hand and when I slid open the device, the curve line was further emphasized so that I could cradle it against my ear. And the keyboard is hidden away when I don’t need it. You don’t expect curves on devices so this was a delightful design decision that I appreciate a great deal. The curves are reinforced in the overall footprint down to the keyboard, which gives it a sense of harmony.

BH: One of the first things people will notice is the Pre’s keyboard. Do you see it as an advantage over the iPhone?

MK: Having used a virtual keyboard on the iPhone for over a year now, I think that the physical vs. virtual keyboard battle is actually a preference issue. I’ve become very good at using my screen keyboard and can type very fast. I also like using the Pre’s keyboard because I make fewer errors. Both benefits are on par but there is an advantage to a physical keyboard … screen real estate! What could be used for valuable information is taken up by the virtual keyboard on my iPhone, which in my experience is a poor one.

BH: Can you tell me about the Touchstone wireless charger?

MK: This is just so cool because what was only possible in movies, is now possible in real-life for a mass consumer product. It’s always exciting when something considered “geek” becomes “chic”. Not only does this matter in the way a device is charged, but also for human behavior and cognition. I actually don’t like to charge my iPhone because I don’t like the weird stress I feel in jamming my phone into a charger. I can’t explain it, it’s just visceral. But how fluid and stress-free it is to simply place the device on the Touchstone … this is natural movement … back to being human.

BH: The Touchstone is definitely a differentiator. I’d like to see something like this re-charge a few devices at a time.  What else do you think separates the Pre from the iPhone?

MK: I’m not an operating system expert, but in my last two jobs in the mobile industry, I’ve learned that the platform matters BIG time. I learned early that an out-dated platform was the bane of so many phones for too long and helped me understand why my cell phone experience was so poor. From a user experience standpoint, the platform is what enables single-tasking to multi-tasking … the biggest elephant probably in iPhone meetings these days. And if I’m not wrong, what makes the hybrid of RIMs Blackberry Storm plus “touch” interface so horribly wrong. A killer OS is key, and in the Pre’s case it’s WebOS.

BH: I’ve seen the term “Synergy” being mentioned quite a bit. What is this?

MK: When I started designing around integration with Facebook and web PIM data, I just wanted to solve a reoccurring problem I had, especially when it came to personal information management (PIM) data. I wanted to work with content that I had already created … and not recreate it. I didn’t want to care about where the data was as long as I could get it. I didn’t want to manage my contacts and spend needless hours configuring an application especially when everyone is doing this already with their own personal data anyways (i.e. Facebook profiles). Palm has been calling this “Synergy” and this will be key for future technology. Not only for mobile but for devices like netbooks which will have limited hardware bandwidth.

BH: Personally, I think the browser is one of the most important ingredients in a mobile experience – how does the Pre perform in this area?

MK: I’ve seen internal side-by-side comparisons of the Palm Pre browser vs. iPhone Safari browser and let me say that the new browser is simply awesome. Navigating pages is a breeze thanks to the WebOS card environment. Flash is going to be really exciting as this has been long anticipated. With so many websites built in or with components of flash, the need to browse them on my device is be even more critical.

BH: What do you mean by “WebOS card environment”?

MK: Oh, that’s a feature that enables a user to quickly flick through applications, as you would with a deck of cards.

BH: So that’s part of the multitasking capabilities?

MK: Yes, that’s right.

BH: That sounds like a great example of how a real-life metaphor was brought into the experience.  How is Palm encouraging the development of applications for the Pre?

MK: How good and fast can a designer build something with a new set of tools never used before? Now … how good and fast can a designer build something, with tools they have experience with, their friends have experience with, and the community is drenched in? As the age old saying goes, Palm didn’t “reinvent the wheel”, we just rolled the wheel in a different direction creating new pathways with familiar tools like HTML, CSS, and Javascript to leverage a web-centric technology.

BH: From what I’ve seen so far, the user interface looks fantastic; even better than the iPhone’s! What were the guiding principles that ultimately drove the architecture and aesthetic?

MK: We always wanted to make sure that we loved the product, the interface, and the experience. As a designer, you have to be invested in the product experience and to also consider it a major driving force in certain situations. The design shouldn’t be totally self-referential but there is a place for it when it’s defining an original archetype and setting a new bar. I think that is the situation we were in.

BH: Now that the release of the Pre is imminent, will you be working on any future Palm devices?

MK: It would have been nice to continue my stay with Palm because of my great colleagues and the rare break-through opportunities.  However since the company is in Silicon Valley and my home and family are in Los Angeles, it was not personally and logistically sensible in the long run.

I feel grateful to have had the support and opportunity to contribute to Palm for almost a year and a half and I hope to have contributed to the “Zen of Palm” come-back (Google this) while elevating the mobile experience for Palm users. I really do hope the users will be happy.  That really was my main goal.

BH: So what’s next then?

MK: What’s next? I guess I can answer that question with another question.  What’s next in this information and technology driven age?

Along with mobility, social networking seems like it’s here to stay.  I mentioned earlier in our conversation that I found the intersection of web, mobile, and social networking a land with more to discover.  That intersection is small right now, but the trends seem to be saying that it’ll get even bigger … and since we’re in LA, what if we throw music into the mix?

BH: You’re intersecting social networking with mobile?

MK: Actually, my next opportunity is to contribute at MySpace Music in the area of user experience. This is a relatively new joint venture with a handful of major music labels seeking to create an empowering economy for fans, artists and labels.  In this industry and company, the aspirations are big, the challenges great, and the competition fierce.  With this, MySpace Music needed someone dedicated to UX so I am the first in the group to solely make it my job to do so and contribute to the evolution for MySpace Music.  Wish me luck!

BH: This sounds like an incredible opportunity Michelle. Congrats!

MK: It’s been great chatting with you Brad. Thanks for giving me this forum to reflect and share my design work experiences with others.

BH: Absolutely, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule, and all the best with your move.

I think it’s fair to say that, there hasn’t been this kind of anticipatory buzz in the market, since the iPhone’s launch two years ago. And while the iPhone raised the user experience bar significantly, it’s devices like the Palm Pre that will continue to keep the bar elevated and the competition fierce. That kind of healthy rivalry results in a win-win for consumers and user experience professionals alike.

Finally, let us not forget that when Palm re-enters the fray as its second coming, the true saviors are the designers behind the Pre, and not merely the device itself.

You can find Michelle on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/michellekoh

Bradley Hebdon

Bradley Hebdon

Founder & Editor at UXbyDesign
Bradley is a User Experience Leader with over 15 years of interactive experience. He is currently employed as Director of UX at Slalom Consulting's Southern California office.
Bradley Hebdon


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