Friday, May 10, 2013

In 2005 a small group of people with limited resources at Nokia started to develop a Linux based Maemo Operating System and devices based on it. The team was called OSSO (Open Source Software Operations). This becomes the basis for the Meego team as Nokia signed a partnership with Intel in 2010.

Nokia begun development of the Maemo 6 operating system in 2008 before the merge with Intel. This would turn out to be what is known as codename Harmattan, the OS that was supposed to bridge the gap between nokia's Maemo and Nokia+Intel's Meego. The name Harmattan by the way is the name of an African trade wind, inline with Nokia policy then to name their UI versions based on trade winds.

The Harmattan User Interface Concept

What makes the Harmattan user interface concept interesting is because it was originally based on the principle of Activity Theory. Which is a framework for studying human behaviour and development processes. The theory was originally developed by the Russian psychologist Vygotsky and then continued by his peer Leont'ev.
Leont'ev said that people engage in "actions" that do not in themselves satisfy a need, but contribute towards the eventual satisfaction of a need. Often, these actions only make sense in a social context of a shared work activity. This led him to a distinction between "activities," which satisfy a need, and the "actions" that constitute the activities. Leont'ev also argued that the activity in which a person is involved is reflected in their mental activity, that is (as he puts it) material reality is "presented" to consciousness, but only in its vital meaning or significance(source:

The aim was to utilize information on how people combine tasks and communicate with each other, and thus support these ways of working instead of focusing people to adopt technology based working models. The system would adopt to the way the user interacts with it, to ensure reciprocated interaction. (

Here is how it was applied to the original concept of Harmattan UI as stated in the article mentioned above:

The main view was supposed to display the name of the carrier, third party applications, and the state of the device (battery, signal, time) to give the users a sense of control over the system. The main view should also have quick access to key features such as contacts, phone, email, browser and search. Whereas all notifications and previews was supposed to be shown in a designated place. 

We all know what happened to Harmattan and Meego as Nokia's CEO Elop decided to burn the ship and sign a partnership with Microsoft to have their devices run solely on Windows Phone. We also know how that turned out for Nokia, but that is a subject for another discussion. 

I thought the interesting principles behind Harmattan was dead  , however quite surprisingly it turned out that it did not.

After a long hiatus, I'm glad to announce that the basic principles of Harmattan UI is now alive  on a rather unsuspecting device, 

The Nokia Asha 501

You can check out Nokia Asha 501's full features on this rather excellent in depth review by +Chris Davies from Slashgear.

While here is a video by the skillful Peter Skillman from the Nokia Design team explaining the phone and its user interface.

With that said, I'm not going to talk at length about its hardware. Instead I'd like to focus on the UI design of the Asha 501 and why I think it is an important piece in Nokia's efforts to regain some of their marketshare.

It's been a year and a half since the first launch of the Nokia Asha low cost line of products that currently spans across 17 devices.
Honestly, none of the previous Nokia Asha products managed to catch my attention. For me, they were the personification of everything I don't like about dumb phones and Nokia's old line of Symbian "smart" phones with their low quality screens, messy user experience and sluggish interface.

Which is why I was so surprised when I first checked out the reviews of Nokia Asha 501.
Make no mistake , deep in its heart, the  Asha 501 is still based on Nokia's Symbian S40. But if we take a look at it's UI, it is quickly evident that there's very little of the old S40 sluggishness present. Nokia's designers have done a great job in optimizing the UI that scrolling and swiping between screens look fluid, probably the most fluid I have seen on sub $100 phones. But what's more interesting to me is the set up of the UI itself, here's why:

First, the phone only has a single hardware button and quite brilliantly, it is not the home button (because the phone does not really have a conventional homescreen) but rather the back button. Intriguing eh? I assure you, it gets more interesting.

You wake the phone by double tapping the glass screen. Once the phone is awake, you will see a "main view" screen which is home to a large clock, the phone's status and notification cards. Here, you have the option to either swiping the individual cards and get sent directly to their respective apps , allowing you to take actions on said notifications (see the activity theory roots in action here?), or swipe the whole screen and get into the application launcher consisting of a grid of vertically scrolling icons.

This application launcher is one the phone's two "home" screens. If you swipe right from this grid of icons you will go to the second homescreen that Nokia calls the Fastlane
The Fastlane is where the Activity Theory pedigree of Harmattan really shows. 

Peter Skillman of the Nokia design team calls the Fastlane the place where you can see you past, present, and future activities. 

Past, because it shows you the activities you've done in the past , such as calls you've made, emails you've sent, tweets and so on.

It shows you your Present activities, by displaying your recently used apps. Coupled with the singular back button, the fastlane can serve as a quick application switcher because if you swipe left from any application, you will return to the fastlane while swiping left again from the fastlane will send you to the application launcher. 

The fastlane also shows you your future because if you pull it down, it will show you your next calendar events.

Swiping from the top gives you a quick settings pane which will allow you to switch between the two SIM cards you have on the phone, set up bluetooth, ringer settings, etc.

The fastlane goes hand in hand with  Leont'ev's description of activity theory. The objects you see on the fastlane are the activities you do to achieve your objective, while  tapping on the individual objects brings you the tools you need to conduct the activity. Also, as have been mentioned before, swiping left from any app you've called up (or pressing the back button) will send you back to the fastlane. Oh have I mentioned that all this happen with smooth animations?

The amount of thought and effort that went into creating this experience, on what essentially is a bottom of the barrel phone, is uncanny. In fact, I don't think I have ever seen similar level of effort being put into a super low end device anywhere else.

Another thing to note is that this phone's browser, apart from offering multi-tabbed browsing, is supported by Nokia's client side compression service which you would be familiar with if you have used Opera Mini. This has the potential of saving up to 90% of your data usage allowing you to do more with a limited data plan.

One of my biggest worry about Mozzila's Firefox phones is the fact that it relies on web apps to do anything, meaning it has to always be connected to do the things the user wants to do with it. If one can only afford a sub $100 phone, would one wants to get the phone that will require one to spend half that amount each month on data plan? Nokia's solution seem to have solved this issue.

With Nokia able to deliver such a smooth and elegant user experience coupled with excellent built quality (it even has edge to edge scratch resistant glass) on a $99 pre-subsidy phone, I'm pretty confident about Nokia's future in capturing the super low end market. Other phone manufacturers better take note.

Photo of the Nokia Asha 501 courtesy of Tech Crunch