Remove redundant TouchFlo Start Menu with WkTask

Taskbar Since getting a Touch Pro a couple weeks ago, I’ve been trying to figure out to best to optimize the TouchFlo interface. HTC has done some nice things with this device (the Touch Pro on Sprint or outside the US, the HTC Fuze on AT&T, as well as all the variants of HTC Diamond), and in a lot of ways they’ve brought the ease of use from Windows Mobile Standard’s sliding panels home screen and simple Home and Back buttons to Windows Mobile Professional. It’s nice, but there’s one problem. By default, the Start Menu is still up there in the upper left corner, potentially confusing matters by offering a completely different and contradictory way to launch programs and access system settings. Fortunately, you can get rid of it, simplify the user interface and get a nifty way to switch between running programs in the process. (While one of Windows Mobile’s strengths is that there’s more than one way to do almost everything, a design goal for an efficient user interface is to have as little overlap in functionality as possible; a place for everything and everything in its place.)

Settings WkTask is a free shell utility that partially replaces your Windows Mobile Pro taskbar. By default, it leaves the Start Menu and notification icons alone, and puts icons for your running programs where the window title would normally be. But for our purposes, since TouchFlo 3D (or 2D, if you’re using an older device and can remap the Windows button on the phone to show the Today screen instead of the Start Menu) duplicates and expands on the Start Menu functionality, we’re going to get rid of it.

In the settings, notice that the offset from the left edge is set to 0 pixels. This moves the running programs all the way to left, covering the Start Menu completely. With the clock changed to the analog clock (you have a huge digital one on your home screen anyway), this also gives the entire taskbar a nice “all icons” uniformity fitting to a phone user experience. You can enhance this effect by telling WkTask to display only task icons in the Design tab of WkTask preferences.

So how can you use a Windows Mobile Professional device with out ever touching the Start Menu? Pretty easily, as it turns out. Here’s how it breaks down.

Start Menu TouchFlo with WkTask
Programs All Programs soft button on the Programs tab in TouchFlo
Settings All Settings soft button on the Settings tab in TouchFlo
Recent applications Running applications in WkTask
Pinned applications Programs tab in TouchFlo (except now you have 18 slots instead of 7)
Start Menu Home key
OK button Back key or OK screen button
Kill application via Task Manager Tap and hold app icon on the taskbar to close or forcibly terminate

PopupThere are a couple of gotchas. For one, you’ll notice the running apps area, from pixels 0 to 225 on a VGA screen, completely covers the notification icon if you have Bluetooth turned on as well. I get around this by making sure all the notifications I have enabled display a message onscreen in Windows Mobile’s love-it-or-hate-it pop up “toast”. That way I don’t have to tap the now-hidden notification icon in the taskbar to get clear an alarm. Also, on my screen I only have room to display 5 running tasks at a time. I can run more than that, but when I do, the fifth icon is replaced by a double right chevron ( » ) and the rest are displayed in a little drop down menu.

Overall, though, this has greatly improved my ease of use on the device, making it easy to switch between apps without going to the home screen, and making the home screen the one and only way to launch applications. This dramatically cuts down on confusion when it comes time to do something, and makes Windows Mobile Professional feel more like Windows Mobile Standard; that is, makes it feel more like a phone. Give it a try and let me know how it works in the comments.

Self-learning skills

Driving home just now I noticed something. When I’m straightening out of a turn, I’ll loosen my grip on the steering wheel and let the wheel spin freely just enough to bring the tires back to straight, then tighten my grip again. It seems like an obvious and efficient way to allow the laws of physics to straighten out the vehicle, but I have no memory of ever actually being taught to do this, either by my parents or my Driver’s Ed teacher.

So here’s my question. Does everyone do this? And if so, were you taught to do this, or does every driver figure this out independently through the daily act of driving a car?

I’m fascinated by the idea that user interfaces can be self-teaching, rather than “intuitive.” Not something that you can pick up and instantly feel a natural master of, which is what intuitive usually implies, but rather something that teaches you how to use it by using it.

Simple != Easy

I’ve been working on a three part article for the last few days called "Pimp my Treo" but now I’m not sure I’ll post it. In short, it’s how to use Kinoma Play, Skyfire and Winterface to "modernize" a Treo or similar device to look and feel more like the "new hotness" devices from HTC and Samsung. It all works pretty well, but I’m doubting now if it’s the right thing to do.

I’ve talked many times before about the Zen of Palm, the commitment going back to Jeff Hawkins to make Palm devices as easy to use as possible. As it turns out, this is important not just in handhelds, but all kinds of computers. Paul Thurrott of the Windows Supersite had an interesting observation on this recently (expanded a bit in this week’s Windows Weekly podcast):

Reading Mr. Carr’s article, it occurred to me that the problem with Windows 7 is the same thing that’s the problem with Mac OS X. That is, Microsoft is confusing “easy” with “simple.”

For example, Mac users have claimed for years that Mac OS X is “easy to use,” when in fact it is anything but. Mac OS X is simple. As noted above, simple is hard [to engineer]. And we should all give Apple credit for that. But simple is not the same as easy. One basic example: The Mac OS X desktop is a barren place with no obvious starting point. And the people who feel that it is easy are fooled because they are simply used to it. Things that are familiar seem easy. But they’re not necessarily easy to those who are unfamiliar with that thing or, in the case of potential Switchers, are familiar with something else. The Mac OS X desktop is simple. But it is not easy.

By contrast, the Windows desktop is easy in that it provides an obvious starting point (a Start button) and because Microsoft and its PC maker partners go a bit over the top presenting information to the user on first boot. Critics will argue that this also makes Windows convoluted. And they’re right, as it turns out. It’s hard to get the right mix of simple and easy. Apple errs to much on the side of simple, in my opinion. But Microsoft errs somewhere else: They overwhelm the user with functionality in a bid to make sure it works for everyone. All too often, the result is something that works for very few people.

Simple is not the same thing as easy. Jeff Hawkins understood this, and made the original Palm devices easy to use. But as many of us Palm veterans know, there was a lot of power in those early devices, too.

Thanks in large part to the iPhone, we’ve seen a flood of “simple” user interfaces on Windows Mobile devices recently. TouchFlo3D on the new HTC devices is only one, Samsung and O2 and Velocity and many others have followed suit with their own spins on how to simplify the Windows Mobile experience. But are they right?

One of the examples Thurrott mentioned in the podcast was old school command line Unix. Here we have a system that was simple, but not easy. Most Unix commands do only one thing, it doesn’t get much simpler than that. Grep finds text matching a search term, nothing more. But you had to know what they were, how they worked, and what kind of output they’d give you before you could string them together in shell scripts to do complex things. Definitely not easy.

The more I tweaked my Treo to work more like the new devices on the market, the more something started to bug me. It seemed slower. It seemed a lot slower. And it was, because I was discarding features designed for ease of use for things that made the experience “simple”. It was simpler to have contacts mixed in with my applications in Winterface, but it was actually easier to get to them by typing directly on the Today screen. I’ll bet my Treo can do anything a Touch Pro can do in a fraction of the time, even with a slower processor. Because it’s easy to use, not simple.