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3 Obsolete 1990s UX Design Classics That We Love

In this article, we’re going to take a look at three iconic pieces of consumer gadgetry from the 1990s, and analyse what it was about their user experience design that made them so popular.

We’ll examine the Psion Series 3 line of palmtop computers, the much-loved Nokia 5110 cellphone, and the PalmPilot personal digital assistant (PDA), the last of which helped to push the mobile device sector towards embracing touch screens and gesture input.

Picking up where we left off in our Getting Started in UX Design article, we’ll analyse how each device matches up to the UX honeycomb, and conclude by asking how these products succeeded, why they declined, and what today’s UX designers can learn from them.

1. Psion Series 3

Type of device: palmtop computer/personal digital assistant (PDA)
Years in production: 1991 (original Series 3) to 1999 (Series 3mx)

Psion Series 3mx

Psion Series 3mx

The story

Founded in 1980, Psion was a British company that for its first 20 years in business focused on the manufacture of handheld computers for personal, business, and industrial use. One of its most popular and well known lines was the “Series 3” devices (3, 3a, 3c, and 3mx). As physical products, they were palm-sized – 6.5 inches wide by 0.8 inches thick when closed.

Particularly for those of us whose entire adult lives have revolved around the smartphone, it’s interesting to note how different the design process was for Psion in the 1990s. For reasons of cost and efficiency, today’s mobile devices are usually built using off-the-shelf components (mass-produced processors, screens, and software that are used in hundreds of product lines).

Series 3 devices were being developed and released in an age when there simply wasn’t this level of standardization and choice in device components. The parts in Psion products were therefore designed and manufactured for the exact purpose they were going to serve in the Series 3. Although this meant higher research and manufacturing costs, the result was a product design that feels coherent, robust, unique, and genuinely purpose-built.

How does the Psion Series 3 UX stack up?

  • Useful: The Series 3 range carried powerful built-in apps, including word processor, spreadsheet, calendar, and contacts. Unusually, the device was also programmable and could easily be expanded using the two solid-state-disk (SSD) slots, either by adding device storage or by installing extra apps. (This was a forerunner of the SSD technology that has in recent years replaced conventional hard drives in many personal computers.)
  • Usable: Everything about the Series 3 responds to user priorities. When it was first released in 1991, the quality of the QWERTY keyboard was unprecedented on a device of this size. By including a well-engineered keyboard, Psion also correctly identified the importance of accommodating existing user input preferences and behaviors. The Series 3 also had an ingenious touch panel between the screen and the keyboard, not dissimilar from the one that features on the new MacBook Pro.
  • Accessible: These devices ran on the EPOC16 graphical operating system, developed by Psion for the Series 3 range. The UI of the operating system was simple and intuitive, contrasting with command-line interfaces and unattractive MS-DOS packages commonplace in business environments in the early 1990s. Although Series 3 devices did not have touch screens, they did demonstrate a sensitivity to UX and UI design that (IMHO) was only surpassed by Apple’s release of the iPhone in 2007.
  • Findable: Take a look at the screengrabs below, and you’ll spot that the Series 3 UI had features that are still familiar today: big, clear, icons; self-explanatory app names; and arrows to show where there’s more content to scroll to. The menu bar was also auto-hidden until you pressed the “Menu” button on the keyboard. This fulfilled the same function as hamburger menus (those little three horizontal lines) in UI design of apps today.
  • Desirable: The Series 3’s sleek hardware design, combined with highly functional apps and the friendliness of Psion’s software design, made the Series 3 a desirable, and even exclusive and elite device.
  • Credible: The build quality of the Series 3 was remarkable: many fully functioning devices from 25 years ago are still being bought and sold on eBay today. Psion also shipped its devices with beautiful packaging and comprehensive, user-friendly manuals, adding to the trust users placed in the company and its product.
  • Valuable: For a 1990s business user who was keen on tech, the Series 3 was a gadget that offered valuable enhancements to their working lives, particularly around note-taking, scheduling, and tracking finances. But this device never really became mass market, which is a sign that for many users the enhancements it offered weren’t quite significant enough. In the early 1990s, syncing with a PC was pretty cumbersome, and anything stored on internal memory was lost if the batteries (and backup battery) ran out.

Psion Series 3a lock screen

Series 3a lock screen

Psion Series 3a home screen

Series 3a home screen

Psion Series 3a menu bar

Series 3a menu bar

Psion Series 3a calendar

Series 3a calendar app

What happened to the Psion Series 3?

The Series 3 range was followed in 1997 by the release of the ambitious Series 5. Even today the sophistication of the keyboard on the Series 5 is jaw-dropping, and certainly unsurpassed in the palmtop form factor. The device also introduced a stylus-driven touchscreen.

Psion Series 5

Psion Series 5 (1997)

While successful, the Series 5 ran into hardware reliability problems. The OS, although still sophisticated and attractive, lost some of the distinctiveness and elegance of the Series 3. Trying to bridge the gap with the growing functionality of PC laptops running Windows 95, Psion began to lose some of its cachet.

Struggling to compete in a market that was developing and globalising rapidly, Psion exited PDA manufacturing in 2001 to focus on software development and industrial products. The company effectively closed in 2012, when it was bought by Motorola.

2. Nokia 5110

Type of device: GSM mobile phone
Years of production: 1998-2001

Nokia 5110

The story

Released in 1998, the 5110 became one of Nokia’s all-time most popular and profitable phones. This generation of technology, of course, bears very little resemblance to the smartphones we use today. In fact, pretty much everything about them has changed apart from their basic function (making voice calls).

The 5110 was followed up with a number of other successful phones, including the 8210, 1100, and 3310. What these models all had in common was an unsophisticated but highly effective user interface, which maximized the functionality of the keypad through T9 predictive text algorithms and smart menu structures.

The Nokia 5110’s UX design

  • Useful: it fulfilled the market requirements of a successful late-1990s cellphone. It performed the basic functions of calls and SMS, as well as a number of other useful software features that made it superior to the competition. The hardware was also reliable and robust, adding to the device’s usefulness. (I remember trying to break my old 5110 by repeatedly throwing it against a brick wall – so that my mum would buy me a new phone – but I genuinely couldn’t get it to break.)
  • Usable: although the screen was small, Nokia’s much-loved OS, which served this and similar devices like the 8210, was highly usable.
  • Findable: The menu structure was organised and intuitive, giving rapid access to the most important basic functions. It also featured an easy sequence of keypresses to lock and unlock the screen (valuable to anyone with, like me, a first name early in the alphabet who got used to being pocket-dialed on nineties nights out).
  • Desirable: although the detachable multicolored fascias (covers) might seem bulky and plasticky now, they were an enormous success for Nokia in terms of creating desire for their product. The range of colors was eye-catching and lent itself well to advertising in a sector that was still met with indifference by consumers (mobile phones were still mainly a business tool). The 5110 even won The Guardian’s “Off the Cuff” Fashion Accessory of the Year Award in 1998.
  • Accessible: by today’s standards, no 90s phone was an accessible device. The green-and-black screen has very poor contrast and is difficult to use in low light, especially so for the visually impaired. However, the size of the phone and the size of its rubberized buttons did make this a more accessible phone than much of the competition. (How many old Nokia phones could fit inside an iPhone?)
  • Credible: The OS was extremely reliable, and the physical phone had high build quality which felt both robust and cool.
  • Valuable: As a reliable and fun product, it provided extra value to the consumer relative to other offerings on the market. Addictive games like Snakes are also an example of how added value features can transform a mundane product (a phone) into a habit-forming source of entertainment. That’s exactly why we’re all hooked on our smartphones.

Nokia 5110

What happened to the Nokia 5110?

It’s no coincidence that when Nokia began to depart from the slick, simple approach to UI embodied by the 5110, its stock began to fall. Early signs of the company’s decline came in 2004, when it released devices like the unspeakably ugly Nokia 6670. This model combined a bulky, uncomfortable handset design with a poorly implemented OS (Symbian 7). The lesson? In a highly competitive and fast-moving marketplace like mobile phones, undermining the user experience of your product can quickly undermine an entire brand.

3. PalmPilot

Type of device: Personal Digital Assistant (PDA)
Years in production: 1996 to about 2010

The story

The PalmPilot was one of a range of devices of a similar design. The identity and ownership of the company shifted, with devices being badged with US Robotics, 3Com, Palm, and HP logos.

The original, highly innovative PalmPilot 1000 was released in 1996. Its size and portrait form factor resembled a paper notepad, immediately making it visually distinctive. What’s more, it introduced the ability to enter text by writing with a stylus directly onto the device. However, to take advantage of this feature, users had to learn a special set of writing-based gestures (called “Graffiti”).

PalmPilot

PalmPilot (this is a model from 1997)

How good was the PalmPilot’s UX design?

  • Useful: The PalmPilot’s usefulness is beyond question. For many users it replaced a paper diary, notebook, and address book. It also had well-engineered PC syncing capabilities, with hardware and software built for the purpose.
  • Usable: Being able to interact directly via the device’s touchscreen was a significant usability innovation, coinciding with similar experiments in the Psion Series 5.
  • Findable: Palm prioritised making their operating system (PalmOS) intuitive, friendly, and easily to navigate. And just like the Psion and Nokia interfaces, PalmOS carried a carefully crafted bitmap system font. The effective use of typography is an underappreciated part of the UX of the best 1990s tech. It not only improved device legibility; it also reflected the overall character and identity of the device: simple, functional, friendly.
  • Desirable: PalmPilots were genuinely compact and portable, and would fit into the breast pocket of a jacket. To be seen writing on a screen in a meeting was totally cool in the mid-1990s. (It’s still pretty cool now.)
  • Accessible: Palm sought to increase user accessibility by introducing a stylus and capacity to input text from handwriting. This was potentially a big step forward from keyboard and mouse input, but it also demonstrated some of the difficulties in trying to adapt techniques optimised for other materials (writing = pen on paper) and apply them to materials that have different constraints. The PalmPilot tried to bridge the gap by creating a special script, but the main drawback is that this had to be learned, and had to be entered letter-by-letter. Even for a proficient user, this was significantly slower than typing on a PC or laptop.

PalmPilot advert

PalmPilot advertising campaigns resembled Apple’s marketing

  • Credible: Palm used a very similar style of advertising to Apple’s later campaigns for the iMac and iBook - lots of whitespace, and emphasis on a device’s coolness, compactness, and convenience.
  • Valuable: The PalmPilot created value through time-saving and mistake-saving synchronising of notes, calendars, and contacts. In the longer term, its value was limited by a script-based “Graffiti” UI that many users were reluctant to learn. As a result, the PalmPilot gradually fell away in favour of keyboard-based interfaces, which still dominate every smartphone, tablet and laptop today.

Graffiti in PalmOS

Graffiti gestures in PalmOS

What happened to the PalmPilot?

Of the three devices we’ve looked at in this article, the PalmPilot was perhaps the one best placed to transition into the smartphone market. By the time Palm released the Treo 700p in 2006, the PalmPilot had developed into a device resembling the Blackberry. Again, note the importance to the user of a QWERTY keyboard (whether physical or on-screen). Given the challenges of the mobile device market in the 2000s, Palm certainly had some staying power, holding their own until the iPhone disrupted the market in 2007. Failing to make an impact with the Palm Pre in 2009, Palm was bought up by HP the following year.

What can we learn from the UX design of these devices?

One of the drawbacks of our current technological age is that true innovation is not always commercially valuable. Genuinely new design approaches invariably come with commercial risk, while copying practices that have proven functional and commercial success can seem like a secure route to profit. For this reason, we see lots of apps and website design which, although individually still tailored to their particular market, end up looking and functioning in a very similar way.

Looking back at the best tech designs from the past couple of decades should make us ask whether good UI is always about simplification. There’s a quotation attributed to Einstein: “As simple as possible, but no simpler.” What’s important is meeting user needs in the way that the user needs them to be met. Some people think that the Amazon website is visually cluttered and therefore not well-designed. In reality, its design is expertly crafted to meet its users’ needs – one of the reasons that Amazon is now the fourth-largest US company.

The most successful products identify a user’s goals before the user is even aware that they have them. Very few people knew that they wanted to carry around tens of thousands of songs in their pocket until Apple released the iPod and told them that they did. But they were right. 

The devices we’ve looked at here by Psion, Nokia and Palm are a reminder of the design value of innovation, experimentation, and risk-taking – even if that comes at a commercial cost. These devices offered important insights into user preferences and behaviors, and set the stage for devices like the iPhone. In many ways, Apple’s release of the iPhone optimised the most successful aspects of these devices (touch screen, intuitive apps, gesture support, QWERTY keyboard), and integrated them into a beautiful, desirable mass market product.

Are you interested in shaping how users interact with their world like these products have? Designlab offers online design education and mentoring in UI and UX Design, both through short foundational courses like Design 101, and through in-depth programs like UX Academy. Sound good? Find out more!

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