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)
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.
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.
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.