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By Carl Howe

I've been claiming that Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone's usability is the keystone of its market appeal for a while. Well, ComputerWorld now has some hard usability study data to back that claim up. They had Perceptive Science, a usability consulting firm, pit the iPhone against a Nokia (NYSE:NOK) N95 and the HTC Touch (which is a Windows Mobile 6.0 device) with 10 consumers:


The company brought in 10 testers who had never used any of the three devices. It then asked the testers to perform a series of tasks on each device with quantifiable results, such as the time needed to find and use the on/off switch. Other tasks included setting the phone to vibrate, making a call, saving a phone number to the contact list, sending a brief e-mail, taking a photo and finding a Web site using the device's built-in browser.

Based on the test results and on Thornton's and Ballew's observations, each phone was given a score of between one and five (five being the highest) in each of five categories. In addition, each phone was given an overall score.

It's important to remember that these are usability tests, not tests of functionality. Perceptive Sciences took a broad look at the features on each phone, but largely as they related to usability. For instance, the Nokia N95 is justly famous for its strong feature set. But did that feature set contribute to overall usability, or detract from it?

It's also important to remember that the tests focused on how easy it was to pick up the device and use it right out of the box.

"People can eventually learn to use any device," Ballew said. "But that's not true usability. We wanted to see how long it took to figure out how to use the phones. That's the difference between learnability and usability."

The results

Let's cut to the bottom line: In terms of usability, iPhone blew away its two competitors. Its overall score in the usability tests was 4.6 out of 5. The HTC Touch was a distant second at 3.4, and the Nokia N95 scored 3.2.

"Testers were [typically] about twice as fast doing specific tasks on the iPhone, which is pretty remarkable," Thornton said.


Twice as fast. Yow. So it's not just me that finds the iPhone so much more usable than other phones.

The one other tidbit I loved was how long it took ordinary people to turn on WiFi on the Nokia N95:

"It has a really nice feature set," Ballew said. On the other hand, he stressed, its strong feature set contributed to its relatively poor usability scores in previous categories.

"It's right on the verge of feature bloat," he said. "I mean, I'm not sure when I'd ever use the bar-code scanner. And some of the features are hard to set up." In particular, Ballew said it took four hours to set up Wi-Fi on the N95, which was a fast, simple task on both the HTC Touch and the iPhone.


Didn't I say that the Nokia/Symbian networking was broken?

Nice job, ComputerWorld. Now iPhone owners have some hard usability data to back up what Steve Jobs said in his iPhone introduction keynote: Consumers hate their mobile phones because they are just too darn hard to use. At least they were until Apple introduced the iPhone.