Holding Nokia 3310
Image by David Stefanides

Digesting SMS Applications. Part 1

Taras Savytskyi
5 min readSep 29, 2020

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The first SMS message has been sent in 1992 from a personal computer to a mobile phone. SMS in various forms has come a very long way since that time. A while ago, messages were a quick and cheap way to connect people, but today messages are an essential part of people’s lives.

According to Informate, in 2014, the volume of SMS messages was around 18 billion a day, but even these numbers cannot be compared to modern messengers that are slowly replacing SMS standards. For example, in 2018, WhatsApp revealed their messaging data. People were sending nearly 60 billions of messages daily. In 2016, Telegram had around 15 billion messages per day. The last data shared by Facebook Messenger shows an unbelievably high number of 17 billion images that people share on the platform every month.

In this series of articles, I will discuss the early stages of mobile messaging and how it evolved into modern messaging applications.

Let’s start from the beginning. In the early 2000s, mobile phones started to appear in everyone’s pockets. I remember my friends who had phones like Siemens SL45/A50, Nokia 3210/3310, Sony Ericsson T610, etc. First models with a monochrome (later colourful) 1.4-inch screen were offering one feature per screen.

Interface of the Nokia’s SMS application
Image by https://www.youtube.com/user/MrEmbers2323
Interface of the Nokia’s SMS application
Image by Calum

As we see on the screenshot above, some models could display only 2–3 messages per screen. Most of the time, you couldn’t see the message (without opening it), only the phone number, and remember: messages weren’t structured in the form of chat. Every new message from the same contact would go as a separate entity. Some models had a feature like chat, but it wasn’t popular. If you or a contact who is sending you a message didn’t start a chat, it would come as a regular message.

For example, if you had an iconic Nokia 3310, you would have to do 6 steps before sending a message:

  1. Open menu
  2. Open messages
  3. Select “Write a new message.”
  4. Type a phone number or search in the phone book
  5. Confirm the number
  6. Start typing your message

Let’s take a closer look at writing a message screen:

Interface of writing a new message
Image by https://www.youtube.com/c/CalumRaasay

As you noticed, there is no indication of a receiver, one of the most important UI elements in today’s messengers.

There are five elements on the screen:

  1. Pencil icon as an indication of writing SMS
  2. Language + text case
  3. How many symbols left
  4. Your message
  5. Options button (Send and other options)

In 2020, four out of five elements of this interface do not exist. Today you see all ongoing conversations when a messaging app is open. Once the conversation is opened, the history and name of the contact (or chat) are visible, giving you context of what you are looking at. Language and text cases are always there as you start typing; the screen keyboard is a separate universe, featuring both of these options. Also, there is no need to count characters anymore: if your message is larger than 160 characters, it will be automatically split into multiple messages.

Back in the 2000s, cognitive load during the usage of mobile phones was very high. You had to focus on each step of the flow, making sure you’ve selected the right person or entered the correct phone number. There was no chance to edit this info without losing the message’s content as soon as you moved to another screen.

Nowadays, users can send 10 messages with one word in it, but in the era of mobile phones, people spent time creating a message by carefully selecting wording and avoiding typos to ensure the final result was perfect.

I remember how we treated SMS function in mobile phones back in a days: we had a limited amount of free messages and were trying hard to stay within that limit to avoid extra charges.

In mid-2007 Apple has launched its first iPhone with the chats we know today: every chat is separated by contact, so you never lose a new message again.

Later that year, in September, Nokia released a feature called “Conversations”. It had a similar idea to the iPhone Messages app but was different in implementation. On the first screen of the Conversation app, you would see a list of chats separated by a contact. In a conversation, a list of messages between you and your contact would appear. Unlike on iPhone, users couldn’t see full message’s content without opening it first. Eventually, Nokia got rid of this step.

First chat function of Nokia smartphone
Image by duckling.wordpress.com
First chat function of Nokia smartphone
Image by duckling.wordpress.com

Did you notice a user icon indicating contact? Today we may think, why waste 25% of the screen space to insert the same icon for every single dialogue, especially if you can’t even replace it with a contact’s photo, right? But back then, this icon was extremely helpful to users who were not familiar with contact-based conversations. At that time, all SMS apps had similar experiences in terms of flow, so Nokia had to introduce this concept first before making even more radical changes in the interface. Remember, the experience of applications would remain the same for years because phones would come with an operating system that stayed without updates forever.

Lastly, yet another interesting flow was in how to send a message. The user had to press the “Options” button, different options would be presented and one of them would be a “Send” button.

Message options Nokia 3310 interface
Image by Calum

It was the only way to display some other options like “Template” or “Insert Smiley.” In the era of 1.4-inch screens, when interface space was limited even for the primary actions, companies had to be creative to support user’s needs.

As you can see, the development of SMS applications was a very slow process that took a decade to change the way we interact with messages on our phones. I will go over more examples in my next articles. Stay tuned.

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Taras Savytskyi

I share thoughts on user experience design, interfaces, and product development. Working as Senior Product Designer at Ethena | taras.link