What makes a well-designed mobile phone? The argument that a good-looking phone is well-designed ignores a number of fundamental usability issues: the Motorola RAZR looked great, but I (and many millions of users) thought it was far from the finished article as it was so difficult to use.
Great design means more than good looks; it means a product that is easy to live with on a day-to-day basis. Manufacturers have to get the minutest of details right because that is what delivers a great customer experience.
For example, caller ID is a great service on a mobile phone, but if the incoming name or number is so small on the screen that it is unreadable (and don’t forget that a large number of those using phones may also be wearing reading glasses), the benefit is rendered pretty useless.
Well-designed mobiles are great news for everyone. Consumers get a more complete user experience, and they grow to love and rely upon well-designed products. Manufacturers benefit from increased customer loyalty as people will use their well-designed products more, which in turn leads to increased revenues for operators. For retailers, a well-designed phone provides less product returns, happier customers, more opportunities to sell accessories and a better reputation.
Around 2001, we started adding colour screens to phones. This innovation was followed by adding other features to mobiles, including music players, internet browsing, video-calling capabilities, cameras, memory cards, picture messaging, instant messaging and more. And now, these features are not exclusive to the high end of the market, but on virtually every phone sold.
All these added features have made negotiating around a modern handset a challenge to the user. User interfaces have barely changed at all in five years. Added functionality has led to more icons on the screen and more options within menus. Users find themselves having to delve deeper and deeper into menu systems to access new features. It’s little wonder that users have failed to embrace many new features if they cannot easily access them.
A manufacturer has to have real insight into how a user thinks and acts in order to overcome this and provide a better experience. This goes way beyond the ‘people want cameras on phones’ thinking. It means observing how people interact with products and finding better ways for them to do this. In short, it means putting people back at the centre of products, understanding what they do and how they do it.
Maturing industries require fresh ideas on a regular basis to continue to grow and be successful. The mobile industry has been growing at such a phenomenal rate, with so much new technology at its disposal and so many opportunities to develop, that it is in danger of leaving the user behind.
For all the hype surrounding the launch of the Apple iPhone, I suspect that its lasting effect on the market will be to force other manufacturers to revisit the issue of usability, to redesign their own menu systems and develop user interfaces that are more suited to the user and less to an alien.
Put simply, customers value usability. In a world where product specifications are broadly similar, getting the detail right will become the critical differentiator for manufacturers. Adding complexity to a device is easy; adding usability is the ultimate challenge.