Quality User Interfaces: Only for the Young and Very Old?

I was reading up on the Jitterbug – a phone that was designed to be easy to use. I thought that here, finally, was a product that took user interface design seriously – but imagine my surprise as I found myself getting angrier and angrier as I read more about this product.

What is there to get upset about? Just this: the product sales talk suggests that a quality user interface and ease of use is only for those who aren’t “able” to handle the more complex (and harder to use) interface of today’s typical mobile phone.

This plays to a common misconception among users and the public at large: if something is “hard to use” it is because you haven’t yet taken the time to learn how to use it. When I’ve complained about poor user interfaces in the past, I’ve been told it’s easy once you learn how.

The CMO Council (the CMO is the Chief Marketing Officer) and the Forum to Advance the Mobile Experience (FAME) teamed up in 2007 to survey mobile phone users around the world. The survey is the Global Mobile Mindset Audit and has some interesting bits of information. One particular tidbit was noted in the headline in the USA Today article Cellphone Users Complain about “Function Fatigue”: too many functions on the phone that will never get used. This was also noted in the article A Phone without Frills written December 7, 2007, for SignOnSanDeigo about the Jitterbug.

To quote from the Global Mobile Mindset Audit survey:

The industry’s preoccupation with one-upmanship on features and functions does little to improve the elegance and appeal of products. The number one problem voice by users in every region was “too many functions I did not use.”

Other problems included the fact that typical phones are difficult to use – quoting again:

[…] other reported problems [included] user manuals not being very good, devices being hard to configure or customize, and simple product requirements, like volume control, being deficit.

The article from the April 6, 2006, Fortune (discussing the introduction of the Jitterbug and other devices at the 2006 CTIA Wireless conference) by Peter Lewis titled Cellphones for Kids – and Seniors shows the previaling thoughts when he writes:

Jitterbug, also launching later this year, consists of a simplified mobile phone and service designed especially for baby boomers and their parents.

Peter later refers to the “technology-phobic baby boomers.” I wonder what Tom Peters would say about that?

One of my most favorite commercials is the Apple “Manual Ad” – in this collection of old Apple ads, it starts at 2:30. It presents an IBM PC – then its manuals. Then it presents an Apple Macintosh – and its manuals. The contrast is striking.

What is it about the mobile phone industry that it just will not listen to its users and give them something easy to use? That’s why the iPhone is so popular: it comes from a company that shows time and time again that it listens to its users and designs its user interface for usability. As soon as I can use an iPhone on my choice of carriers – a carrier known for customer service and for blanket mobile phone coverage in the Midwestern United States – I’ll look at the iPhone. Until then, I’ll stick with the iPod Touch – if ever I get one.

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