Mobile phone experience sucks: stop innovating

We should feel ashamed of ourselves. According to a recent research people get angry and frustrated by the complexity of modern mobile phones. We, experience designers, are stupid… We’ve got the greatest job in the world, full of endless posibilities to make people’s lives better, easier and happier. And we still manage to only make things worse.

According to a research done by Mformation (with 4.000 participants) modern mobile phones are too complex. “Operators and device manufacturers need to remove barriers to service uptake and unlock the true power of advanced mobile technology. The message from consumers is that phone setup is simply too complex. Clearly, this needs to be addressed.”

It doesn’t come as a surprise that people find phone complex, but it’s still shocking to see it in these hard numbers:

  • two-third of the mobile users find phone setup just as frustrating as changing bank accounts
  • 65% of the respondents agree “that mobile operators are losing out, as people will not buy a new phone because of the time it takes to set up”
  • 78% would change handsets more often if the setup wouldn’t be a bitch
  • 88% doesn’t use additional services because the setup is to complicated
  • 61% stopped using mobile apps because they couldn’t solve problems with them

According to the article people feel it should take no longer than 15 minutes to get your phone up and running. They get frustrated when this isn’t true and irritated when they must setup services through several steps. It should a smooth ride in the park: opening the box with your phone, starting it up and start using it. Along the way you should be asked simple questions so the phone knows what you want. In the background it can set these things up and sometimes ask if it’s doing the right things.

Why is it so hard for us to create a good experience? Personally I think to many mobile phones are still being developed with engineers in the lead instead of experience designers. Technology and features overrule experience.

Use patterns, stop innovating
On of the biggest problems in my eyes is the total lack of direction. Every single phone has it’s own way of interacting with it. All companies try to be innovative, coming up with new design patterns to make our lives ‘better’. But in the end we still have to learn how to work with them… and since these patterns don’t show up on any other device, we don’t really get to understand them. When the manufacturers do come up with a general pattern, like T9 for SMS, they immediately see the benefits. People have time to learn and understand the pattern and can use it over and over, blindly. But when every single phone of HTC or Nokia gets it’s own way of navigating, setting up services, etc…. people lose focus and get frustrated. This is one of the reasons I’m so enthusiastic about Samsung’s decision to create one interface for all their products. And it would be even better if the manufacturers sat together with a good cup of tea and choose some patterns they will all use. Patterns for all the basic features of a phone, which have proven to work. If they start innovating from that point on, building upon those patterns… people will be happy.

And no, I don’t want to kill innovation. There should still be phones that go over the edge and challenge the way we interact with mobile devices. But there should be more phones that don’t do this, then those who do.

photo Torbert Timson
via BBC News


Jeroen van Geel

Jeroen van Geel is founder/chief kahuna of Johnny Holland and the interaction director at Fabrique [brands, design & interaction], a Dutch multidisciplinary design agency. You can follow him on Twitter via @jeroenvangeel.

3 comments on this article

  1. Samsung sees a market opportunity to differentiate itself, probably increasing the lifetime value of its customers by improving their experience across its product line. Very smart business and good design in my view.

  2. Tarobot on

    While I agree with your main premise, not all the blame can be heaved upon the experience designers. The decision making on any project in the business world is never completely handed over to the experience designers. Marketing, new company initiatives, the boss’s nephew who is attending art-school; they all get to infringe on the final design. Just look at the V-Cast interface Verizon uses on their U.S. mobile phones and tell me it wasn’t designed by committee.

  3. It’s sad irony that the ways of applying innovation needs… innovation.

    I saw a crystal-clear epitome of your essay in the sheer frustration of my mother who recently bought a new SonyEricsson. When she came over to Hongkong, the damn thing kept warning that ‘data-roaming has been disabled’. It’s a brand-new model, but it’s as backwards in interface design as the first touch screen models four years ago.

    And no, that’s not a wild statement: I actually put the SonyEricsson Satio (2009) next to the SonyEricsson P900i (2003). My first conclusion was: they never learned from their previous mistakes. Why do I still need to dig around to find browser and mail apps – that’s what we like to use phones for these days, right? Why are the settings of the phone still so hard to find?