From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Today’s Cell Phones Loaded With Functions – and Confusion

In the beginning there was P1. Now there is P3, and P4 is looming. The tags correspond to the successive phases in the evolution of the cell phone. P3 models are loaded with functions many users find confusing. The industry has a vested interest in easing the confusion, but is unlikely to strip away the functions.

The P1 phones of the 1980s were simple devices that performed just one function – making and receiving phone calls. Address books, voice mail and caller ID arrived with the next phase, and digital technology was the bridge to the third.

The mark of Phase Three phones is their ability to handle multimedia data at high speed. A survey of product reviews and the makers’ information makes it clear that they are intended for work and play. Phones described as loaded offer generous helpings of typical P3 functions. These include ways to download and play music, take photos and record video, send and receive still or video pictures, play video clips and live TV programs, receive GPS directions, play games, surf the Web, personalize ring tones, scan the stock market and check the weather and sports scores. A loaded phone may also function as an alarm clock, calendar, to-do list, notepad, calculator, countdown timer and stopwatch.

Call management and security features for P3 phones depend mainly on a carrier’s service plan. The options include voice-activated calling, voice recording, phone books, call histories, speed dialing, caller ID, call waiting, three-way calling and the ability to lock the keypad and phone data.

The iTunes® music software and Digital Audio Music Player on Motorola’s RAZR V3i / V3t / V3e models enhance their standing as multimedia stars. And quad-band roaming makes the RAZR a “globe-hopping machine,” in the words of Motorola, that can be used anywhere in the world.

The technology magazine, c/net, observed in a recent issue that music cell phones have become a hot commodity in 2006, with almost every manufacturer getting into the game. Sony Ericsson’s Walkman handsets have emerged as favorites of mobile music fans, c/net says, but Nokia has countered with N-series smart phones packed with multimedia features.

The Palm Treo and Blackberry phones are the best known examples of the workhorse branch on the evolutionary tree. It’s easy to think of them as pocket-sized personal computers – with a generous helping of entertainment features.

Third-party software and services expand the functions. An Associated Press article in October reported that typical add-ons give users a way to scan documents with their cell phone, personalize photos and listen to podcasts. One third party makes e-mail accessible on basic cell phone models. It handles e-mail attachments that include photos or Adobe PDF documents, opening and resizing the documents to fit the phone’s screen.

Function-by-Function Ergonomics

Ergonomics hasn’t been forgotten as the functions have been added. Nokia, for one, has paid close attention to the usability of individual features on their phones. The c/net reviewers gave the Nokia 5300 a grade of 8.3 out of 10 for its attention to usability, lauding the phone’s “great display and user-friendly controls … picture perfect  screen … (and) simple but attractive menus.” They were particularly impressed with the rubberized skin that makes the “spacious and user-friendly navigation controls tactile and easy to find by feel. The rubber texture extends to a volume rocker and a dedicated camera shutter and raised ridges, making the volume rocker easily accessible when holding the phone to the ear. “As with many other camera phones, the Nokia 5300’s ergonomics give it a camera-like feel when you hold the phone horizontally with the shutter control facing up,” they added.

The c/net editors’ noted that the “camera ergonomics and the slick camera interface make for a great user experience.”

An AP article in May observed that makers are relying on intuitive designs that “marry easy-to-understand menus with pared-down lists of content aimed at their particular markets.” It noted that T-Mobile has focused on a few key areas of data, introducing T-Zone to help customers find ringtones and screen wallpaper by subject and decreasing the number of steps to take and send photos. Sprint Nextel Corp. is using volunteers to improve user interfaces, looking in particular for ways to reduce and simplify the steps needed to use the features. Some wireless carriers and third-party companies are focusing on voice-recognition technology to lessen the need to type on the tiny cell phone keypads, according to AP. VoiceBox Technologies plans to release a product later in 2006 that recognizes words and context in a customer’s speech to immediately bring them content on their phones.

A Formula for Confusion

“Multipurpose” isn’t necessarily a bad word in ergonomics circles, but applied to cell phones it represents a formula for confusion.

According to a J.D. Power & Associates 2005 survey reported in the May AP article, consumers have shown a growing frustration with how confusing the data functions can be. The market research company reported that in 2005 consumer satisfaction with their mobile devices had declined since 2003, with some of the largest drops linked to the Internet and e-mail user interface.

The AP article recounted the cell phone experience of a Kansas City-area countertop installer who recently traded in a number of gadget-filled phones for a stripped-down model. Nathan Bales said he didn’t like using the phones to surf the Internet, rarely took pictures with it and couldn’t stand scrolling through seemingly endless menus to get the functions to work. “”I want a phone that is tough and easy to use,” said Bales, 30.”I don’t want to listen to music with it. I’m not a cyber-savvy guy.”

One of few makers catering to consumers like Nathan Bales is GreatCall, Inc., a company that is marketing its phone on minimalism – as well as a host of features with strong ergonomic credentials. The company makes the Jitterbug Dial™ and Jitterbug OneTouch™ cellular phones and service. The buttons are big. The screens and text are bright and easy to read. The sound is loud and clear. It’s easy to use for emergencies. Seeing the possibilities of marketing the phone to the over-50s, who are recognized as being unenthusiastic about high-tech gadgetry, Samsung Telecommunications America recently announced a deal with the company that will make the phones available worldwide.

A recent Ergonomics Report® survey of cell phone and carrier retail outlets at a local mall suggests there are many more Nathan Bale types in the market for a stripped down cell phone and that they are unlikely to be directed to the few that are available.

When asked by customers to recommend a cell phone with no “bells and whistles,” the Cingular retailer sells them the Nokia 6061. With multimedia messaging service, organizational tools apart from voice calls, it can’t be described as stripped-down.

The Sprint/Nextel retailer in the same mall sells customers asking for a simple phone the Samsung A640 “because of its user-friendly interface,” she explained. A look at the “mid-level features” listed in the product catalog shows it is far from stripped down. It has a VGA camera with digital zoom and self timer, voice memo recorder and personal organizer.

Using these retailers in a busy mall as an indication, there is a strong market for the stripped down phones. Neither retailer was willing to give numbers, but the Cingular retailer says some 50 percent of his customers ask for simple phones. Twenty-five percent of the rest don’t need and don’t plan to use the “bells and whistles,” he said, but buy the loaded phones because they are “hip.” “Style is in,” he added. “It’s huge.”

The Sprint/Nextel retailer says the majority of her customers ask for  simple phones.

But simple phones don’t appear to be on the horizon. Industry watchers expect P4 phones to multiply the functions on cell phones and deliver them at turbo speeds while cutting users’ tethers to cellular networks.

Reducing the number and variety of features on the phones represents a useful way to reduce some of the confusion, but it is not a path the manufacturers are likely to take. The May AP article points out that the wireless industry needs consumers to be comfortable with its technology and actively use it. Consumers last year paid US $8.6 billion for so-called data features on their phones, up 86 percent from the year before, according to wireless trade group CTIA. Wireless carriers are counting on data services to generate the bulk of new revenue in coming years. The carriers’ investment in expensive networks and technology to make huge bandwidth use faster and easier also requires that consumers buy – and use – all the extras.

While there is so much more money in the extras, consumers can expect to be sold loaded phones whether they want them or not. The main ergonomic effort will be directed towards making the extras more intuitive as a way to coax reluctant users to want and use them.

Sources: Associated Press; c/net; Nokia; Samsung; Motorola; GreatCall, Inc.

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2006-10-18.