Apple iPhone brings UX opportunity

Elton Billings  

January 11, 2007

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The Apple iPhone brings a new opportunity for an improved user experience, by reducing the number of “interface designer cooks” in the “user experience kitchen.”

The announcement of the Apple iPhone has caused much excitement. People love the idea of having a single device that integrates many functions. While that proposition is interesting, my own excitement is because it represents a great opportunity for users to have an improved mobile phone experience.

The mobile experience is truly design by committee. The equipment maker creates a physical design for the phone, deciding on things like what buttons to include and the screen size. Then comes the operating system, which may or may not be created by the equipment manufacturer. On top of that, we add a batch of applications for managing certain types of information and controlling various functions of the phone.

The hapless consumer buys one of these handsets and signs up for a set of services provided by a carrier. They also gain access to an array of functionality, such as video or news feeds, that are produced by a variety of other entities.

The end result can be darn confusing. (I am trying to introduce “darn confusing” as a user experience term here.) The user may end up with several ways, or none, to synchronize their phone directory information with other sources. Functionality that should simply be a physical button, such as “mute,” may be buried somewhere in a menu labyrinth. Terminology is inconsistent, with generic and branded names for such basic things as voice mail.

But the Apple iPhone seems to promise a welcome change. Imagine the interface consistency possible when the hardware, operating system, and core applications are designed by a single company. The menus and the buttons might work together to make critical functions readily available. Applications might be fully aware of all handset capabilities. Perhaps there could even be consistent terminology.

Of course, the next logical step would be for Apple to buy a nation-wide mobile carrier to complete the package. This would allow a much more complete, consistent interface for the user by giving control of the end-to-end experience to a single entity. (I think this was one key factor in the success of the iPod.)

I know this runs completely counter to the idea of standards and open systems, and that is a concern. This is a business problem that would need to be resolved. Monopolies are not good for consumers, and even worse for innovation. But where have standards gotten us to date in the mobile experience? The result so far leaves something to be desired.

So, it will be interesting to see if Apple understands this opportunity they have and if they will use it to their full advantage. Something tells me they might. While I don’t have a strong desire to have a mobile phone that plays videos and music, I would love to have a more useful and usable device for my calls.

In the interest of being completely open and fair, I don’t think this idea is a particularly original one, but I can’t remember if it has been mentioned in print, or if I just remember it from discussions with friends. References to similar thoughts are welcome.

BTW, any handset designers are more than welcome to take their next conference call from my house while the dogs belonging to my neighbor to the left voice their displeasure at the demolition crew working on the house to my right. Consider it a quick field study to determine the relative importance of the “mute” button.