Yes, this whole thing again. Sorta. Bear with me.
The definition of a smartphone (vs. featurephone) is... well it has varied over time. Mobile phones used to be pretty much restricted to making and receiving calls, with a tiny address book to support it. A few had some sort of paging, and eventually real text messaging came about pretty universally.
Then these PDA-phones came out. Which were, well, PDA phones. They added:
- Contacts list (larger and with more fields than a phone address book)
- The ability to synch these to a computer
Sure, some of them had additional features. The one shown above was a Palm, with the ability to take (as I recall) any old Palm III software. But others were sold right alongside with locked feature sets, in proprietary software. And hardly anyone seemed to care.
Today, the definition of smartphone seems to be:
- Identifiable operating system
- Ability to add applications
Which strikes me as awfully technical all of a sudden. I have always been somewhat leery of defining devices by technical features when we're really talking about how consumers use the item. So I wonder how this happened, and do end users really care?
And some recent data reminded me if all this. Some percentage of iPhone users (though 7% sounds low) never install any applications. A huge number download only one. If a key definition of smartphone is downloads, then I ask if those users are really even carrying a smartphone? Sounds like they are perfectly happy with their feature-phones, however hi-falutin' the feature-set is.
The other the stuff that's made me think of this is that I've been observing (and hearing on the radio, and seeing on TV) about what makes a cool phone. When you get past technical (and especially mobile) blogs, magazines and so on, what makes something cool are specific features, or even specific media.
My phone does essentially everything that can be done by a phone (but touch, or have a QWERTY keyboard, if that's really a feature), but one of the few things that makes people go "wow, that's cool" (and then some of them want one) is that when NPR gets lame in the evenings and weekends, I use internet radio to listen to the BBC World Service (and plug it into the car through the lame cassette tape thingy. It involves cables and is semi-kludgy (not sure it would be sillier if I got a shortwave radio and plugged it into the car instead.
And, they don't necessarily want one of my phones. They want: that feature. On their phone, or on something else that meets the rest of their needs, but also has this extra feature. I even did much the same with other devices, some of which had radio transmitters so did it without cables. And they were featurephones. Locked down operating systems, that maybe you can add a J2ME app on top of. If you'd bother to.
A similar focus on features bears out in studies of, say, iPhone users, "the ability to add applications is only the #4 priority for iPhone users, below browsing, e-mail, and 3G capability." (Quote). Browsing, email and "speed" are features. Adding apps is something to enable more features, and not a feature in itself.
While users might get more and more used to downloading to add functions their phones, it will always be an enabling technology. Aside from us phone nerds, who cares about technology and tweaking the UI? Users want performance, utility, value. They want features and functions, and I see that continuing no matter what the future looks like.
Yes, this should be obvious. Design for users. But I am not seeing a lot of it lately. Mobile seems very focused on targeting the experience to the device. Additional cleverness around some device repositories will help with this.
But I wonder if – aside from using screen size to display the best image, and so on – I care very much. Can I really divine anything about a user's context, needs, intent, values, desires, or anything else from device detection?
Of course not. Oh, maybe a tiny bit in aggregate, but whenever I see data there's a lot more correlation between access to this site or that, or through this entry point or the other, than there is for device type. And so I say we need to remember users again. Step back, think hard, and if you have made assumptions about users based on handsets, consider stopping that.
Even if it ends up being true, because you have a limited user base (e.g. a corporate site where executives are issued Blackberries) start with the user. Crack open those UCD books, and come up with at least a few quick and dirty personas. Do task inventories and other things to make sure you are focusing your technical team efforts on the right areas.
As always, keeping the user in mind throughout the design process should help bring you one step closer to success.