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What’s News: Function Fatigue and Feature Frustration

As cell phone manufacturers increase the functions that can be performed by cell phones, keeping the user experience simple becomes an ever-increasing challenge. A survey of 15,000 cell phone users conducted by the CMO Council’s Forum to Advance the Mobile Experience (FAME) and GMI (Global Market Insite, Inc.), found that consumers are fed up with the proliferation of features and the challenges of learning how to use them. “Function fatigue and feature frustration” create the biggest barrier to greater adoption of mobile technology.

“Clearly, wireless operators, device manufacturers, and sales channels need to be much more closely aligned and integrated in creating a simpler, more satisfying, and predictable user experience,” noted Dave Murray, director of the CMO Council’s FAME group.

As with the gaming wars (see What’s News item in UX, Issue 6.1), some manufacturers are starting to realize that usability, rather than more features, can be a successful way to differentiate their products.

Apple, which prides itself on usability, made a huge splash with its announcement of the iPhone. It is not the only contender, though. There seem to be two camps in the new approaches to improving cell phone usability: “sliders” and touch sensitive screens.

The iPhone eliminates the confusion of having to press different buttons or combinations of buttons for different features. Instead, it offers unique screen displays for each function. Entirely based on touching the screen to launch and use applications, it is no longer constrained by the need for physical keys on a keypad. Users launch whichever function they need from an initial display with clear graphics and words to distinguish each application.

A modified approach is that of Samsung’s SCH-W559. It also uses touch-screen technology, but it gives tactile feedback in the form of a vibration whenever you touch a key. While they like the concept, some early testers have complained that it does not vary the type of feedback by key touched or even by application in use. They feel that limits the value of the enhancement.

The other main approach to the increasing multi-functionality of phones is to make the phones physically expandable, with the help of “sliders”. Samsung’s F700 has both a touch-sensitive screen and a slider that includes a full Qwerty keyboard for texting/dialing/menu navigation. Because the keyboard runs along the side of the phone, it can be much larger and easier to type on than little Blackberry or Treo-like devices.

Going a step further, Helio’s Ocean phone has a two-way slider. The longer dimension offers a full QWERTY keyboard; the shorter provides a separate numeric keypad.

What remains to be seen is which of these approaches will prove to be easier and more appealing to the majority users. And, for those of us in countries with little competition among cell phone providers, which phones our providers will even let us try!