One of the many possible views of mobile technology today shows that people like the features of newer mobile devices, but they won't upgrade to it because they are more comfortable with what they already own. We can make the argument that it is not so much the new features that people want, but they want something nice and familiar.
This even seems to be the case with many seasoned mobile device users who prefer older devices (even from the same company) compared to newer ones that offer the functionality they want, but do not have the same "feel" they are used to.
Now, we can argue a lot about the operating systems, hardware, and even software that accompanies a device. But when it comes down to it, the moment that a device gets into our lives, if it doesn't fit how we think it should be used, it is no better than the wrong sauce on top of our favorite dish: looks good, smells good, but just doesn't taste quite right.
So What Does this Mean in Terms of Usability?
Usability means being comfortable with both the brand and function of an item. Making sure that it functions right is an important part of making the jump to a new device, but another part is keeping consistent with what we know and like best about the product being replaced.
For example, I am reminded of a person who had a Treo 650 and, after finding that their needs for mobile computing changed, purchased a Cingular 8125. The user wasn't happy with it and went back to the Treo 650. The person could not understanding why, with the increased functionality of the Windows Mobile device, it was not working for them. When the Treo 750v was released, the person switched to using it, and loved it. They found that it wasn't the Windows Mobile operating system that had been the problem, it was the usability of Windows Mobile on the 8125 that was the issue. Using the Treo 650 gave this person an expectation on how a device was supposed to work. The Treo 750v took what that user knew about the 650, and gave them the productivity that they desired with Windows Mobile. Hence, a good dish was served for this person.
His perspective of usability is that anything that improves his productivity has to be easy to use and manage, and have little administration time in maintaining that productivity. The 8125 was not designed for this "type" of user, and therefore, despite the brand awareness, the user was frustrated. If you will, he got the shrimp alfredo; but, the sauce, while looking right and smelling nice, altered too much of the taste for the dish to be well received.
Start With Something Familiar and Add to It
Palm is using Windows Mobile in some of its Treos, but it added usability and other tweaks to the default operating system to more closely align the Windows Mobile experience with the experience that was already established and lauded on the Palm OS Treos. Usability and productivity increased because the environment, while different, was familiar had enough that a person would be less intimated by the abilities of Windows Mobile, but encouraged to move on past the "no longer working for them" Palm OS Treo.
Other companies do this with their applications: Microsoft with Windows Vista, Office 12, and Office Live; as well as Google's and Yahoo's suite of web applications. The key is making sure that a user gets something that they are familiar with, while also offering them something that is a step above and beyond what they are used to.
Therein lies the secret sauce of usability for mobile devices: making a device familiar and functional without being intimidating. This type of designing for usability is a heck of a thing to associate with a device, and if you can do it across various operating systems, applications, workflows, etc. it makes for a compelling product.
Even better, if you can improve the quality of life of the user because you have improved its usability and functionality without making using the device an overwhelming paradigm shift, then you have not only gained a customer, but a spokesperson towards the sauce (the device, service, etc.).
It was never about the spaghetti, as Prego would say; it was about the sauce and how just going into it like you would any another sauce will lead you into a taste that is clearly better than the rest. For mobile technology to get past the point of first-adopters and into the hands of more mainstream users, this is the way to go.
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