Article Premise: There are two distinct classes of mobile devices (in terms of the way people use them): lifestyle devices and communicators. Why does this present a problem for manufacturers, and a usability issue for end-users?
I am normally a one-device kind of guy. I rarely even turn on my desktop at home during the week. Since getting a Treo (and having my laptop lose its life), I have found that most of what I’ve wanted to do from a computing standpoint could be done on the smartphone. With the exception of web design and photo processing, I have been pretty happy with the lifestyle that my Treo has enabled for me.
And as I talk to more and more people who want to email, chat, and just be connected on the go, this seems to be an ideal time for manufacturers to create the perfect devices that fit this kind of connected lifestyle. However, this is not the case.
You see, there are some who want to have a sleek and fashionable mobile device. Something that can do messaging and some multimedia, but it has this premise of sitting in one’s life as an accessory. I call these kinds of devices lifestyle devices. If they had a more formal name, we’d probably see it called a feature phone. They are small and fashionable, and to do taxing work on them would be a strain.
Then you have those people who want "a laptop in their pocket" so to speak. They want a device that can do everything and be portable, too. A device that has suitable alternatives to full-scale productivity applications such as Outlook and Word. These devices excel at doing multimedia tasks, but not without some level of technical knowledge on the part of the user; which is not really an issue as these devices are traditionally more expensive than their lower-speced counterparts. I call these devices communicators, because, for all intents and purposes, they excel here in letting people communicate in as many ways as they can imagine.
But There’s a Problem
A problem arises when manufacturers create a device with a specific group in mind, and then the other group takes it and runs with it.
Let’s take the Treo series, for example. It was created and marketed as a communicator device; a device that would fulfill the needs of connecting with people via voice, text, and multimedia as simply and easily as possible. But as people began using the Treo outside of those settings (outside of the office, or out of the reach of work), it quickly became a lifestyle device.
You began seeing Treos being carried about as objects of status, not just productivity. Even now, I know people who have and use Treos, and the most that they do with them is send text messages. They do not even care to know that they can get their email on the device. Yet, they have one because of the aura of what a Treo means – "I’m connected; my lifestyle is such that people need me anytime, and I can handle that."
As a manufacturer that is a complex issue. You’ve created a class for your device, but it straddles the line, or just jumps into the other side. Do you change the product to make it better fit one class or the other? That raises the possibility of making what could be a life-changing product into something that only die-hard fans will appreciate.
And the Problem for Users
What about the end-users? Those of us at the end of the device-chain purchase and use these devices end up with a problem as well.
When manufacturers begin to see that their devices are being used more as communicators or lifestyle devices, they begin to add software and hardware features to "emphasize" that aspect of the mobile device. Communicator devices get smaller, or lifestyle devices gain more [less used] features. Device complexity goes up, and though the price may come down, the device becomes too intimidating to be a big seller.
One issue that I think is very important to touch on is that of the user experience. If there is one thing that people constantly tell me about my Treo is that it "looks too complex." Even for those who have seen ‘Palm Pilot’ devices before, the number of buttons, the size of the device, the clarity of the screen, the fact that there are so many applications, etc.; all of this is a ladder of complexity that users do not want to scale when interacting with a device.
I used to be quite angry when I found out that someone I knew got a RAZR or some other low-end phone when they wanted more, but then realized their point of doing so: they wanted to be mobile and connected, but the devices that did so were too intimidating to use.
So What’s the Solution?
To me the solution seems quite simple: design devices for specific tasks and with the features needed to be best-used, whether it’s a lifestyle or communicator device.
Instead of making devices for price points, make the price fit the device’s use.
Then — and probably just as importantly — design hardware and software around the user experience. If your device is a lifestyle device, then it should be easy to setup an email account on it, but not just on the device, but on a PC that it syncs to or over a web service. If it is a communicator, your device should be packed with the ability to be used hard for the work day – battery, programs, and stability.
Designing for the class of user is a lot smarter and overall more rewarding for all parties, rather than just pushing out something that works.
The mobile device field is becoming a lot like other consumer fields that have matured. There are a deluge of products that fit the need of almost anyone who wants one. And at the same time, there is an overriding sense that nothing yet has hit the mark as the perfect device for all people.
Part of that is because people either want a device to be an accessory to their life (lifestyle device), a connection to people and things in their life (a communicator), or a combination of the both. Sadly, instead of polarizing devices as one or the other, manufacturers are compromising their devices to do both, and thoroughly missing the mark on either.