Some cell phone owners spurn gadgetry By DAVID TWIDDY, AP Business Writer
Nathan Bales represents a troubling trend for cellular phone carriers. The Kansas City-area countertop installer recently traded in a number of feature-laden phones for a stripped-down model. He said he didn't like using them to surf the Internet, rarely took pictures with them and couldn't stand scrolling through seemingly endless menus to get the functions to work.
"I want a phone that is tough and easy to use," said Bales, 30. "I don't want to listen to music with it. I'm not a cyber-savvy guy."
But the wireless industry needs him to be comfortable with advanced features and actively use them. As the universe of people who want a cell phone and don't already have one gets smaller, wireless carriers are counting on advanced services to generate the bulk of new revenue in coming years.
Consumers last year paid $8.6 billion for so-called data applications on their phones, up 86 percent from the year before, according to wireless trade group CTIA.
But they've also shown a growing frustration with how confusing those added features can be. A J.D. Power & Associates survey last year found consumer satisfaction with their mobile devices has declined since 2003, with some of the largest drops linked to user interface for Internet and e-mail services.
That has providers working hard to make their devices easier to use - fewer steps, brighter and less cluttered screens, different pricing strategies - so consumers will not only use data functions more often but also be encouraged to buy additional ones.
For Sprint Nextel Corp., the process begins in a suite of small rooms on its operations campus in suburban Kansas City.
On one recent day, a trio of researchers watched through one-way glass and overhead cameras as a volunteer navigated her way through a prototype program that lets parents set limits on their children's phone use.
The observers monitored how many steps it took for the woman to make the program work, how easily she made mistakes and how quickly she could get herself out of trouble. The results could be used to further tweak the program, said Robert Moritz, director of device development.
"If you bring somebody in and they have problems, it's not because they're dumb, but we were dumb with the design," Moritz said, adding that the lab typically tests devices and programs with up to 50 users over three to nine months. The company also uses focus groups to determine what people want from their phones and what they say needs fixing.
The results of those studies can sometimes push back the release of a product. For example, Michael Coffey, vice president of Sprint's user-experience design, said the company delayed releasing its walkie-talkie Ready Link service for about a year after testers said they didn't like the short delay between when the user pushes the button and the recipient answers.
Coffey said the testing is worth it because ease-of-use can be a competitive edge.
"IPod was not the first MP3 player on the market, but once they figured it out (the user interface), they became the predominant one overnight," he said. "Whether you make it a marketing message or not, the public will discover that usability and choose your product over a competitor's."
So far, Sprint Nextel is doing something right as its subscribers spend the highest average amount for data services in the industry.
"We believe there's a strong correlation between our standard of success and how usable the products are," he said.
The other major wireless providers use similar techniques to improve their devices and programs.
Cingular Wireless, the nation's largest wireless provider, developed MEdia Net, which allows users to personalize their phones for using the Internet, downloading ringtones or getting e-mail.
Verizon Wireless has V-Cast, a service that makes it easier to download music and video. The company has also pushed designs that allow users to accomplish many things with one button press.
"It's not fun to download a ringtone and have to figure out how to get that on your phone," said Verizon spokeswoman Brenda Ramey. "We do not shy away from testing. If the device or service doesn't work, it's a reflection on our network."
T-Mobile also has focused on a few key areas, introducing T-Zone to help customers find ringtones and screen wallpaper by subject and decreasing the number of steps to take and send photos, for example.
"Communication and personalization will continue to be the driver for phone use," said Michael Gallelli, director of product marketing at T-Mobile.
Industry experts say the companies understand the stakes involved in making sure their designs attract customers and keep them loyal.
"Five years ago, I wouldn't have seen a commercial from Cingular that you can customize your layout," said David Chamberlain, principal wireless analyst for research firm In-Stat. "To think that they're putting this kind of effort into the interface is welcome news."
How well they're doing is a different matter.
Some analysts pointed to phones from niche providers, such as youth-oriented Amp'd Mobile and sports-centric ESPN Mobile, as good examples of intuitive design, marrying easy-to-understand menus with pared-down lists of content aimed at their particular markets.
But Roger Entner of the market research firm Ovum said none of the major carriers impresses him. He says most of them are trying to replicate how people use personal computers instead of coming up with a new approach.
"What do (customers) do best on the phone? They talk. What do they do worst? Type. Why is every user interface based on typing?" Entner said. "Right now, the software developers take advantage of every weakness a device has and none of the strengths."
Some wireless carriers and third-party companies are experimenting with voice-recognition technology. Kirkland, Wash.-based VoiceBox Technologies, for instance, plans to release a product later this year that recognizes words and context in a customer's speech to immediately bring them content on their phones.
Charles Golvin of Forrester Research said a recent survey indicated few cellular customers choose a phone based on its usability, typically because they either don't think there's anything better or, like Bales in Kansas City, don't think they need those services.
But Golvin said for the market to truly grow, the programs and phones themselves are going to have to become more graceful and not just the purview of tech-junkies.
"Early adopters are less retarded by the user interface," he said. "As we're moving from the early adopters to the more mainstream customers, it will make a huge difference."
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
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