Think of how you would call your friend Howard on an ordinary mobile. Not a smartphone but something which is an easy to use mobile.

Switch it on, go to the phonebook, find his name and press call. Simple? Yes but only because you have learnt how to do it. What you have done is a set of learnt procedures and if you haven’t got the background it’s fantastically confusing.

I once lucked out. I was on a senior management course for a major mobile phone manufacturer.It was a two day course and we all expected to have a bit of downtime in the evening. The people running it had other ideas. At the end of the first day we were presented with a table of books and told we had to present a review of one of the books the next morning.

I was too far away and slow. While other snapped up the thinnest books possible I ended up with a chunky tome. As a former journalist I knew how to do a FAB book review. FAB stands for Front And Back. You read the first chapter, the last chapter and skim the middle. Where I thought I got really lucky was that the last chapter was a précis of the rest of the book.

But my real luck was the insight in the first chapter. It was by Prof Seymour Papert and talked about children and technology. He gave the example of a child, a five year old, who would turn on the TV, and the amplifier for the sound,  take a video tape put in the machine, press play and realise it was at the end, then rewind the tape and press play to watch the cartoon. Because this was using technology it was seen as very advanced. Papert pointed out that if the same child had got a glass from a cupboard, taken a chair to the refrigerator taken a bottle of milk and poured himself a glass that doesn’t seem so advanced. It’s actually a much more complicated procedure with balance and judgement decisions, but because we think of technology as being advanced it colours our view on what is complicated.

The hang up button also switches a phone on

Where is the logic in making this the key you use to switch a phone on?

The same is true with your call to your friend Howard. Think about each step. You start by switching the phone on. This is a long press on a button, either on the top of the phone where it’s not obvious or pressing and holding the hang-up key. How is that logical? Hang-up is for ending things not switching a phone on. There is very little chance you could have worked that out if you’d not been taught it. You might recognise the circle an line as an ‘on’ symbol but that’s a long shot.

Then you summon up the phonebook. Usually by pressing the left soft-key to call up a menu or maybe the left soft-key has phonebook already programmed onto it. That’s another cognitive leap. There is generally a theatrical fourth wall between things you do and things you see on a screen so knowing that the word “ph. book”, “contacts” or “menu” relates to the button below it – or sometimes a button a little way away. Or in a couple of examples – the Nokia N-gage and Motorola V.Box a long way away. When you are used to soft-keys there is logic to them, but the odds of understanding if you’ve never encountered them before are slim.

Once you are in the phonebook you’ll find that unless you only have five friends, Howard’s name is off the bottom of the screen. Hmm, that’s an interesting concept: scrolling. How do you know that there is any more to the screen than what you see? Again if you are used to technology you’ll recognise a scroll bar on the right hand side or little arrow at the bottom, but these are still learned behaviours not obvious things, scrolling down and then picking Howard’s name with a third, often unlabelled key is the next learned step.

None of the actions are like anything you encounter in a world outside technology.  For most phone designers this is OK, their users are on the sixth, seventh or twentieth mobile phone. Even if there are new things to learn there is a grounding. But with big button, easy to use mobiles it’s often the users first encounter with these protocols. Better, more natural ways need to be found to do all these everyday things, and failing that you need a superb manual.


Simon Rockman