Fuss Free Nick makes the grade

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We are very pleased to announce that Nick, the Fuss Free Phones guide dog, has passed his training and is about to start work with his new owner.

Both the owner and Nick will train together to learn about each other before Nick becomes a very different mobility aid to a Fuss Free Phone.

The wonderful trainer Laura sent us this picture and said that Nick had done “Really well in his training” and she added “I am sure that he will make a lovely guide dog and will fit into his new life well”.

We looked after Nick for six weeks at the start of his training with Laura. This was under the boarders scheme where dogs in training live with a family at evenings and weekends while going to one of the Guide Dogs Association training centres during the day. It’s a stage after Puppy Walking where guide dogs live with a family for the first year.

Nick, as you can see is a black Labrador. Guide dogs train a variety of different types of dog, most are Labrador/Golden retriever mixes but they also have Labradoodles for people with hair allergies and some German Shepard Dogs.

Fuss Free Phones likes to think that it makes life easier for blind people by helping the keep in touch with friends and family but you’ll never get an affectionate lick from a Doro.

There is a shortage of people to train guide dogs, we saw just how hard Laura and the London mobility team worked to teach Nick, and all the other dogs.

If you too would like to do you bit you can contact Guide Dogs on their website.

Simon Rockman

You looking at me kid?

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A shot from the sequence in Casablanca with the phrase "here's looking at you kid"

There were four of us in the pub. I was explaining to the other three how the Fuss Free Phones service makes life easy for older people. I explained how it is designed for those who have not grown up with mobile technology. I explained our mantra of “Old not stupid”, that our customers often had been judges, architects and had other demanding jobs but that didn’t mean they should have to know about megahertz and pixels.

And then “the thing” happened. One of the people turned to me and said “Why do you always look at me when you say ‘old people’”.

I was flummoxed. I took a breath, upset at having upset a mate and said ‘because I was taking to you”. I made light of it and we moved on.

But it rankled.

So much I pondered it as I cycled back to the Fuss Free Phones office. And it dawned on me, with his mock offence at being singled out as The Old One he was wrong and so was I. We were both treating age as A Bad Thing. Ignoring the trite “It’s better than the alternative”, old age isn’t a bad thing, it’s a strangely western thing to think so. In many cultures old age automatically confers respect. You might argue that respect has to be earned but in a new setting, giving respect to the oldest person in the room is a good place to start.

A friend who does focus group research once told me that in Japan he had to make sure that all the people in the group were of roughly the same age because if someone was much older than the rest, the whole group would defer to the opinion of the older person.

This is a much healthier way to treat getting older.

Simon Rockman

First Month Free with the RNIB

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Girl looking at the RNIB first month free offer
Customers who buy a Doro 612 and the Fuss Free Phones service from the RNIB will get the first month of service free.

Fuss Free Phones has always offered a 30 Day Money Back Guarantee, but the RNIB takes this a step further, customers who take up the offer will pay nothing for their first month of service with no obligation to continue.
The offer runs from the beginning of November up to the end of the year. Visually impaired people and those buying the service for people with visual impairment qualify for zero rated VAT.
This means a Doro 612 with one month’s Fuss Free Phones service for £66.67 or with a whole year for £230.75, and each month after the initial term will only cost £16.67.

Fuss Free Phones developed it’s special texting service, where we will call customers and read out text messages, especially for the RNIB and through our meetings with the RNIB and other blind users we are developing more services for the visually impaired.

One service which found favour with blind users at the recent Sight Village event is the Landline Trusted Callers list. This technology allows Fuss Free Phones customers to add a Landline to the Fuss Free Phones system. If they then call the call centre from that Landline it’s recognised as ebing the same person with a Fuss Free Mobile and the right Trusted Callers List is shown to the telephonist who can route a call, send a text or look up something on the internet. There is no additional charged for this because at Fuss Free Phones, “Free” is our middle name.

Catherine Keynes

It’s all about the buttons

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Jenson Button Image

No, that’s the wrong sort of Button

The Doro 612 is about to be replaced and at Fuss Free Phones we’ve been thinking hard about what to make our new mainstay easy to use mobile phone.

There are a couple of options, the Doro 6030 and the Doro 6520, and technically they are quite different, but ultimately the most important thing is the buttons.

Doro 6030 and 6520

The Doro 6030 on the left is 2G and cheaper, the more expensive 3G Doro 6520 on the right will find a signal more eaily.

Sony Walkman phone the W880

The Sony Ericsson W880 was sold more for playing music than for ease of use.

Perhaps the most important thing when we look at a new phone is the buttons. While most of the phone world vexes over processor speed, camera resolution and internet speed we are more pragmatic. We want a phone that is easy to see, easy to hear and easy to use.
Making an easy to use mobile phone is very much about the buttons.
Our phones are often called Big Button phones, and the Doro 6520 having smaller buttons might be seen as a retrograde step, but there are subtleties to buttons which mean, as they say, size isn’t everything.
What matters is spacing. I’m indebted to work done by usability expert Steve Herbst, who worked on simple mobile phones at Philips and at Motorola. His research determined that what matters most is not the size of the buttons, but the distance between button centres. So a phone like the Sony Ericsson W880 which has tiny buttons isn’t as awkward to use as you’d think if your only metric was the size of the actual button.
Other factors which matter are having a contrast so that you can easily see where one button ends and the next begins. Known as “island keys”. Indeed Doro once made a bit of a mistake. For a long time the mainstay easy to use phone for Fuss Free Phones has been the Doro 614. We carried on selling it long after everyone else discontinued it and this, in the main, was down to the buttons.

Doro 622

The Doro 622 made buttons bigger and reduced useability

Doro replaced the Doro 614 with the Doro 622. This had bigger button but did this by removing the space between the buttons. Worse they made the text black on white. We didn’t like this.
As we get older our eyesight starts to go. That “getting older” starts at twelve! Your eyesight is most acute before you are a teenager. It’s all downhill after that.
One thing which happens is the way we see brightness changes. In our vision white bleeds into black. So when you look at black text on a white background the white impinges on the black and makes the text seem lighter. Put white text on a black background and the image seems to get larger.
This is counter-intuitive to designers who, are taught the opposite. When you learn about designing for print you are taught that “white-out” text needs to be 10% bolder than black on white but this is down to the history of print. Before paper was blade-coated in a thin layer of white clay, it was very absorbent. This meant that text grew when it was printed. Some fonts take this into account.
So rather than move to the Doro 622, we bought all the remaining Doro 614 phones the company had in the UK. In time Doro replaced the Doro 622 with the Doro 612 and we’ve slowly moved to that. We do have an affection for the 614 because it’s an early 3G phone. This gives it particularly clear sound and is very good at holding onto a signal.
So in the move from the Doro 612 we are very pleased to see that both the Doro 6030 and the Doro 6520 have island keys with white text on black buttons. We prefer the Doro 6520 because it comes with a docking station and is 3G, but ultimately we’ll be very happy to support both.

Simon Rockman

Google disability event

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Cartoon man with a wlaking frame and smartphone

The Google Campus in London is playing host a conference run by Beit Issie Shapiro, an Israeli disability organisation, to look at how to allow more people to enjoy the wonders of mobile tech. And it’s holding a conference to amass ideas from people who’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to do this. Even better, some of them have ambitious actions in train.

There is a general problem with designing mobile phones known as the “usability knee”. That is if you make a phone very simple, with only a few button it then becomes much harder to add features. Having to press one button three times and another twice to get to a little used function isn’t simple.

The alternative is to have a button for each function, but pretty soon the phone is covered in choc-a-block buttons. This might be appealing for Google which names its software after confectionary but is very confusing to use.
Fuss Free Phones makes mobiles simple by having a telephonist to help you summoned with the press of a single button. That person can connect your call, send a text, read out an incoming text, look up things on the internet and have the telephonist block nuisance calls.

Using a person to do all the things that people find complicated with phones is, in the minds of geeks, cheating. Google wants the phone to be smarter and work in a way that people with disabilities can cope with.
To this end The phone's camera tracks the user's head movement, which acts as a navigational device.

And Google is looking for more ideas and so has invited Beit Issie Shapiro along with some of the leading thinkers in technology and disabilities to Google Campus London, a short walk from the Fuss Free Phones office, for a lively discussion about the power of assistive technology for people with disabilities. The event takes place On Tuesday, 1st November at 5:30pm
The panel, led by some of the industry’s most prolific thinkers in this area will cover today’s global landscape of assistive technologies, including smart mobile technology and technical adaptations. They will discuss the various ways in which technology improves the well-being and social inclusion of people with disabilities and their families.

Beit Issie Shapiro is a world-renowned charity based in Israel that leads the development and provision of therapies and state-of-the-art services for children and adults across the entire range of disabilities. Reaching 30,000 people in Israel and thousands of others across over 27 countries, BIS shares its knowledge and innovations globally through international affiliations, education and training programmes, including with Google Israel. BIS has Special Consultative Status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

There will be a panel session hosted by Saul Klein OBE, who co-founded Lovefilm International (acquired by Amazon) and was also part of the original executive team at Skype. Most recently he co-founded Kano and Seedcamp. On his panel will be Jean Judes the CEO of Beit Issie Shapiro, Ben Robins a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Hertfordshire Adaptive Systems Group, Haqeeq Bostan the Communications Director, Health and Wellbeing for PIPs at Capita, and Jamie Munro a Senior Trainer in Inclusive Technology.

It’s free and open to all, you can get tickets here.

Why are mobile prices going up?

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A row of phones

Fuss Free Phones has a standard tariff of £20 a month for 600 minutes. It’s not a contract and you can leave at any time. We never charge more without asking first. We think charging is all about making sure your battery will power your phone, not how to get more money out of you.

Some time ago there was a brouhaha over mobile networks tying people into a contract and then putting up the price.

Fuss Free Phones doesn’t do any of these things. We don’t have contracts, we don’t tie you in and most of all we don’t put up prices.

When people complained about what the other networks were doing they reached an accommodation with Ofcom: price could go up but only in line with inflation. This was deemed “not increasing the price”.

But we keep things much more simple than that: no price rises.

It’s not the way other networks behave. Anyone on an EE tariff will recently have had a letter explaining that the prices are going up, by as much as 60 per cent. And Vodfone has increased prices too.

This is a very strange thing to happen for a number of reasons.

Mobile phone call costs don’t generally go up. A major cost in running a phone network is computer power and that just gets cheaper and cheaper. When I was a kid, in the late 1970s  I had a home computer and bough 24k of memory for it because it was a bargain price of £1 a kilobyte. Now memory costs £1 for 3 Gigabytes. That’s three million times cheaper. Hard disks have been even more spectacular and processor power and internet bandwidth have all got cheaper and faster.

Another reason that it’s strange that EE has put its prices up is the lack of inflation. The traditional reason that things get more expensive is that they just do. Inflation means that everything costs more and everyone gets paid a little more.

But we live in a strange time of almost no inflation. Maybe fractions of a per cent, certainly not the 60 per cent EE customers have just got wind of.

But most surprising of all is that when BT bought EE the company didn’t see price rises coming. Indeed it expected the opposite – prices falling. When BT was asking shareholders to recommend the deal the advice was to expect prices to fall.

In a document sent out to shareholders prior  to a meeting on Thursday 30 April 2015 to agree the purchase  BT said

“Increased competition has led to a decline in the prices which EE charges for its mobile services and is expected to lead to further declines in pricing in the future.”

So what has happened to give BT the space to do the opposite? It’s a lack of competition. And this is an un-intended consequence of Ofcom trying to drum up more competition and failing.

The event BT was looking at which it expected to drive prices down was the merger of O2 and Three.

The Spanish owners of O2, Telefonica, want to sell the company. There is more opportunity for them in the South American market and to compete in the UK needs to combine fixed line, broad band and television with mobile. This was not something Telefonica wanted to do. So the deal was agreed with Three, a bunch of people were told that their services were no longer required and Telefonica looked at what to do next.

But then Ofcom stepped in and said that dropping from four networks to three in the UK would be bad for the consumers (and I’ve strong views on why it did this), and even got the European commission on its side.

The result was both O2 and Three not really having their heart in the market and certainly not in the business of cutting prices to compete, especially if the deal might go through and they were just stealing customers from each other.

The only other player, Vodafone, has offered great deals but being beset with both technology and process issues in its customer services it’s been losing customers faster than it’s been gaining them. And has even increased some roaming and picture messaging prices.

So suddenly BT found itself in a place where it didn’t expect to be: able to put up prices. BT is wringing profit out of Ofcom’s Failure.

Here at Fuss Free Phones we won’t do that. We don’t even do the Ofcom approved thing of increasing prices in line with inflation. That’s not to say that our price will always be £20 for 600 minutes, with our telephonist service and the unique no-nuisance calls it’s very hard to do a price per minute comparison, but what we won’t do is tie you into a contract and then change the price.


Simon Rockman

So, it’s not just us (2)

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GoGoGrandparent's webpage

Fuss Free Phones uses humans as the killer app. Our friendly telephonists bridge the technology gap by helping callers out on the phone.

It seems that we are not the only company to have thought of this. The California based  GoGoGrandparent lets people without smartphones use on-demand services like Uber.  Much like the Fuss Free Phones telephonist the company uses real people to answer the phone and provide a service.

The difference however is that while Fuss Free phones makes using a mobile phone simple, GoGoGrandparent makes Uber easy.

When the customer calls GoGoGrandparent the telephonist books an Uber for the customer. For regular journeys there is an automated system, and while this goes against Fuss Free phones philosphy (we don’t have any automated systems) we can appreciate that it’s right for plenty of people as they can have an Uber by just pressing 1 and the GoGoGrandparent system knows where they live or where they have just traveled to.

While Fuss Free Phones is for people who find all mobile phones too, well, fussy, GoGoGrandparent is more for people who find smartphones overly complex.

But there is a lot of similarity between the motivations of the two companies.


Simon Rockman


So, it’s not just us

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This sign on a bus stop vents anger at nuisance calls

Fuss Free Phones created it’s No Nuisance Call service to help customers feel more confident using a mobile phone.

We knew that the big button mobile phones we sell are easy to use, easy to see and easy to hear, but we also know that many people find nuisance calls intimidating. And if we want customers us use their Fuss Free Phone regularly they need to keep it on and keep it with them.

Solving the nuisance call problem was part of our overall package of mobile phones for seniors. But it is clear nuisance calls have become  a plague, and this is demonstrated by a leaflet sellotaped to a bus stop not far from the Fuss Free Phones office in Old Street. Maybe a little more punctuation would have helped and learning how to spell “bane” would have given it more credibility but the low production values and extensive use of capital letters add a certain dynamic which chimes well with the message. At least we’ve been saved the over-use of exclamation marks.

We hate nuisance calls but it’s good to know that it’s not just us.

Simon Rockman

The Fuss Free Phones Guide Dog

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Meet Nick. The Fuss Free Phones Guide Dog.  Through the work Fuss Free Phones has been doing with the RNIB we’ve got to meet a lot of guide dogs and they are great to be around.

Our work with blind people as Fuss Free Phones customers has taught me that while an easy to use phone with a personal service and telephonists can be a massive aid to independence there are other aspects of life that even a simple phone can’t solve.

The people who work with guide dogs describe them as a “mobility aid”.

At the recent Vision Strategy event I met someone from The Guide Dogs Association who explained that when dogs are not in school they live with a family. To Nick is not a sponsored dog but a boarder.Guide Dog Nick

The best known way this is done is Puppy Walking, and that’s what Emily, the telephonist you see on the right of this page with the caption “A Personal Touch”. She puppy walked a dog called Harley.

Nick is a bit older than a puppy walked dog. He’s been through ten weeks of training at The Guide Dogs association and is now in advanced training at its centre in Euston.  I drop him off for school in the morning and then come to work at Fuss Free Phones which is ten minutes away. Then at the end of the day I pick him up and take him back to my home.

It means that I get to enjoy having a dog when I’m not at work and don’t have to worry about leaving him during the day.  It does however mean that I’ll only be with him for a few months before he goes off to work with a client.

I’ve also got to realise that Nick can’t be treated the way I would a pet dog. He’s not allowed treats at the table, to scavenge for food, upstairs at home or to sit on the furniture.  The blind client he goes to live with later may make different decisions but I’ve got to re-enforce the training the Guide dogs association gives him and that’s my little way of “putting something back”.

One of the advantages of having a guide dog in training is that I will be able to take him into places like shopping centres which usually band dogs. While they have to take guide dogs, a trainee, without a harness, is only allowed in under goodwill but who would turn down a cute Labrador?


Simon Rockman

London Tube leaves blind users in the dark

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And it’s the fault of technology

A Tfl help point with the caption "not working"Thanks to training I’ve had with the Guide Dogs Association I was able to help a blind user on the tube last night. I’m planning to become a guide dog boarder, looking after a dog in training when it’s not at school The training day at Euston was wonderful and uplifting.

The Association had a lot of praise for Transport for London. But my experience last night shows a combination of station staff cuts and failure to understand technology has left the service wanting for visually impaired people.

I got off a train at Finchley Central station last night and saw a man with a white stick, I felt  excited for the opportunity to put my guide dog training into real live use. When I greeted him in the way I’d been taught he said: “are you station staff”, which I took to mean I’d got things right. I explained that I was a Guide Dogs Volunteer and took him to his platform.

That’s where it all started to go wrong. We’d been taught that a member of staff at the departing platform could radio ahead to have someone meet a blind person at the other end and greet them. So I took my new friend to the information button and pressed Emergency. This was a mistake. I should have pressed the Information button! A loud alarm went off. “Well” said my friend, “At least they will get here faster.”

Cute guide dog puppyThey didn’t.

We waited, and kept waiting. Eventually I went off to look for someone – letting my charge know what I was doing.

The only person working at the station was struggling to cope with customers who couldn’t use the machines, and other things requiring her attention. She’d not heard the alarm and when she finally agreed to come help the blind customer, he had gone.

This has wider implications. Not just that Transport For London was letting down blind customers, and there would be no one to help at the other end, but that anyone could have had an emergency and pressed the button. A passenger on the track, heart attack, or a rare Abra Pokemon in the waiting room!  And no one would have come.

So this morning I spoke to the station staff as a kind of post mortem. I explained that I worked for Fuss Free Phones, which has a service which makes mobile phones easy to use, with big button phones, and that I had been to The Guide Dogs Association for training.

The staff were sympathetic and explained that when someone presses the alarm button it first rings in the station office. When it’s been ringing for two minutes the call goes through to a central control room. Unfortunately the staff are prohibited from going into the office so they will never hear it. In this case the central control room didn’t respond either. Perhaps they looked on the CCTV and saw no one there, perhaps they didn’t. Whatever the case they left the alarm ringing.

Lady with white stick on tube escalatorI can understand that the move to oyster cards and contactless credit cards has meant the demise of ticket offices. And I can understand the customer service benefits of insisting that staff are always out and about, not sitting in the office.

What I can’t understand is why Transport for London has let the emergency link fall in a hole. Transport for London has a network-wide communications system called Connect. It’s old and creaking – having been conceived in 1999 – but it works. There is no, technical reason why  the emergency button on the platform could not be linked to it. Connect uses the same TETRA  technology as is used by the emergency services. It’s got all kinds of elegant systems to instantly call one person or a group of people. There is no reason why the button on the station platform could not be in multiple groups which signaled all the people who were on-duty at Finchley Central, all the people on nearby platforms and a central emergency center all at the same time.

This might be over the top for just one blind person needing to get off at right place at their destination stop, but then I’d pressed the Emergency button, not the information one. That could be linked to fewer, more relevant users, maybe just the people at that station or a central information person looking after the whole network.

As the founder of Fuss Free Phones I have 20 years experience in the mobile industry and in the past few years have been tailoring my product to meet the needs of blind people as well. Fuss Free Phones is working closely with the RNIB to provide its easy to use mobile phone service to blind users. Blind users are often not able to use the latest smartphones and require a more tactile and more intelligent solution. AI is not quite there yet.Guide dog user on the underground

I have been researching the needs of the older users for more than 15 years, but our work with the visually impaired is new ground.  I do have a little insight however; one day I woke up  without vision in my left eye. Thanks to the team at Moorfields Eye Hospital, my retina was reattached within the day. However, this experience was invaluable as it save me a taste of how frightening it might be to lose my sight. With Fuss Free Phones blind people can use a mobile phone and by pressing a big button be connected with a human telephonist around the clock. The telephonist manages a directory, screens inbound calls, connects outbound calls, and sends and receives texts. This person can look up any information on the internet and provide real help if needed.

Our blind and visually impaired customers love the service. We regularly receive phone calls telling us how liberating the service is, providing freedom and peace of mind. We’ve even had forms back with smiley faces drawn on them. I bet the other networks don’t get that.

Simon Rockman

Note: If you want to get involved, Guide Dogs For The Blind, in addition to running the dogs department, also teaches sighted people how to lead the visually impaired. It’s worth watching their videos so that you know what to do to help a blind person.