This entry was posted on Monday, September 1st, 2008 at 12:40 pm and is filed under All Posts, Family and Parenthood, Usability and Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
I’m from Los Angeles. In L.A., we say “You are what you drive.” Sad, but true.
When I was a child, the car was a vehicle. My grandparents had cars (one per family, not one per grandparent) with bench seats front and rear. I climbed in and sat between Grandma and Grandpa, and we talked while we drove. If it got hot, there were these neat triangular vent windows that popped open in back, and roll-down windows that took about five minutes to roll back up (and an equal amount of time to recover from). Maps went in the glove compartment. Eating and drinking in the car were not conceivable.
When I was a teenager, the car had evolved to become a second home. My parents’ cars (one per parent) each had air conditioning, radio with five station memory buttons, power windows, console storage and a cupholder. The map was a fat Thomas Guide stuffed in the seat pocket behind the front passenger seat. That was new, too: the front passengers each had their own adjustable bucket seat (slide forward/backward and recline). We didn’t talk as much together in the car; we listened together to the radio. Usually the driver chose the station, so it was either news radio (both parents), sports, pop psychology, country music, golden oldies (dad), or classical music (mom).
By the time I finished school, the car had become an extension of self, part of a person’s identity. When you got your first drivers’ license, you started thinking about getting your own car. When my dad handed down his (totally cool) car to me, the first thing I did was earn the money to install a cassette player. I didn’t talk to anybody (car phones were so new that I only knew three people who had them, all in their forties), except sometimes my little brother, when I took him to school. When my first children were born, we drove and sang along to tapes and CDs.
Today, car interior design has gone farther than ever in cocooning the individual rather than the group: DVD players front and back, separate headphone jacks, individual climate control (front and back; driver and passenger). Second- and third-row captain’s seats. Cup holders in every door, seatback, and floor panel. iPod and mobile phone jacks. Memory storage of your seat’s height, location, and degree of lumbar support.
“You are what you drive.”
Step back for a moment, and you’ll see that these design trends paint a larger cultural picture. The car has moved from a shared space (bench seats, no entertainment, little customization) to a highly personal space that is unlikely to be shared. When it is shared (for example, in a family mini-van), every effort is made to create as much private space as possible (individual seats, individual climate control, individual cupholders, individual entertainment and entertainment controls).
It’s a very different attitude about the car and how you spend time in it.
To me, it’s speaks of a very Western interpretation of mobility: Freedom, Entertainment, Movement, Privacy, Independence. Mobility = Individuality.
This attitude and the design ethic it inspired isn’t limited to cars. It has been the driving force (sorry) in mobile phone design for years.
Listen to the usability experts up until about a year ago. Everything was about how “personal” the mobile phone is. Studies showing that a high percentage of people don’t feel comfortable sharing their phone, or letting someone even use their phone briefly. The personal messages, notes, contacts, call history, browser history, photos.
Even more, there’s a sort of personal identification and relationship with the phone itself. Going further, your mobile phone number is more meaningful that your social security number — it’s one of your names. Your mobile number represents you, unlike a landline number which represents a location, and doesn’t follow you around.
I have a book here on mobile phones in Japanese life called Personal, Portable, Pedestrian. That pretty much sums up what UI thinkers saw as being important to users.
It’s all true, but there’s a big problem with all this: it’s all based on “Western” cultures. Cultures in which individuality, freedom and personal space are high on the list of life’s priorities.
Paul Adams (User Experience Researcher, Google) at the MEX conference pointed out in his presentation that if you look at countries like India and China, there are people everywhere.
Americans look at these teeming masses and say, “chaos”. But it’s not chaotic to non-Western eyes. What we perceive as “chaos” may be perceived locally as “shared space”. Paul gave the example of Southwest Airlines’ seating system, which for years was a “first come-first served” arrangement, proven to be faster than assigned seating. For Americans, this was perceived as chaotic. We prefer assigned seats because we place so high a value on our unique, personal, private space. It defines us. (Southwest has since changed over to a numbered boarding order — with it’s own adorable website to explain it. Which already tells you something.)
But that isn’t necessarily true of people in other countries, other cultures. What is valuable to one person may be undesirable to another.
Even in our “own” Western culture, feelings about personal space are changing. Definitions of privacy (personal secrets that you share with 800 blog readers…), of space (virtual, real, contained within a particular device or account) are changing.
Spaces that were once shared (eg., living room, public bus) are now personal (iPod as a “sphere of isolation”, killing time with mobile broadband). Spaces that were once personal (eg., Walkman music player, internet browser) are now shared (sharing headphones, Zune WiFi, Facebook Wall, IM, location based services).
I just got a Nokia 1208 as a gift; an upgrade to my Kosher Phone account. (We’ll talk about kosher phones another time. Suffice it to say for now that a kosher phone is a phone with no data capabilities.)
If you’re reading this blog, a dual-band Series 30 phone [bet you thought S30 was extinct in the wild] probably isn’t on your mobile tech wish list. It’s three main selling points are:
* Get instant access to phone features [one programmable softkey]
* Add a little color to your life [lo-res color display and exchangeable color faceplates]
* Monitor and manage your costs [calling card tracking and call timers]
Notable features on the 1208 are an integrated LED flashlight on top (where some phones have the power button or IR window), speakerphone, support for multiple user contact lists, pre-loaded polyphonic ringtones, dust-resistant keypad, durable materials construction with non-slip backing, and a very long battery life (7 hours talk time / 15 days standby).
You may have noticed that the feature set doesn’t exactly match your checklist of phone features. That’s because the 1208 was designed for… well… less-developed countries. Despite the fact that its being sold everywhere (which is pretty interesting), priorities in the design were cost reduction, durability (many users, dusty climates) and sharability (if you can only afford to have one phone per household — or even per neighborhood — then making sharing easier becomes very important).
Which is exactly why the 1208 was on my Wish List; it’s a great example of the new attention being paid to read people, real cultures, real usage needs in the design of products and services. It has taken a long time to recognize that overall, we have enough feature. It’s about delivering them in a meaningful way, and hearing what people truly need.
It’s also about respecting other people enough to accept their own mobile identity definitions and priorities (family, community, participation, responsibility, communication), without trying to impose our “better” systems on them. In doing so, we honor others, while creating new design and product possibilities that benefit everyone.