Thursday, August 03, 2006

Bland Vector

I've just discovered VisionMobile's blog and read some interesting articles, some of which I agree with. Inspiration for this post is from a pair of articles which seem to pull in slightly different directions: firstly the assumption that one day people will be reduced to a brand vector, that is a list of brands which define what they like, and secondly the direction of the Vodafone Simply range.

I've been a fan of the Vodafone Simply concept for a while, and the post points out a few interesting facts - mainly that Sagem may be the nominal manufacturer but they have very little to do with what makes the handset tick, ie. the UI customisation and software which presents the user with a stripped down subset of core functions (voice, text, clock, not much else). The article suggests that, were it not for fashion being the ultimate driver for handset desirability, most people would be happy with handsets that removed 80% of the functions that only 20% (or even 2%) of users actually want. As a developer that scares me but as a UI designer I can't fault it. My takeaway feeling from that is that handset manufacturers have to start doing some serious consolidation work on their UIs - new features are nice, but make what you've got work.

Simply phones address the (large) market segment of users like my parents who want a phone to talk on, and might brave SMS once a year; smartphones running Symbian or Windows cater to subtly different forms of power user; Blackberries cater to those who want no personal space, ever, and so on. These niches still leave a big fat chunk of the market - probably over 60% - who want different recombinations of phone + camera + calendar + browser + MP3 player, give or take, all wrapped up in every permutation of case design that manufacturers can come up with.

If we stick with this 60% we move into the realm of the other article, on brand vectors. This assumes two things which I feel are only partially true:
  1. Users wantt o fully customise every inch of their phones
  2. One day any person will be indexable by the list of brands they follow
The first point seems to run contrary to the assumption laid down in the Simply article that 80% of users would be happy with just texting and voice on their phones. I think a lot of phone users are fashion concious and will want to customise the case of their phone; I think a lot of users want to broadcast their poor music taste to the world with custom ringtones and appreciate tagging different friends with instantly recognisable sounds; and finally I also think a lot of users have reasons for putting custom backdrops on their home screens (for aesthetic, fashion or personal motives). I am not so certain that these users care enough to customise every facet of their phone - maybe a few will hand tune their phones, and quite a few more will download phone UI skins from their favourite brands / artists / whatever, but a lot will just stick with the basics just like they stick with the case they liked in the shop when they bought the phone.

The brand vector concept is sadly likely to come ot pass, but it may not give as much fine control to marketers as expected. I think a lot of fields will need to be nullable - I for example actively search out clothes with no visible brand affiliation, whilst my preference for airline can neatly be expressed as 'cheapest' (including hidden costs - which is why I avoid RyanAir like the plague - does the vector allow for negative associations?). Will brand vectors result in a more granular targeted world, or will we just find most people lumped into categories like they are today, because so many follow basically the same tribal affiliations?

I suspect most people will still end up in coarse groupings, with distinctions being made on sub-categories of the vector - music, travel, fashion - which may often be closely correlated. Some will stand out more, but maybe not enough to justify much content or product customised to their needs that doesn't already exist.

The relevance for phones in all this? I think manufacturers need to consolidate their interfaces, cut the fat out, simplify and generally improve them. This may result in interfaces which can be customised and blended for different market niches - camera users, music users etc - and certainly it will also result in the ability to reskin and fine tune UIs if the customer is interested enough to do so. But to the needs of most users will be best met with simplicty out of the box combined with off-the-shelf fashion skins.

Where does this leave content developers? As a mobile developer, I hope we'll see hooks for properly integrated programmable content (J2ME or whatever replaces it) so users can download the niche killer apps that will work for them, and have quick access to them - when this happens we'll have a trully powerful platform. But currently the trends are diverging and neither looks good - on the one hand simple phones where Java is jettisoned as a preium/complex feature, on the other hand feature phones and smartphones where Java is there but integrated under a growing maze of menus so content is too many clicks away and never used.

Please, someone, draw a line under current mobile UIs, start with a blank page and build a simple, modularised, extensible interface that can be tailored for niches without overwhelming a user. Without it the mobile experience will never fulfil its potential and that will be very sad.