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  • Writer's pictureSlashData Team

Why handset OEMs shouldn't mess with UX and other lessons from the automotive industry

[Why are so many phone manufacturers trying to develop their own branded experience? Guest author Thucydides Sigs argues that there should be a limit to UX innovation and looks at what the phone industry can learn from how car manufacturers differentiate]

In Mobile World Congress, during a special panel on “New Devices” Motorola’s VP of software, Christy Wyatt, made an interesting statement: “I don’t want the same phone as my teenage daughter“. This was followed by Ari Jaaksi, Nokia VP of Maemo – nodding his head in confirmation.

Hmm. Last I checked, most soccer moms in the US either use an iPhone or want to get one. Most of their teenage daughters either have one or beg for one. And a surprising number of dads do as well. So why is it that Apple is doing quite well without customizing their iPhone, while Motorola and Nokia make a “Signature experience” such a core components of their strategy?

Before we start, half of the challenge is due to terminology, so lets setup some definitions. For years, OEMs have been trying to create a unique “Branded Experience” that spans multiple dimensions: how the device feels, which functions and services are bundled, how polished the graphics look. Part of this “Branded Experience” is also how consumers launch or switch between tasks, i.e. the “User Interaction model” which is largely dictated by the underlying “Software Platform”.

Most of the major consumer electronics brands have made significant efforts to establish their own “branded user experience”. Lenovo just showed their new U1 Tablet with their own OS and UX during CES, and Dell have been playing with “Dell Experience” on their Linux devices as well.

Nokia, which could have been shipping millions of Android phones today, felt compelled to do their own thing and have been spending hundreds of millions on building their own software and services platform – included the user interaction model, consumer services and branded user experience; making an almost life or death bet that they can become a ‘real’ software company.

The Phone Industry vs the Car Industry So why are so many device vendors chasing this illusive goal? What are they trying to gain? What kind of user experience customization that makes sense for an OEM? And what doesn’t?

To crack this challenge, lets use the car industry as an analogy. Car vendors compete on industrial design, engine and performance, cost, colors, finish, entertainment, comfort and many other factors. But they don’t try to move the gas pedal to the other side just to have their own “Driving experience. Ford or BMW don’t say “We need to create our own driving experiences so we will use a joystick in the center panel and throttle on the door.”

Why is it that the Car industry competes on “overall user experience” but mostly refrain from touching the “User Interaction” model ?

Design constraints Any interaction design is driven by three constraints: (i) The human body physical constraints, (ii) the task at hand constraints and (iii) the established paradigm constraints

First: the human body constraints. How many legs we have effects how many pedals we can use simultaneously. How we sit effects what we can do with our hands vs. legs. Same applies to the phone; the size of our palm, the number of fingers. These physical constraints limit the possible variations of both physical design and interaction design. Sure, you can come up with five pedals but you can’t reach them all at the same time. Or in the phone case, you can create a design with twenty main choices – but you don’t have enough fingers. And then there are the mental constraints of the human mind; how many choices we can effectively deal with at the same time, how we scan from right-to left and top to bottom, etc.

Second: the task at hand constraints. You need to drive the car: control speed and direction simultaneously so you need to access both the steering wheel and pedals at the same time. Same with phones; when phones were used mostly for voice calls, you needed to easily access the 0-9 digits with your right thumb and all phones ended up with the 3×5 key matrix. Nobody thought to customize the experience by providing 0-9 keys in a single row.  Well – Nokia did decide to try a circular keyboard with the 3650 – and it didn’t go that well.

Third: the established paradigm constraints: once a working interaction model is accepted, it reinforces itself as more and more consumers use it. It does not – and often is not – the best possible interaction model. It just needs to be good enough so consumers will keep on using it. And once they do – and more and more users do – it becomes very hard for others to transition to a different paradigm. So even if you have a better user interaction model, it is often impossible to change the dominant existing interaction model (the Qwerty keyboard is a great example here: suboptimal arrangement, but impossible to change the established paradigm). Small tweaks here and there (a la Manual vs. Automatic cars, Mac vs Windows, or Android vs iPhone) are possible – but there is only so much that makes sense to customize.

Android didn’t really copy the iPhone – they are similar because of the human and paradigm constraints involved in small touch devices. Once you design an interface for a four inch touch device, there are not too many different choices. The designs just converge on similar concepts. Attempts to customize the UX beyond that are futile – they result either inferior user experience (because the human or service constraints are ignored) or just don’t get adopted for lack of critical mass.

What actually matters What actually matters for a “branded experience” and where differentiation makes sense – is the services & features. Audi can compete by adopting their automobile industrial design language to the latest fashion, bundling “Services” like  infotainment system or features like ABS. In a similar way, phone or computer vendors can differentiate on slicker industrial design, bundled music or navigation services (Nokia attempts to do with Ovi) or features like inductive charging (Palm).

Instead of OEMs focusing on strengthening their brand by building their own interaction model, they should focus on the consumers (what a novel concept) and what consumers want: which means empowering the consumers to personalize the device to their own needs. This is the powerful role the application store fills and why Apple can ship the same iPhone to the teenage girl, the soccer mom and the business daddy.  Not only is focusing on the services and app store good for consumers, it is also good for the OEMs: making consumers happy is the best thing you can do to strengthen your brand. And – there is a lot to gain by selling real-estate on their app stores: turning them into “Malls” and renting out sections. Turning the OEM into a ‘landlord’ who can ‘auction’ this ‘real-estate’ statically or dynamically to all application developers. VisionMobile have been covering this trend in their annual Mobile Megatrends report.

So why are so many OEMs going down the slippery slope of “Branded User Experience” and end up with their own flawed user interaction model and a large software team needed to keep the effort alive?

The faulty OEM logic First, because they are looking at Apple and getting envious. We industry insiders hate to admit it, but there is a strong Apple envy syndrome in the industry. The OEM false logic is something like this “Apple has high margins, branded user experience and owns the user interaction paradigm. So if we develop our own user interaction and create a branded user experience, we will have high margins”

WRONG: Just pure faulty logic. The fact that lions have a mane does not mean that if you bought a mane wig you will become a lion.  There is much more to Apple’s high margins than owning the user interaction model.

Second, when new usage paradigms emerge, and there is no dominant user interaction model, there are opportunities to innovate and be the first to build the new paradigm.  When the world was dominated by closed source software (the Microsoft era) this offered significant revenue upside.

But we live in a different era – “Open Source” has changed the dynamics of the game. All it takes is that at least one of the software solutions be open sourced, and the upside from controlling the basic interaction model and underlying software platform is minimal or none. The company who leads this effort gets industry recognition, establishes itself as a thought leader and strengthens its brand – but it is no longer a sustainable source of revenues or competitive advantage.  To the contrary; quite possibly, they can turn into the “mule” which guides the rest of the industry and can be embraced and extended.

Motorola’s Sanjay Jha realized this when he made Motorola embrace (and extend) Android. Nokia on the other hand could have been selling millions of fantastic Android phones with Ovi services if it wasn’t for their Finnish pride.

When Microsoft had to fight Netscape in the mid nineties, it has done so by an “Embrace and Extend” strategy. It would be beneficial to many OEMs to remember this and put an end to their mediocre attempts to invent new interaction models. Instead focus on what matters to consumers; great app store, superior services and overall compelling device experience.

– Thucycides Sigs

[Thucydides Sigs – a pseudonym – has many years of experience juggling computing constraints, mobile software and consumers needs. With that said, imagine listening to a violin sonata not know who the artist is or who composed it. You end up having to listen more carefully in order to make a judgment. He can be reached at thucydides /dot/ sigs [at] gmail [dot] com]

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