When usability makes headlines

Recently picked up an article about the usability of a mobile phone setting in the UK quality newspaper the Guardian: iPhone download setting doesn’t stop downloads – and can cost users dear.

The problem it outlines is a disconnect between the mental model of the users (what do I expect this setting to do?) and the mental model of the system (choice of words / interface copywriting, and the way the feature is then actually implemented). If somewhat misleading, it isn’t outright deceptive, and it’s probably an edge case (few people will in fact be affected by the issue).

Morris says that he understood the “Use Mobile Data” switch to control whether apps would be downloaded over the mobile network, and that if it was off that there would be no download.

Why is it news? Because smartphones are used by an increasingly large portion of the population, and because such minute details of the user experience have an increasingly large impact on tangible issues, such as people’s phone bill. (Also, I suspect the Guardian has a policy of vigorously reporting tech issues, perhaps encouraged by the increasingly large traffic they get when covering such topics.)

Another issue highlighted here is a challenge to Apple’s policy of delivering a consistent level of quality across hardware, software, service, and packaging. When interacting with any Apple tool (iTunes, the carrier settings on the iPhone, Spotlight search in OS X, etc.), the experience is supposed to be positive, obvious, and free of surprises.

Obviously, Apple lavished tremendous high-level attention on delivering the perfect experience to AT&T subscribers (activation difficulties around the first iPhone were corrected quite quickly). It then proceeded to replicate this experience with other partner networks across the world, and generally did a stellar job. But managing the experience of such a complex product is a huge undertaking, composed of thousands of tiny interactions that all add up. For example, the issue mentioned in the article above occurs while roaming outside of your home phone network, when starting to download app updates over wifi, and then moving outside of wifi coverage back into 3G roaming.

I suppose roaming is one of the key issues in negotiations between Apple and carriers, which might explain why this feature was implemented differently for AT&T and the UK’s O2 networks. Or it could come from the asynchronous evolution of Apple’s offer in different territories:

That is clearer in the US, where Apple has enabled the iTunes Match service which allows people to synchronise their music libraries with the cloud. There, the setting (which reads “Use Cellular Data” and defaults to off) has explanatory text saying “Use cellular network for iTunes Match and to automatically download purchases.”

As a user of an iPhone supplied by Japan’s au mobile carrier, it seems obvious to me that the feature set degrades the further away you get from Apple’s power base: Siri doesn’t offer directions outside of the US, au was allowed to ship crippled phones that support neither iMessage nor FaceTime (not even over wifi), and neither visual voicemail nor tethering. But within reason, the feature set isn’t the driving factor in picking a product and sticking with it.

Wherever you buy them, Apple’s products still deliver an incredibly pleasing and consistent experience, over time and across generations of devices, across different sales channels and user support touchpoints, as well as across networks and territories. It’s an amazing feat of industrial management, which very few other brands have even attempted. I’m still angry about the ugly duckling offered to me by SonyEricsson and Vodafone a couple years ago — it wasn’t even that bad a phone, but was so poorly put together I sent it back after a week.

As pointed out elsewhere, this extremely polished end-user experience is probably the single most important ingredient in Apple’s ability to command such a large price premium over the competition: all other aspects (hardware, design, software, service, functionality, usability) are matched or topped by other vendors. But nobody else quite knows how to put it together the way Apple does.

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