Confessions from the mobile industry

Nokia 6210There’s been an unforeseen consequence of our drive to raise awareness of mobile user experience issues. Since we launched our MEX conference and newsletter to highlight the disconnect between industry thinking and customer reality, random people have started confiding in me. Senior executives from the mobile business, friends, family – old and young – almost all of them have the same confession to make.

They all want a phone from 7 years ago. It has no camera and it cannot connect to 3G networks. There is no Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. The screen is black and white and displays 96 x 65 pixels. The battery lasts for more than a week. Ergonomically, it is typically described as ‘just right’.

The phone they all want is the Nokia 6210.

Its appeal seems to be universal. An older relative is his mid-50s wants one because the keys are easy to press and the numerals on the display clearly visible in most lighting conditions. A friend in his late 20s finds it to be the only phone where the battery lasts for a week of on the road sales.

It was replaced by the 6310 in 2001 and the 6310i in 2002. These later models continued to enjoy mainstream availability until as recently as last year. The 6310i is still available SIM free from specialiast retailers such as Expansys, which charges about GBP 100 for the device when other handsets from this period are considered junk. Indeed, the 6310i remains no. 17 in Expansys’ popularity chart (based on how many people have viewed the product), ahead of newer phones such as the Sony Ericsson W81oi and even Nokia’s own multimedia powerhouse, the N95.

It is, in a word, iconic.

The design is instantly recognisable and conveys a sense of simplicity and functionality which has outlasted the industry’s attempts to introduce ever more complex handsets into the market. It is the perfect phone – the zenith of the manufacturer’s art – for those who just want to make calls and send messages.

Christian Lindholm, who during his time at Nokia pioneered many of the interface techniques used in handsets such as the 6210 and 6310, will be speaking as an independent expert at our MEX conference in London on 2nd – 3rd May. It is testament to the strength of his vision that many of the conventions established in Nokia products of that era have gone on to become the defacto standard across product lines at Nokia and many other major manufacturers.

So what user experience lessons can we learn from the enduring popularity of the 6210 here in the year 2007?

The first and most important learning to take away from this story is that basics matter. Battery life, screen clarity, durability and ease-of-use are the foundations of any great mobile experience. In fact, the recent Global Mobile Mindset survey conducted by GMI for FAME (Forum to Advance the Mobile Experience) found battery life to be one of the top concerns cited by users around the world.

It’s easy to see why. Every handset I’ve owned seems to hold its charge for less time than the previous one. Battery technology simply hasn’t kept up with the development of other features like colour screens and faster wireless data connections. The days of being able to leave your charger behind on a two or three day business trip dissappeared with handsets like the 6210.

We’ll be sharing more of the Global Mobile Mindset findings at the MEX conference as part of our partnership with FAME.

Once you’ve got the basic building blocks in place, you can start to innovate new features. But it’s all too easy to lose sight of when a device becomes so feature heavy it compromises those key requirements.

Lesson two of the 6210 experience: segmentation is never simple. The 6210 appealed across age groups and market segments. It meant different things to different people in a way that never could have been predicted by Nokia’s market researchers. Surveys and focus groups can help give you some of the picture, but there’s often a considerable disconnect between customer reality and what marketeers receive through the filtration process which affects all user research.

If it were launched today, the 6210 would most likely appeal to a group of users who price simplicity above all else. While that’s probably quite a large group, Nokia could address a much wider range of segments if built 6210-like ease-of-use into a selection of devices offering just one other feature and doing it really well. A 6210 with an integrated MP3 player? A 6210 with a high resolution digital camera?

Truly great pieces of technology, such as the PalmPilot, were lauded as much for what they included as what they excluded. Less can definitely be more when you’re trying to address invidual market segments.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, great experiences create powerful loyalties. Handsets like the Nokia 6210 won Nokia a core group of customers who have been unwilling to move to another manufacturer each time they’ve upgraded because they’re addicted to the ‘Nokia experience’. This has enabled the Finnish manufacturer to continue expanding its market share almost every year since then.

Simple experiences can be the richest.

If you do what a customer wants and you do it well, they will value that experience much more than a owning a device with a portfolio of features they never use.

Perhaps companies in the mobile industry need to shift their focus from competing with each other and pay more attention to competing for the customer?

I hope you’ll be able to join us for further debate of these issues at our MEX conference. The event is now just a couple of weeks away and we have just a few delegate places remaining. Please visit the conference web-site for further information and to register.

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  1. 1
    Grant Firth

    Having just moved to a 3G Nokia 6234 I find the small text, small buttons and small text on the buttons very frustrating…. and I’ve got good eyesight. Even more frustrating is that my Palm can no longer talk to the phone for text messaging. I had hoped to leave the phone in my bag an use BlueTooth connectivity.
    There are lots of groovy features to my 6234, but it is pretty fiddley to set up. Although it is nice to see colour pictures I would be happy to have the option of B&W easy to read in sunlight screen.
    It all seems to be a compromise!! As for the Palm… it always surprised me how this captured the market…I still miss my Psion 5mx!! Way ahead of it’s time… wish they start making them again.

  2. 2
    Alex Kerr

    I don’t think it’s about leaving stuff out. I think it’s about the user interface to technology. If you think about it, the 6210 was still extremely complicated in what it did – a telephone on the move, SMS, basic graphics etc. It just has a simple user experience, with the right qualities being emphasised.

    So, take a 6210. For example, just make the screen colour, and higher res. Has that suddenly killed the good qualities, and made the phone a nightmare? No. So add some more while keeping the pure simplicity and not compromising on those features users love.

    The big problem I see with technology these days is geeks are allowed to design and dictate the software. People who code, tech-heads, are allowed to design user interfaces. This should be banned outright. Seriously. They should not be allowed within a 100 miles of a UI. I’m an ex-geek by the way. Apple gets it right because they get non-geeks to dictate the product design, Jonathon Ive and Steve Jobs being the most public ones.

    From a geek point of view, Symbian/S60 is “COOL, MAN”. It gives geeks techno-lust (e.g. N95). From a non-geek, innocent ordinary person, it’s a bloody nightmare.

    I really hope the IPhone’s UI at least (tho probably not the IPhone itself) will lay waste to the current crop of mobile UIs. They need a damn good kick up the backside – to misquote Steve Ballmer – “SIMPLICITY, SIMPLICITY, SIMPLICITY”.


  3. 3

    The article says: –
    Nokia could address a much wider range of segments if [they] built 6210-like ease-of-use into a selection of devices offering just one other feature and doing it really well. A 6210 with an integrated MP3 player? A 6210 with a high resolution digital camera?

    I think this is exactly where you are wrong – all your friends making confessions to you say they don’t want the cameras and MP3 Players, they just want a phone that works.

    Please no more features – it may be very boring for the marketing guys if all the handset does is make phone calls – but that is all I want it to do.

    All these other features get in the way of the core functionality. They clutter the UI, they run down the battery, and they add absolutely zero, zilch, nothing to the basic experience of making a telephone call.

    When will the vendors learn – when will marketeers in general learn – that adding ever more features does not make me any more likely to buy the product, especially when those additional features end up detracting from the core functionality.

    Users (in general) simply want excellence in the core functionality. Make a phone call, use an address book & send occasional SMS texts.


  4. 4
    Jane Vincent

    My own experience with my new Nokia is also disappointing – the battery life is less than half of my last nokia, the colours are too busy, it’s at least twice as many clicks to do the same functions, it has a new charger so none of my old one’s work, it’s a huge disappointment. Our DWRC research has examined some of these issues about how people like to hang on to old ways of doing things whilst embracing the new. It’s the new functions which are exciting and sell the phones – people do want new and different functionality and services. I’ve hardly had a chance the use them because I’ve been trying to work out how to do the basics functions that had hardly changed on the last three nokia models.

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