User story: iPhoning for the first time

User story: iPhoning for the first time


Part of MEX User Stories, an ongoing series of tales about digital user experience in the real world.

“I’m going to get an iPhone,” she said. “I’ve decided.”

She had spent the previous several minutes confiding the woes of her three year old Samsung handset to her colleague. It seemed there was good reason to change. Her current phone had stopped charging some months ago. Ingeniously, she had overcome the problem by swapping her battery into her husband’s identical Samsung each night and charging it there. However, whether by virtue of her husband’s desire this should remain a temporary arrangement or some other motivating factor, she was ready to make a change.

“I know it has to be an iPhone, but you have to tell me what all the numbers mean.” Her colleague, who was seemingly qualified to illuminate the matter by virtue of the iPhone 6S Plus in her hand, began to explain, but was cut off.

“I think there’s one that’s like £600, but obviously I don’t want that. I’ve seen one on eBay for a hundred or so. An iPhone 5 maybe? Some of them have got letters afterwards. I don’t know what it all means, but it has to be a small one.”

As the conversation continued between the two women, both somewhere around mid- to late-thirties, both highly skilled in their respective professions, it became clear this prospective iPhone user had little need for the latest specifications. She had no desire to do much beyond calls and messages. Her interest in the iPhone was driven more by its reputation for simplicity, reliability and something less tangible: the sense that it was the safe choice. At that price, she could relax about the inevitable knocks it would take at the hands of her small children.

The iPhone is currently enjoying a long, drawn out 10th birthday celebration. I wrote about the 10th anniversary of its announcement back in January, republishing and updating my original article from the 2007 launch. Coverage has continued around the web as various other 10th anniversary milestones come and go, such as the date it went on sale. At the same time, the tech industry is dissecting the significance of the recently announced iOS 11 in minute detail. Looking ahead to September, the rumours of the next iPhone are also already in full swing, with every possible specification and design tweak debated ad nauseam across YouTube, social networks and publications.

It has become a product range of such significance that all those in the tech bubble (and if you’re reading this, that probably includes you!) tend to have an unhealthy knowledge of exactly which model does what. However, outside the bubble – in the real world where the overwhelmingly majority of the population reside – an iPhone is regarded as a statement, not a spec sheet.

Apple’s annual portfolio strategy for the iPhone has always stood out for its relative simplicity. Compared to other manufacturers it has offered fewer variants, but supported them for longer and built them in such a way that they remain usable (and desirable) on the second hand market.

Ironically, one of the cumulative side effects of this longevity is an increasingly complex legacy that is at odds with the simplicity of the annual updates. In this story, for instance, we have a user whose needs might legitimately be met by any Apple iPhone from, say, the 2011 4S or a later 5c through to a 6, 6S, 7 or SE. All of these could be found in reasonable supply too, through private seller networks like eBay, or even officially supported channels like the mobile operators who continue to offer models as far back as the 5S.

One of the implications is that Apple has indirectly addressed the burning question which it has officially refused to answer since the very first iPhone was announced 10 years ago: when are they going to build a cheap iPhone? Countless pundits have mulled this missed opportunity to increase market share by offering an iPhone at, say, $100 or $200. However, Apple’s implicit answer has always been the same: never. Instead, they’ve gradually made iPhones accessible to more and more people without ever explicitly cheapening the brand – and they’ve done it simply by creating products which stand the test of time long enough to sell second-hand.

The user in this story will likely become a first time iPhone owner 10 years after the original iPhone launched and she will only need to pay £100 or so to join the club. The perceived value of this second hand or refurbished product will likely be higher to her than any competing product she could afford, even though there are numerous new or second-hand Android phones with better specifications available at the same price.

That feeling of perceived quality – a key part of a user’s overall experience – results from myriad subtle policy decisions within Apple, many of them perhaps never even intended to achieve that outcome.  Chief among them are the focus on a single product story and the patience to nurture it with support, consistency and a commitment to craftsmanship. While it may be the iPhone that’s enjoying all the attention at the moment by virtue of its 10th birthday, those policies are timeless values which can be applied to good effect by any company, in any industry.

Part of MEX User Stories, an ongoing series of tales about digital user experience in the real world.

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