British children are enjoying their half-term holiday this week. Without the school run, the roads are quieter in the mornings. The trains from my station on the Norfolk coast, however, are busier with families heading to London and Cambridge for day trips.
The mother was sitting on her own. Her daughters – 7 and 10, I’d guess – occupied the pair across the aisle. Mum wore sunglasses perched on her head and a neckerchief fastened at her collar. Standard uniform for a well-heeled lady from the country on a day in the ‘big smoke’. They were on their way to a matinee show in London’s West End theatre district.
Almost as soon as they’d boarded the train, the mother was reluctantly persuaded to give up her iPhone 6.
“Put it into aeroplane mode, please.” She asked her daughters. “Do you see the little icon?”
“Yes Mum!” The daughters replied in unison. “I can see the aero-plane,” the older of the two sighed, stressing the ‘aero’ part, as if to suggest there was nothing more obvious in this world for a 10 year old than enabling flight mode. I found myself wondering how many flights she would have taken in her 10 years on the planet. Her younger sister giggled, while Mum gave a resigned look.
It’s an example of how language and features are subverted as product categories mature. They evolve from nomenclature inspired by real world scenarios or engineering terminology to become terms employed by users who have little exposure to their original context. Flight mode originated for travelling business executives to satisfy airline safety requirements. Now it’s used by 10 year old girls to preserve Mum’s iPhone battery.
A separate user conversation I had recently presented an alternative perspective. This person equated ‘aeroplane mode’ with limiting access to downloadable content, such as their email or unsuitable web-sites, when handing over their phone to someone else. In turn, they knew someone who used it interchangeably with ‘silent’ mode, when they found themselves in a quiet place where they had to make absolutely certain their ‘ringer’ couldn’t sound.
“If it gets to 70 percent battery, I want you to stop playing your game,” Mum added and both daughters rolled their eyes.
They were playing Minecraft. More accurately, the elder of the two was playing Minecraft, while the younger made increasingly vocal suggestions on strategy. “No, you need to do the cobblestones!” She cried, her voice rising as she made her views known on the folly of her sister’s tactics.
“Tell her to stop controlling me!” The older sister nagged her mother.
“Remember where you are,” Mum told them. “How many people on this train do you think want to hear you arguing?”
“Right, Lucy, you come here and do something constructive. There’s something a bit mindless about sitting watching someone else play Minecraft,” the mother told her younger daughter. “Why don’t we do one of your word puzzles, then we can swap over and you can use the phone.”
The industry tends to correlate shared usage scenarios with larger devices like tablets and PCs. It is among those classes of device where multi-user features often debut, but it is a behaviour affecting smartphones too, especially as screen sizes push past 5 inches.
We explored simultaneous multi person usage (SMUIs) within the MEX community several years ago, driven mainly by early behaviours we observed among first generation iPad users. As screen sizes increase and the age (and finger size!) of users decreases, whose to say we shouldn’t regard larger smartphones as devices potentially used by multiple users, either simultaneously or in sequence?
Lucy reluctantly joined her mother, leaving the older sister free to pursue her own path in the virtual world of Minecraft. At least, within the implied constraints of using her Mum’s phone.
“Can you try not to get that all sticky please?” Mum added, as she noticed her daughter was now multi-tasking between a mid-morning snack and the touchscreen of her £500 iPhone.
Watching this scenario play out provided a reminder of how external factors, often overlooked, govern the context of use. There was a hierarchy of user experience in evidence: first and foremost, the iPhone was Mum’s safety net – the device which was going to keep her connected on a day in the city with her daughters. Her limit on game play – ‘stop when you get to 70 percent battery’ – tells us about her priorities. It also tells us about her past experiences and resulting concerns: the iPhone’s battery cannot be trusted to last a full day out, so activities must be rationed accordingly.
Look deeper and there are other market drivers here. Would there have been fewer arguments if both daughters had phones of their own? What degree of parental oversight and cost barriers would need to be overcome for Mum to be persuaded this was a better idea than rationing out her own iPhone?
Consider also the language of Mum’s attempt at diplomacy. ‘Something constructive’ was her goal for her younger daughter. Minecraft, presumably, fit this category, but ‘watching someone else play Minecraft’ did not. What does this tell us about parents’ concerns over the ‘mindlessness’ of digital services and their desire for more creative options than simply consuming video content or casual games?