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Building a better cell phone

Wireless providers are working hard to make their devices easier to use so consumers will not only use data functions more often but also be encouraged to buy additional ones.
Cell phone users have embraced taking photos from their photos, as Aaron Wasserstrom of Miami did here before the Final Four earlier this year. But wireless providers want them to do much more.Mark Humphrey / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Nathan Bales poses a troubling trend for cellular phone carriers.

The Kansas City-area countertop installer recently traded in a number of gadget-filled phones for a stripped-down model.

He said he didn't like using the phones to surf the Internet, rarely took pictures with it and couldn't stand scrolling through seemingly endless menus to get the functions to work.

"I want a phone that is tough and easy to use," said Bales, 30. "I don't want to listen to music with it. I'm not a cyber-savvy guy."

But the wireless industry needs him to be comfortable with its technology and actively use it. Consumers last year paid $8.6 billion for so-called data features on their phones, up 86 percent from the year before, according to wireless trade group CTIA.

As the universe of people who want a cell phone and don't already have one is getting smaller, wireless carriers are counting on data services to generate the bulk of new revenue in coming years.

Consumers, however, have also shown a growing frustration with how confusing those added functions can be. A J.D. Power & Associates survey last year found consumer satisfaction with their mobile devices had declined since 2003, with some of the largest drops linked to user interface on Internet and e-mail.

That has providers working hard to make their devices easier to use — fewer steps, brighter and less cluttered screens, different pricing strategies — so consumers will not only use data functions more often but also be encouraged to buy additional ones.

'Public will discover that usability'
For Sprint Nextel Corp., the process begins in a suite of small rooms on its operations campus in suburban Kansas City.

On one recent day, a trio of researchers watched through one-way glass and overhead cameras as a volunteer navigated her way through a prototype program that lets parents set limits on their children's phone use.

The observers monitored how many steps it took for the woman to make the program work, how easily she made mistakes and how quickly she could get herself out of trouble. The results could be used to further tweak the program, said Robert Mortiz, director of device development.

"If you bring somebody in and they have problems, it's not because they're dumb but we were dumb with the design," Mortiz said, adding that the lab typically tests devices and programs with up to 50 users over three to nine months, also using focus groups to determine what people want from their phones and what they say needs fixing.

Results of those studies can sometimes push back a product's release. For example, Michael Coffey, vice president of Sprint's user experience design, said the company delayed releasing its walkie-talkie Ready Link service for about a year after testers said they didn't like the short delay between when the user pushes the button and the other caller answers.

Coffey said the testing is worth it because of how ease-of-use can be a competitive edge.

"IPod was not the first mp3 player on the market, but once they figured it out (the user interface), they became the predominant one overnight," he said. "Whether you make it a marketing message or not, the public will discover that usability and choose your product over a competitor's."

So far, Sprint Nextel is doing something right as its subscribers spend the highest average amount for data services in the industry.

"We believe there's a strong correlation between our standard of success and how usable the products are," he said.

Emily Collins of Lawrence, for example, said she sends more text messages and digital photos through her cell phone these days because the process to send messages is much faster.

"I'm in a long-distance relationship, so anything that makes it easier, I'm all for," said Collins, 22.

The other major wireless providers use similar techniques to improve their devices and programs.

Cingular Wireless, the nation's largest wireless provider, developed MEdia Net, which allows users to personalize their phones for using the Internet, downloading ringtones or getting e-mail.

Verizon Wireless has V-Cast, a service that makes it easier to download music and video. The company has also push designs that allow users to accomplish many things with one press of the button.

"It's not fun to download a ringtone and have to figure out how to get that on your phone," said Verizon spokeswoman Brenda Ramey. "We do not shy away from testing. If the device or service doesn't work, it's a reflection on our network."

Unlike its competitors, T-Mobile has focused on a few key areas of data, introducing T-Zone to help customers find ringtones and screen wallpaper by subject and decreasing the number of steps to take and send photos.

Industry experts say the companies understand the stakes involved in making sure their designs attract customers and keep them loyal.

"To think that they're putting this kind of effort into the interface is welcome news," said David Chamberlain, principal wireless analyst for research firm In-Stat.

How well they're doing is a different matter.

Some analysts pointed to niche providers, such as youth-oriented Amp'd Mobile and sports-centric ESPN Mobile, as good examples of intuitive design, marrying easy-to-understand menus with pared-down lists of content aimed at their particular markets.

But none of the carriers impress Roger Entner of market research firm Ovum. Entner says most carriers are trying to replicate how people use personal computers instead of coming up with a new approach.

"What do (customers) do best on the phone? They talk. What do they do worst? Type. Why is every user interface based on typing?" Entner said. "Right now, the software developers take advantage of every weakness a device has and none of the strengths."

Some wireless carriers and third-party companies are experimenting with voice-recognition technology. Kirkland, Wash.-based VoiceBox Technologies, for instance, plans to release a product later this year that recognizes words and context in a customer's speech to immediately bring them content on their phones.

Other companies are tailoring phones and services to specific markets, such as Firefly Mobile offering a simplified phone for children ages 8 to 12, or carriers developing phones with larger buttons and brighter screens for elderly customers.

Charles Golvin of Forrester Research said a recent survey indicated few cellular customers choose a phone based on its usability, typically because they either don't think there's anything better or, like Bales in Kansas City, don't think they need those services.

But Golvin said for the market to truly grow, the programs and devices are going to have to become more graceful and not just the purview of tech-junkies.

"Early adopters are less retarded by the user interface," he said. "As we're moving from the early adopters to the more mainstream customers, it will make a huge difference."