Never Underestimate the Ingenuity of Fools

User error seems to be something of a theme here this week, with loads of comments on my What a Waste post about the ineffectiveness of Wap Push. The consensus seems to be that at least part of the problem is the user not knowing how to respond to a message or being unable to find it when it does arrive.

So it’s interesting to read about a new survey¬†that suggests that of the one in seven phones returned by users as faulty, 63% have nothing wrong with them whatsoever. Let’s not forget, these devices aren’t something that have been rushed out in someone’s lunch hour, but something that incredibly intelligent and dedicated teams have spent many hours and much money designing, creating and honing and (you’d hope) running exhaustive usability tests on them.

[Mind you, you'd have thought that would also apply to Ikea flat-pack furniture, but I'd be surprised if they even know what usability testing was. Sorry, personal gripe!]

But returning to the non-faulty phones, this is really an awful track record, costing the mobile industry about £4.5 billion a year globally, based on the cost of £35 to test, repair and refurbish a phone.

Actually, this doesn’t surprise me all that much. I remember being involved peripherally in a similar issue with Sony’s PlayStation when it was first launched. Many returns were simply not required and it was costing a fortune. So, we set¬†up a call centre, where the first few questions would determine if it was the machine or the user that was dodgy – a kind of drongo testing exercise. Then if we thought it was a genuine case, we’d turn up the next day with a new one. As well as being outstanding customer service, this was actually cheaper than the previous collect, repair and return, as we could collect the old one at the same time as delivering a refurbished one.

But the point is that PlayStations were far easier to use than today’s phones and the users were much more techically literate than the average phone user.

As far as the mobile industry is concerned, this depressing scenario simply has to be improved. The company that emerges with a better usability testing solution, as well as a logistics¬†concept more like I’ve described above, stands to make a great deal of money.

But, equally important is the education of the¬†users themselves. You can try to design your phone to be foolproof, but we always underestimate the ingenuity of fools¬†and they’ll find a way to misunderstand, no matter how brilliant your design.

Clearly, many approaches to education have been tried with technology – ranging from manuals, which few ever read, to product and feature “tours” which people promptly forget about, even if they see it in the first place. Most of us are much more interested in a Ready, Fire, Aim approach when it comes to using tech.

This isn’t an old problem though. I heard from a Microsoft insider that 70% of¬†Excel users¬†don’t know you can use it to add up columns and rows of figures. Yes, I was surprised by this too – but try it for yourself, it can :-) Despite this huge issue of most users never utilising anything but a tiny fraction of the technology they have available, most vendors pay lip service to user education, believing that, for instance, training is the responsibility of training companies. And writing such bad product manuals that other independent companies could write and sell millions of manuals that simply did a much better job.

In this case, it’s not an opportunity cost (users not getting full value from purchases and therefore failing to appreciate them) but a ¬£4.5 billion direct cost a year, not counting customer disappointment, which surely calls for a new approach.

SNAP in, that¬†I wrote about after 3GSM, have at least part of the answer¬†and if you’re¬†an operator and not talking to them, I urge you to call them now and at least see what they’re up to. You’ll be left behind if you don’t do something like this, I promise you.

But, I’d also consider testing¬†the idea of free seminars about getting the most out of your mobile phone. I have a feeling that these would be surprisingly popular as most people seem to want to learn, they just don’t know where to start and the self-help method¬†evidently doesn’t work for 95% of the population.¬†I think Orange’s new initiative of¬†incentivising retail sales people to get their customers to use data is a great too, partly as it can be directly measured and partly as it turns an influential and under-utilised army of form-fillers into evangelists.

As a final plea to the industry in a week where we’ve covered two huge stories with usability at their core. The mobile user is not you. To¬†quote David Ogilvy, slightly out of context,¬†the consumer is not a moron, she is your wife. Or husband, or anyone else you know who doesn’t work in mobile and who thinks about their phones’ features as often as they think about how a vacuum cleaner actually works.

Handset manufacturers certainly need to lead this charge, but operators surely need to up their game too, with both sides starting by committing to a zero tolerance of phones that don’t work properly, out of the box.

But it doesn’t end there. This matter is a critical issue for the mobile industry and lies at the heart of the question of whether mobile data will really take off and become the cavalry charging over the hill to save¬†the army beleaugured by falling voice revenues and margins.

Maybe this could be a great role for the Mobile Data Association in the UK, at least, which always seems to me to have a huge potential role in the value chain, but lies there like some slumbering giant.

 [tags] usability, snap in, excel, Ogilvy, MDA, mobile data [/tags]

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