Beyond the Politeness-Button
By Mark Frauenfelder, Mon Feb 24 08:00:00 GMT 2003

Point it towards another person who is talking too loudly, activate a little slingshot mechanism, and transmit a loud burst of incomprehensible babble to the offending person's handset.

Lately, I've been wishing that my mobile phone came with a "politeness button." It would be great to use the button in situations where it would be impolite to talk on the phone.

The politeness button would come in handy when I was in a movie theater, for instance. I would set my phone to vibrate-only, and if a call came in, I would check the caller ID and either choose to ignore the call and let it roll over to voice mail, or press the politeness button, which would answer the call automatically and play a message for my caller that said, "Hi. I'm here, and I'm going to take your call, but please wait just a moment while I go someplace where I can talk." Then I'd walk into the lobby and take the call. That way, the moviegoers wouldn't be bothered. (And maybe New York City wouldn't have banned cell phones from movie theatres.)

So far, I haven't seen a phone with anything like a politeness button, but when I came across the Social Mobile phones that Ideo had invented, they gave me hope. Of the five SoMo phones Ideo made, SoMo2 comes closest to my idea of a politeness button. It's even better that a politeness button, actually. The SoMo2 has a synthesizer, a small joystick, and a couple of buttons on it that let you make different emotional vocal sounds, like "ummm," "huh," "wow." The Ideo folks say this kind of phone could be used to have a conversation with a friend while you're in a theater or art gallery.


Ideo is the industrial design firm that designed the stunning Palm V, the Visor Treo, and dozens of other amazing consumer products. The Social Mobile phones Ideo created were part of an internal project - God knows they would never have found a client to pay them to design these phones. Who wants a phone that delivers a power electric shock to your hand when the person you're talking to is too loud? Or a phone that makes you play it like a flute in order to make a call?

But the SoMo phones weren't designed to be used, not really. Ideo made them to encourage conversation about the role of mobiles in public spaces. Crispin Jones, a London based artist who is renowned for his work exploring the interaction between people and technology, was hired by Ideo to head up the project.

"The key thing was to design these phones for the people around you," says Jones. Hence the name, Social Mobiles. Obviously, nobody is really going to use these phones in real situations, but they have their roots in real human issues. "These handsets aren't really solutions; they're interventions," says Jones, "because they create more problems, not fewer problems. They really serve to highlight the kind of frustration and anger that people feel about mobile phones."

The SoMo5 is particularly geared towards people who feel anger at other people's mobile conversations. Called the catapult phone, you point it towards another person who is talking too loudly on their phone, and activate a little slingshot mechanism on your phone, which transmits a loud burst of incomprehensible babble to the offending person's handset.

To dream up the different SoMo phones, Jones and his colleagues shared anecdotes about being in situations where mobile phone users behaved badly, such as being stuck on a train with a really obnoxious person bragging about the wonderful party she'd been to the night before. "At the same time," admits Jones, "we were aware of the hypocrisy that we all carry them, and that in other situations we've disturbed other people ourselves. We started thinking about ways we could make a handset that altered your behavior. That was quite a radical proposition: is design responsible for altering people's behaviors? It was interesting to deal with the moral ambiguities of that."


Matt Hunter of Ideo says behavior is often overlooked as a design approach. "There's nothing worse than design that exists away from people and the reality of their situation," he says. Design has got to be grounded in the realities of people and their thoughts and motivations. "Although that sounds incredibly obvious, that's what most mobile phone manufacturers aren't doing. All they've managed to do is say 'OK, we need something that allows people to communicate with one another, and then we'll keep making it smaller. That's great - there's no doubt that I use my mobile phone more than ever before because it's so small. But we said, 'Think a bit more about that. How are people communicating and what are some of the implications of people communicating anywhere?'"

I asked Hunter and Jones why it is that when a person who is in a social setting is engaged in a loud conversation with someone also in the room, the rest of the people in the room don't really mind, but when that same person is talking loudly into a phone, he's considered rude and obnoxious?

Jones said he'd looked into this curious situation and found that the British researcher Sadie Plant had studied this phenomenon. "She brings up this idea that you are acknowledging that the person on the phone is more important than the people around you, and that this in some way is offensive on a primal level. You are being passed over and ignored or dismissed for the benefit of this unseen person." Who likes to be treated like that?

That's where SoMo4 comes in. This phone makes a knocking sound when a call is coming in. The more urgent the call, the louder the knock. If you're in a quiet social setting, you can ignore a phone call that announces with a timid tap, but if your phone makes reverberating thuds (indicating that your caller is absolutely desperate to talk to you) everyone around you will probably excuse you for taking the call. And it better really be an emergency, or everyone around you is going get really mad at you.

You can check out the SoMo project for yourself here. Just remember, if you want to phone your friends and tell them about the SoMo handsets, please keep your voice down.

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.