Design For Life
By Carlo Longino, Fri Apr 22 19:15:00 GMT 2005

A well-known user design expert says mobile phones could be hit by a widespread consumer backlash, one whose beginnings are already apparent. But, he says, better use of the technology causing problems can offer a way out.

"Technology provides many virtues to modern life, but at some societal costs. If we do not attend to the societal costs, they may cause legal restrictions on the use of the technology," says renowned design expert Donald Norman. But, he says, the problem should be addressed proactively by using the same technology to combat the issues.

Norman highlights several areas where the frustration and annoyance caused by mobile technology could hamstring it, along with possible solutions. Of course, improved usability is near the top of the list, but more interesting perhaps are Norman's suggestions for improving the control users have over the communications they receive.

He says that for a lot of communications, real-time interaction isn't necessary, but rather just "near real-time". Real-time interaction takes the control of the communications out of both participants' hands; near real-time (such as instant messaging, Norman points out) means "each participant can choose to read or listen and respond only when workload considerations are appropriate: the individual participants control."

This is part of the attraction of SMS -- it's a relatively non-intrusive medium that lets users choose when to read and respond -- but Norman says the ability to exchange text and voice messages quickly and easily should be paramount. Of course, some operators support push-to-talk, but this could fall foul of his next trouble spot, the annoyance phones and their users cause others.

Norman's making a valuable point: the benefits technology affords us come with trade-offs, and ignoring those can undermine the technology itself. But the solutions don't have to be legal or societal restrictions; better design can provide solutions as well.