Cellphone Clocks: A Cautionary Tale

I previously gushed about how fun was better then function. I believe it’s true, but you if you trade functionality for emotional impact, you had damn well better know what you are doing. Here is an example of dong things wrong.

I use a cheap pre-paid cellphone because … well it’s cheap. Unfortunately it’s cheap as in junk, not cheap as in a bargain. It’s a Sony Ericsson Z300a — a flip-phone. (Poor customer) service is through Cingular/AT&T. I strongly prefer flip-phones.They are small when they are in my pocket, but bigger then a brick-phone when they are in my hand. Clamshells provide such good protection that I can toss flip-phones in my pocket along with my keys, without worrying about anything getting too scratched up to use. It’s physically impossible to accidentally dial a number with the phone closed.

There is a small low-resolution black-and-white LCD display on the shell of the phone, this way you don’t have to open it up to check the time. It’s a great feature, and every flip-phone I’ve seen has it. Most of the time, this is what it looks like on my phone:
Useful Display

Just a good no-frills LCD display. The designers took advantage of the relatively roomy screen, adding other pertinent information besides just the time. The “bars” up top tell you signal-strength (if you can talk), the clock tells you if you should talk (is it the right time to call them?), and the battery-indicator on the bottom tells you how long you can talk. This information complements any mobile communications device perfectly. (My “Designed by Apple in California” MacBookPro has these 3 indicators in the menu bar by default as well).

But sometimes, for no apparent reason, when I would take the phone out of my pocket, the display would be this ugly thing:
Ugly faux-analog display

Clearly this isn’t nearly as usefully as the digital display. And it’s a lot harder to read — why the numbers are that small I do not know, they don’t have to be. Obviously, the designers were attempting to trade technical-superiority for emotional-impact. But they screwed up. Badly.

The poorly thought out analog-clock-style display does not mask the fact that this is still a cheap digital display, on a cheap cellphone. If anything the corse pixelation draws attention to the cheap electronic nature of the phone’s “clock”. It says “look I’m failing miserably to be something I’m obviously not!”. Nobody is is going to compliment it’s “classy” look because it has no class. It is not a feature that anyone would ever show off to anyone. It’s not fun.

Now back to the “randomly changing” issue. Some days I would take the phone out of my pocket and it would sport the cheap knock-off-analog clock, some days the useful and unassuming digital display. The manual was no help (it didn’t even have the word “clock” in the index). I fiddled around with every setting in the phone, and I couldn’t figure it out. Finally I got so fed up that I took back to the Cingular Store, and asked the salespeople how to to change the clock display. They couldn’t tell me. One of them even told me that the hands-of-ugly was the only style those phones had. (Cingular/AT&T = bad service all around in my experience).

A few days later I stumbled upon the solution. There isn’t a setting in the phone that controls that display. But the + and – buttons on the side of the phone toggle between them.
+ and - button
Unless of course the phone is open, in which case hitting ether button will bring up a useless screen that says:

Date 08/31/07
Profile: Normal
Model: Z300a

Unless of course you are making a call, in which case they change the volume level.
Unless of course there is a list of options on the screen, in which case they act like the arrow keys.
Not only is this feature not documented in the manual, the very existence of the + and – buttons is not documented!
Here is another view of the mysterious + and – buttons, to give some scale.
The phone in my hand.  I wear a small or medium glove.
As you can see, they are pretty small. They are also the only buttons on the outside of the clamshell. I’m sure you can think of much more useful buttons (including no buttons at all) to stick on the phone’s shell.

Let’s recap everything the designers did wrong here. To start with, they had a pretty good display: bars + digital clock + battery. All relevant to what the user wants to get done (talk to people).

Then they came up with a display that was much harder to read. And displayed less then 1/3rd as much useful information.

Then they made the display configurable, adding a (poor) choice where none existed before, and doubling the number of states the user’s phone could be in. There isn’t a good reason for this choice. The salespeople were completely clueless about this feature, so it obviously wasn’t going to sell any phones.

And they used a tiny undocumented control, which had complex and variable behavior to perform the selection.

And of course the control was the only thing that could be accidentally, and mysteriously, hit while the phone was closed. Ensuring that the display would randomly change for no apparent reason.

Finally, they sold their device through someone who gave lousy customer service. So the over-all experience of using the device would be as craptastic as possible. And nobody would be able to help users figure out what was going on when their phones inexplicably looked different.

But all of this might have been OK if the display was really cool (Don Norman gives a few examples of suitably nifty watches in Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things ; and here are a few more amazing ways of showing time). But it wasn’t. It was an ugly display, that drew attention to all the phone’s flaws. Cheesy analog-style digital displays have been around for decades. It was insipid lipstick on a pig.

Any choice that reduces usability and functionality should be treated with extreme skepticism. There are cases where it is the right decision. But the trade-off needs to be compelling. It should also help your product stand out. Otherwise KISS.

EDITED TO ADD (early September, 2007) : A few days ago I noticed my rate has gone up from $0.13 to $0.15 per minute; a 15% increase.

Explore posts in the same categories: Bugs, Design, Usability

One Comment on “Cellphone Clocks: A Cautionary Tale”

  1. […] Cellphone Clocks: A Cautionary Tale I previously gushed about how fun was better then function … better know what you are doing. Here is an example of dong things wrong. I use a cheap pre-paid cellphone because ? well it?s cheap. Unfortunately it?s cheap as in junk, not cheap as in a bargain. It?Posted in IMLocation development log ( 2 links from 2 sites) […]

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