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We need to stop talking about smartphone users

We need to stop talking about smartphone users

Designing for humans is hard. Let’s make that clear from the start. Our research work in Fathom regularly exposes us to outcomes and results which force us to reassess something we were previously sure of (we are staunch advocates of Paul Saffo’s dictum, to have “strong opinions, weakly held”). What we do know is that people never fail to amaze, surprise and confound assumptions and expectations.

We see this time and time again in usability testing, where the reactions you might expect to see don’t come from the people you expect to see them from. ‘Users’ are people and as such they will stubbornly refuse to conform to neatly defined labels and categories, no matter how badly we need to rationalise our designs with easy answers.

At a gathering at Christmas, I sat in on a debate where a twenty–something son was having a heated debate with his mother about whether anyone would make a major purchase such as a desktop PC on their mobile. “Who would do that?” asked the son, almost exasperated. “Why wouldn’t you? I would!” retorted his mother, going on to demonstrate how she would access all the relevant information required to let her make such a decision. The son looked on, somewhat humbled.

The fact is, all too frequently we design for people that don’t actually exist. We design for profiles based on assumptions and guesswork. Those with perfect eyesight, with endless pockets of time to spend on our website or app, with full knowledge of the latest online trends, and with the latest technology on their desk or in their pocket.

As mobile traffic to websites reached a significant point in the last decade, there was a sudden clamour to begin designing for “smartphone users”, as if a new breed of human had evolved and was walking among us, one that only ever viewed the web through the tiny windows of their handheld device. Many bad design decisions were subsequently taken over the years in frenzied attempts to cater to Homo Smartphonus.

The most common assumption made around smartphone use is that anyone who has one is automatically a ‘pro’ user – someone who knows all the features and functions of the phone, is confident with it in everyday use, and always on the lookout for apps with ‘innovative functionality’. The fact is that, for many, smartphones remain a camera phone with some colourful icons bolted on.

Findings from the US–based Pew Research Center in 2013 revealed that only half of smartphone owners downloaded apps and read or sent e–mail. Many struggled with even the most basic apps on their smartphones. And no, not only the type of people you have in mind as you read that sentence. 

Many different types of people are still feeling their way on mobile, looking for familiar patterns and functionality. Often the simplest thing – an unfamiliar icon or an ambiguous page transition – is enough to send the less confident (read: average) user back to their tablet or desktop, or to another website or app.

It is only relatively recently that the idea of cross–platform user experience has come to the fore, finally acknowledging that any of us can be users of any device at any time with an expectation of achieving our goals on a phone as well as on a desktop device.

This cross–platform behaviour is the new normal, and the myth of ‘smartphone users’ has been exposed: it was us all along.

By Rick Monro

Rick was UX Director at Fathom from 2014 to 2017, when he left to take up a role as Principal UX Architect at Puppet.

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