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Dropped call: What the iPhone 4 teaches us about design

by Davin Wilfrid

July 9, 2010

by Davin Wilfrid, Project Expert

Let's start with a confession -- I stood in line on a hot sidewalk for three hours to buy the iPhone 4.

I don't consider myself an Apple fanboy in general. I use a Lenovo ThinkPad T-60 at the office and have always preferred John Hodgman to Justin Long. However, I bought the first-generation iPhone in 2007 and immediately fell in love with it. The prospect of a newer version with faster performance, HD video, and longer battery life was too much to ignore, so I waited in the baking sun with a few hundred fellow travelers.

The Apple renaissance (remember when it was at death's door a decade ago?) has been propelled primarily by design. None of the devices Apple makes boast features that can't be found in competing devices. Several companies made MP3 players that did everything the original iPod could do. Several companies make laptops that do all the things a Macbook can do, and HTC (soon to be joined by others) makes a phone that does everything the iPhone does.

But Apple has always excelled in crafting gadgets built around the notion of radical simplicity. The iPhone has one button. The iPod has a simple navigation wheel. The laptops are crafted from a single piece of aluminum.

For Apple, user experience trumps everything else. The company does not care if it gets beat on a spec sheet by the competition. They know that a fast, compelling, intuitive user experience will take them farther than a checklist of available functionality.

Which brings us back to the iPhone 4. Almost immediately after its release, users realized that if you hold the phone a certain way, you can block the phone's connection to the cellular network. Because Apple designed the body of the phone as an extension of the antenna (which is all internal on most devices), the iPhone 4 is susceptible to dropped calls because of where you choose to put your fingers while talking. Apple CEO Steve Jobs offered a rather elegant solution -- don't hold it that way.

It's an embarrassing design flaw to say the least -- especially for a company that prides itself on delivering a seamless user experience. Maybe the lesson is that we should all focus more on delivering features and less on design?

Hardly. Whether you're implementing CRM 7.0 or drawing up PowerPoint slides, it is increasingly critical to design from the user experience first. I have had several conversations with SAP project managers about this, and they tell me the same thing. User acceptance is more difficult to achieve than ever, because the systems employees use in their personal lives are increasingly slick and intuitive. Facebook, iPhones, Twitter, Google -- everywhere you turn, there's a new service available that takes no time to set up and offers massive flexibility.

To keep users happy -- and your own projects alive -- you have to consider their experience carefully and deliberately at the earliest planning stages -- and make that experi ence central to the requirements for the project. One large SAP customer told me that the smartest thing they did in their project (rolling out a product Web site in a foreign language that pulled real-time data from the SAP back-end) was to hire an outside Web designer to build a beautiful interface that would engage users from the beginning and offer minimal clicks to complete their tasks.

There's plenty more to cover here, but we'll save it for another time. I just downloaded a new flight simulator application and want to get some training in before lunch. Don't bother calling -- I'd probably lose you anyway.


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