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Delaying the Onset of Ageing

Shanghai: lasting longer

How important is maintaining product newness? And what are the strategies that consumers adopt to keep the product feeling fresh?

Some Chinese iPhone users are refraining from using the phone’s button – the single, most obviously mechanical aspect of the device because they feel that it will hasten the speed at which it will break. It’s a practice that I’ve increasingly seen in play with Chinese iPhone consumers is the use of the Assistive Touch, the accessibility feature that supports users with limited motor mobility, providing a software, on-screen alternative for the button.

On the one hand this is a wonderfully graceful degradation, when for whatever reason the physical button doesn’t work there is a software backup, assuming consumers know how to access it. But for a company that is looking to China as its largest market it is worrying that the primary interface feature on their flagship product induces a workaround behaviour for perceived risk of breaking. If you strive to be the most-loved brand this is a problem.

Not that the risk is only perceived: as a mechanical object the iPhone button does sometimes fail without apparent reason. It takes just one frustrated consumer in a social circle for the “crappy iPhone button” story to do the rounds to impact behaviour and for others to switch to the lower impact, alternative. This is also part of a larger story, one where the company has been accused of arrogance and where the perception lingers that consumers get sloppy seconds from other markets. Using a software alternative to the physical button helps people offset what they perceive as inevitable failure.

There are numerous mainstream strategies for delaying the onset of natural wear and tear across product categories and consumer segments: shrink-wrapped living-room sofa or car seats; retaining the screen protector on a display; or unplugging electronics when not in use. For some product categories such as sneakers the importance of newness is heightened with younger males obsessing over box-freshness as a status symbol where newness implies disposable income and being in the know where to find just that brand/model/colour of kicks. But it is in African cities such as Accra, Kampala, Addis Ababa or Lagos that you’ll see extreme behaviours and thinking around newness: pure-white sneakers worn in very dusty environments combined with the daily use of scrubbing and bleaching services.

There are a number of opportunities that arise out of a real/perceived non-working iPhone button: for the street repair services it provides steady income for a relatively easy fix; Apple charging a premium for an accessibility pack that includes Assistive Touch would go counter to some corporate values but is in line with other ways of doing business.

But most intriguingly it suggests that consumers can do without the button.

From that starting point new interfaces are born.

End Notes.

From a design perspective it can be useful to frame physically and mentally impaired users as “super-users” as in they are “just like you or me only more so”. In order to make use of a device they adopt advanced techniques to get the same thing done with less. We are all mentally impaired at some point in the day whether induced by multi-tasking, being exhausted or high. Physical impairment can be inherent compared to the norm or brought on by being drunk, injured, or engaged in other physical tasks.

I go through about 2 iPhones/year through unnatural wear and tear and it seems fitting that my iPhone 5 died last week in Singapore – looking to get it fixed the the informal repair guys here in Shanghai this week. What was surprising was managing to successfully complete a week’s worth of business meetings in Singapore without a working mobile phone, all be it with someone else running my schedule and that schedule being mapped out in advance and having proximate team members looking after the details. In a connected environment the non-mobile alternatives make it viable. Looking to spend more time off-grid this coming year – a healthy precursor, intentionally or otherwise.