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A Little Switch With a Big Impact

This essay relates to Great to See You, Just Not Around Here.

A gentle reminder of where this is coming from.

The inclusion of an Airplane Mode on the 3G iPhone is pretty obvious design choice right? It’s a well implemented feature that is both easy to access and easy to communicate the current state of connectivity to anyone who needs to know. For a phone it is entirely logical that the default state is connected and for the user to make a conscious effort to disconnect. But in the spirit of the future perfect is the 3G iPhone really a phone? And broadening the scope of the question – is there a point in the evolution of mass market mobile phones that cellular connectivity as we understand it today is perceived not as a core feature, but as an optional extra? At what point is ‘Airplane Mode’ relabeled as, as…?

Well, what would it be renamed as?

In a world of convergence it’s easy to lose sight of what drives people to adopt something in the first place. The core benefits of a mobile phone, of being able to communicate over time and space, is such a compelling and easy to understand proposition that extending its features to include entertainment, capturing and sharing experiences, payments, location awareness, …. is an evolutionary step. Every new feature that is added changes patterns of use which in turn changes what it means to be a ‘phone’. Is there a natural limit to convergence? And, staring out from the back seat of a fast moving consumer goods vehicle, are we there yet? Some of you are old enough to remember the humble wrist watch as your primary tool through which to know what time it is but today knowledge of the current time is a commodity – there are so many free and readily available alternative sources of this information. (Yes, wrist watches are still relevant but mostly as lifestyle statements).As with the wrist watch there was an era before the mobile phone as we know it and will be an era after.

The iPhone has been praised by many for creating a paradigm shift in what consumer’s can expect from a phone, and in particular in bringing comfortable web browsing to ‘the masses’. It’s worth pointing out that these are the masses in the sense of relatively wealthy, older, technology & design savvy early adopters many of whom, by their own admission spend a little bit to much time in front of a computer (which lets face it is handy if you want/need a USB port to sync and charge your device). It’s also worth noting that compared to people in their late teens/early 20’s this demographic tends to be fairly settled/staid in terms of their social circle, having established/predictable likes and dislikes, which in turn colours what they expect from and how they interact with a communication device.

In the rush to gush we’ve overlooked another paradigm shift – a willingness to disconnect, a willingness to flick the Airplane Mode switch. You might argue that an iPhone without connectivity is, well, an iPod, but its not. To state the (obviously overlooked) obvious – it is a phone without connectivity and that over time the ease and evolving practice of disconnecting fundamentally changes our assumptions of what we can expect from a phone, which in turn alters our expectations about the connectivity of other people. Yes, this way of disconnecting is crude. And no, it doesn’t matter that for most users the behaviour is driven by a desire to save battery life (in the majority of contexts flicking that switch is a choice between connectivity now or the potential for some form of connectivity later). You might expect battery life to improve to the point where the drive to disconnect via the Airplane Mode will disappear – but the task of improving battery performance is a slow, evolutionary process and our audio, visual, geo-locative and connectivity demands will always outstrip what is on offer. The 3G iPhone is not the first desirable product where the battery life is significantly out of sync with consumer expectations and the promise of the product and it won’t be the last.

Viewed through the experience of single product the user’s willingness to disconnect might seem like an aberration, a response to the mismatch between desired use and actual capability but (at least) four trends will ensure the practice and willingness to disconnect evolves.

The first is that there will be an increased inclination to carry secondary, tertiary, quaternary and even quinary+ communication focused devices. You might associate ‘multiple device ownership’ with the suits running around the Square Mile but multiple device/SIM card use is common enough in emerging markets – largely driven by cost, a desire to separate personal and work life, and the limits of network coverage. Ownership of a secondary, simple to use communications device was touched on by Christian Lindholm during his talk on bleeding-edge early adopting “techno nomads” at the LIFT conference and this broadly maps with behaviours we’ve seen on the ground – an extreme example being in Afghanistan – where the primary motivation was to build additional redundancy into communication systems. The impact of turning off communication through personal device A is minor when communication can be routed through personal device B, routed through friend’s device C or even infrastructure D. The channels through which we receive will multiply and to some extent commodify. At the very least – the cost of obtaining and carrying redundancy, a backup device will be low, not dissimilar to packing a spare pen.

Related to this is the question of what can you do with a connected/communications device when it has no connectivity? Again we can turn to emerging markets to learn from the usage behaviours of pre-pay customers who have run out of credit – they continue to use the phone as a status symbol, a clock, games machine – you name it. The bottom line – never equate ownership of a connected device with use of its primary function particularly when use of the primary function costs money.

Advances in miniaturisation, materials and manufacturing techniques will enable radically new and highly focused form factors. Seen from average mobile phone user’s perspective will appear to be a de-convergence of what they already know. The designer-zen within you will whisper that carrying more objects will introduce unwanted complexity into people’s lives – there will be more things to lose, damage, maintain – not least remembering to charge. Whilst these are non-trivial issues – they will start to fade as the objects are integrated, tethered and otherwise disappear into the other stuff we carry – in some some cases through straightforward re-convergence in other cases through seamless co-existence. Some of you I’m told believe in some form of communications implant but for most people a dedicated, unobtrusive device put on first thing in the morning and taken off last thing at night will suffice, meeting the very basic human need of being ‘in-touch’. (If you’re wondering about the feasibility of a ‘constantly’ worn communications device a useful comparison is to think of the range of contexts and motivations for wearing and temporarily removing a wedding ring).

Lastly, our understanding of what is required to make stuff more social will have matured to the point where it is, by most people’s perspective, reasonably social. This isn’t just about us as service designers being smarter, more empathic to user needs but also comes from a sufficiently shared understanding of what constitutes acceptable use which in turn is nudged by mainstream adoption. Put simply – new stuff disrupts old habits but over time we get used to it. Despite our protestations, humans have a knack of adapting to sub-optimal solutions e.g. the almost-humourous-that-they-shipped-this battery life on a 3G iPhone, if the solution shows sufficient benefits over the alternatives, it’s simply a question of motivation. That motivation can be driven by brand loyalty, a perceived lack of choice, a desire to try something new, lower error rates, joy, showing off, improvements in productivity, whatever. In time the design, language and social norms for connecting, dis-connecting and re-connecting will have reached the point where switch becomes the primary interface to our digital selves.

Of course by then it will called something else, will do something else such as appropriately syncing with everything else that matters to you and your stakeholders. Think of a world where everything is by default on, where the “record” and “capture” button is replaced by “pause”. And then re-imagine the Airplane Mode.

Intentionally or not, it’s a little switch with a big future.

Related research content/presentations-and-downloads/”>here