Can You Hear Me Now? The irony of iPhone

Steven Brykman | June 2, 2014 | In the News

When you stop and think about it, it’s pretty strange the iPhone is even called the iPhone because the one thing everybody hates doing is using it as a phone. Naming the iPhone for the phone part is like naming a Maserati after the radio (ironically, Apple is about to announce an iTunes Radio App for iPhone). Making and receiving calls is the only thing the iPhone stinks at. Though of course, this is an endemic problem, no other mobile phones are much good at being phones either. The sound quality on the iPhone is pretty terrible; half the time my calls either get disconnected or the person on the other end can’t make out what I’m saying. And this swings both ways. Half the time my iPhone fails to ring—a flaw that frustrates my wife to no end—or else the caller is inexplicably sent straight to voicemail.

Consider that for a while there, Verizon was basing their entire ad campaign around the fact that nobody on a mobile phone could hear anybody else. Even more surprising was how long it took them to realize the catchphrase, “Can you hear me now?” didn’t necessarily reflect too positively on their product.

As clear as it is now that the phone is the dumbest part of the whole thing, it hasn’t always been so obvious (at least not to me). There was a time when my thinking was quite the opposite: as in, ‘why text when we can talk?’ This was way, way back in 1999. I was working as an editor for National Lampoon, when this dude comes to the office and tries to get us to produce material for his ‘Joke a Day’ concept. The assumption was that a lot of people would be willing to forgo some of their hard-earned money to have a different joke texted to them every day. At the time, I found this preposterous. Now, remember, this was way back when texting really wasn’t even a thing yet, and you couldn’t just Google any joke that ever existed in five seconds.
“Texting is huge in Japan!” the dude said, pretending to text from an invisible phone.
“That’s completely nuts,” I said, “Why would somebody use their phone to send a text when they could just talk to the person…on their phone!”
“Are you kidding? Japanese girls are doing it all day!” he insisted, “Under the table at restaurants, for instance, they’re texting each other. They’re doing it without even looking at their phones!”

Of course, today, I text constantly. We all do. It’s unavoidable. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, or whatever, most of our online communication now involves some variation on messaging.

And now I understand why.
Because talking on a mobile phone totally sucks.

Every part of the iPhone is better than the phone part. For instance, at this very moment, I’m sitting in a moving car while my iPhone a) provides GPS directions for the guy driving, b) streams Spotify to the car stereo, and c) lets me work on this blog post using a Bluetooth keyboard, in Pages (which automatically saves the doc to iCloud). If my phone rings, I’m not answering it. Maybe I’ll FaceTime, but if somebody needs me that badly they can just send a text.

What it all comes down to is the act of talking on the phone is itself archaic, outdated; particularly these days when it involves less talking and more button-pushing and menu-tree navigation. And from a UI/UX perspective, telephone menu-trees are by their very nature, horribly flawed. I can’t recall a single time I wasn’t asked to listen closely because a company’s “options have recently changed.” Who are these people whose job it is to constantly change the menu options? Don’t they have anything better to do? Like hand out parking tickets? The problem is that unlike the web where a user is presented with a myriad of simultaneous options, the phone part of the phone has only a single linear user path: out of the phone speaker, into your ear. And once you’re stuck in the quagmire of a phone-tree, you have to direct all your attention to it, lest you miss something and be forced to start over. Like Christmas lights wired in series, if one bulb breaks, the entire string goes dark. Get the kids in the other room! I’m trying to make a phone call!!

One of my Propelics bosses regularly plays this game: whenever he finds himself inextricably stuck in some phone menu, he navigates over to the App Store while still on the call (ATT phone) to see if he can download the company’s app, login to his account, and complete the transaction before being allowed to communicate with an actual human being on the phone. Nine times out of ten, the app wins out.

Further evidence for the extreme suckiness of telephone-trees:
1. “Press 1 for English” makes no sense. English should be the default (Press nothing for English) with press 1 for Spanish. Can you imagine if every website asked you to first click a button to continue using your computer in the language you were already using it in?

2. One hotel interface literally told me to “Press P to play my messages.” Not the 7 key, the P key, as in P for play. Come on, guys! It’s not a P key!! Nobody calls it a P key!

3. Am I willing to take a survey after the call? Why are you asking me now, before I’ve even had the call you so desperately want to survey? If there’s a survey that needs taking at the end of the call, ask me at the end. Consider those pre-flight safety speeches. Nobody likes to have to sit through the whole airplane-safety spiel before takeoff, but at least it doesn’t hold-up the flight!

The solution is simple: we need to come up with some hybrid system whereby instead of just being stuck in a phone-tree, some additional data gets downloaded to our smartphone that lets us interact with a secondary interface. Sort of like an app embedded in an audio phone-call. I’ll even settle for the traditional 1-0 buttons, just throw in some labels so I can see immediately where each button is going to take me. Come on, now. Is that really so hard?

Steven Brykman

Steven is a Digital Strategist and UX Architect focusing on Mobile Products with a diverse background in writing and literature. He spent much of the last decade as Creative Technologist/Lead Strategist of his own design company, helping Fortune 500 companies define the direction of their digital campaigns, websites and mobile applications. Additionally, he co-founded Apperian, a Boston-based mobile technology startup.

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