In this paper I will discuss the pervasive awkwardness and tensions brought by the omnipresent usage of mobile phone, and propose some simple solutions to these phenomena.
As technology progresses, mobile phone developers tend to integrate increasingly more new features and functions such as cameras, touch screens, mp3 players or the capability to connect to the internet, into current cell-phones, but very little efforts have been made into reviewing the psychological aspect of the users and the emerging emotional needs caused by this relatively new form of communication. Although there is a lot of research focusing on the social phenomena and social impact brought by mobile phones, the results seem to have very little influence upon the development of the cell-phone.
My project conducted an “urban probe” approach to do the user research and highlight the most often seen emotional needs pervading mobile communication processes, mainly focusing on the process of “using cell phones to talk”, taking a micro perspective toward the process itself and propose “mobile collar”, a multi-functional device that provides the pre-interaction possibility to the users, as the solution of those emotional needs. Hopefully by doing so, I can provide different thoughts for the future mobile-phone development.
Having our mobile phone with us nowadays is not an option for most people anymore. We have to have our cell-phones with us in order to be reachable to our families, friends and business associates, otherwise people would consider us “inconsiderate” and “hard to keep in touch with”. Even kids bring their phones with them to ease the anxiety level of their parents and to alleviate the concerns that they might be “kidnapped” or “in danger”.
However, while people take the presence of their cell-phones for granted, the “side effects” emerge in many different ways. The issue I’m going to talk about is mainly inherent in the process of “using cell-phones to talk”. My main interest is how people conform themselves to the technology and thus, create awkwardness and frustrations in the communicational process. Based on the results of my user survey, I proposed a “pre-interaction” gadget as the solution of this phenomenon. By providing possible solutions to the problematic scenarios, my intention is not only to propose a new gadget that could deal with the pervasive “mobile awkwardness”, but also to arouse people’s awareness of the their emotional needs toward mobile phone usage.
The options we have when our phones ring are extremely limited: either to pick up and talk or reject the call. It may seem stupid to even argue about the options we have for someone who takes this fact for granted, nevertheless, if we look at the inherent differences between human beings and computers carefully, it will be clear why this is an issue.
As human beings, the way we communicate is analog, which means we have many different layers while interact with others. For example, when we run into someone on the street, we may say hello, hug this person, shake hands, nod to him, or ignore him. Each option, again, has many different levels to send different messages, like saying hello in a passionate tone or saying hello in an antiseptic way. Not to mention we can easily come up with more options in this scenario. On the other hand, when it comes to how computers work, it’s all about digital, which means 1 or 0; yes or no. Despite the fact that we can give computer orders to enable it to react in different manners to different conditions, the essence of the smart machine is still digital. There is no ambiguity inherent in computers, which is probably a good feature in many cases. But in the case of current cell-phone design, I found the digital feature of answering a phone quite problematic. The interesting content of “example of mobile phone anti-social behavior” contest (Jan Chipchase 2008), in which Jan Chipchase asks people to post their most “anti-social mobile behavior” on his blog is a good demonstration of how universal these awkward experiences are. People around the world submitted their frustrated (yet entertaining) experiences of how they suffer from the limited options provided by cell-phones in many different ways, but in the mean time, because of the importance of it, they tend to bear with it and try to ignore the inconveniences and the problems.
Here I divided the behavior of using a mobile phone into two different segments to simplify and organize the problems: Making a call / Answering a call. In each category I will describe briefly the problematic scenario and also provide my thoughts regarding potential solutions. It is not to say that these scenarios contain all the problems we are facing, but these are the pin points that I found haven’t been dealt with too much.
Making a call: One of the most commonly seen problems of mobile phones is that they ring at inappropriate times or situations. For instance, it could be when someone is in an important meeting or in the middle of a funeral. Once this happens, it can cause tensions in the environment and create anger and awkwardness between people and their surroundings. It is now a social protocol to turn your phone off or at least into vibrate mode when the surroundings are not suitable for picking up a call, and we tend to blame anyone, even strangers, who do not obey these social rules by staring and other non-verbal body-movements.( 02). However, in our daily lives, the times that one should switch his cell phone on/off happens frequently. It is human nature to forget and make mistakes.
When making calls, the callers tend to assume the receiver is picking up the calls all the time. Thus the results of disconnection or rejections cause frustration. The waiting process inherent in making calls makes callers anxious because of the uncertainty of the result. In the last chapter of Howard Rheingold’s “Smart Mobs”, the author noted:
“The intervention of digital technology into social relationship carries another danger: People may start reacting to mechanical artifacts as if they were reacting to people, and badly designed communication devices may cause people to blame each other for the shortcomings of their machines.”
The same problem lies in the answering process: when our phones ring, the limited option of Yes and No (pick up or reject a call) ignores some subtle emotional needs we have. For example, what if you want to take the important incoming call you are having but you need a little bit of extra time, say 20 seconds, to prepare yourself? The answer is that you might miss the call if you do so, because the caller might lose his/her patience and give up, which sometimes could damage your opportunity or even career. Or what if you have to reject an incoming call but in the mean time you want to give the caller an assurance that you got it and will call him/her back as soon as possible? Another need is that people don’t want the callers to know that they are rejecting the call because it is considered rude, so they just ignore the call. However, a lot of people don’t really know how to mute the ring without rejecting the call, which makes the “wait until the caller hangs up” period painful and awkward. In these situations, we suffer from the rigid form of mobile communication. The current technology in use ignores these potential needs and causes inconvenience and frustration. The tendency to ignore emotional needs is similar in the telephone answering system. The frustration comes from the rigid response, and commands from the computer; (press 1 if you…), which hinders you from talking to a customer service person. In both cases we have to conform ourselves to the limited options and “act as setting”. “In other words, the technical opportunity to become friendlier is also an opportunity to become unfriendly at a more decisive level………..What I wanted, in a direct sense, was relief from the (technological) disruption “ (03)
The main reason for this problem is that under the constraint of limited options, we have no way to express ourselves before picking up / hanging up a call. The lack of direct interaction causes both sides (the caller and the receiver) anxiety. The caller doesn’t know whether if the receiver rejected the call simply because it was not a good time or if it was because the receiver forgot to bring his phone. The receiver, on the other hand, has no way to tell the caller either “just a minute, I will pick it up” or “yes, I got it, I will call you ASAP”, which is exactly what I want to propose: add these options. By providing either the assuredness of picking up or calling back, the direct interaction between both sides can help demolishing the uncertainty and thus comfort the anxiety level.
Below are some projects that are related to my field of interest. Although the directions of each project are diverse, all of them were more or less dealing with the emotional needs of human beings in the digitalized communication. Instead of providing more practical features, this project proposed some not-yet seen features in response to their observations towards a human’s non-obvious emotional needs. By talking through briefly about each project, I will highlight how these ideas are similar and different from mine.
James Auger, Jimmy Loizeau, Stefan Agamanolis, 2003, Iso-phone: a total submersion telephonic experience
This project focuses on sensing the conversation and experiencing the human-to-human communication through mobile phones. The intention, according to the authors, is to “examine how tele-communications might exist from a perspective that priorities quality of experience over the design industry’s blinkered notion of efficiency, often represented in multi-modal, omnipresent services and portable products.” Although the end result of their project is more like a scenario than an actual proposal for future development, the main argument (human emotional needs’ priorities in current design) is strongly related to my on-going project. The main difference between this project and mine is that they focused on dealing with the “lost intimacy” in the telecommunication process. My project is more focus on dealing with the pervasive but being ignored emotional needs inherent in the telecommunication process and is in a more particle form.
Jenny Chowdhury, 2005 The popularity Dialer
This project is well-recognized on the internet, the intention is enable you to order a fake phone call at a particular time to feel important, avoid a contact, or plan an excuse through their service. It worked exactly in the field that I am working on. The importance of the emotional need is highly emphasized. Actually this project is exactly why I pull off the “When in need” section while categorized the problem. It was even more popular than the authors have expected and became a service on-line until FCC ban their business. I think the popularity of this project validate my argument. Although this project stands at the same stance at which my project is standing on, the approaches we took are very different. My project is more like a product design proposal when this project is a service system. Also the choices of which state of the phone usage process our projects trying to deal with are different.
They claim their motivation on the index page of their website “we are interested in the frustration and anger caused by other people’s mobile phone”. Although it put a strong emphasis on the social aspect and invented five whole new different types of mobile, the argument on emotional needs should be dealt with is strongly connected to my concept. Their scenarios showed the same awareness of how technology shapes our behaviors, and this project took it further by utilizing it.
The first iteration of my project was taking an “Culture Probes” approach to get to understand my target audience better. Although almost everyone uses mobile phone nowadays, I consider the target audience of my project is people at their 18-35, students or professional workers that constantly have class times or meetings. The main reason is that the frequency they have to turn on/off their phones is relatively higher then people in other age ranges, which makes observing their behavior more valuable than others.
In order to understand my potential users better, I needed to understand their attitude toward mobile phones. Also I wanted to find out what were the most common mobile phone problems they have. So I put up an event on Facebook, asked people to provide their most awkward mobile phone usage experiences by free writing (I asked them just to comment on the message board) form, they can either tell their personal awkward experiences or just saying what they like or dislike about their cell phones.
l Bad timing calls and the lack of immediate control of the ringing phones: the later one actually make the first one worse in many cases: when people have to fish their phones while having bad timing calls, that “trying to find it” period of time is the most awkward.
l People feel obligated to answer the incoming calls: in some cases, they picked up when they shouldn’t have, for example, while on toilets, which lead to the leak of information and thus created some awkward situations.
l Not enough control of information: as mentioned above, the leak of information could causes awkwardness. On the other hand, the lack of information could also cause problems. Some people’s awkward experiences are about they wanted to communicate to the caller without picking up the calls. For example, a girl wrote about how she wanted to warn her boyfriend that her mother was around, so she changed the manner in which she talked while seeing the incoming call from him. But she couldn’t, so the conversation ended up becoming really awkward.
Another probe I took was asking people to stop using their mobile phones for 3 days. The intention was to see people’s attitude toward their phones, and to see what kind of role mobile phones play in our daily lives. I asked 34 people to do this, most of them are college or graduate students at Parsons. Interestingly, almost all of them refused the proposal to stop using their phones for three days right away. Some even said they never turn their phones off even when sleeping, so there is no way they can stop using their phones for three days. I then addressed another question to those said no: How many calls you make / get a day? To my surprise, the most common answer was 3-5 calls, which is not many at all. People don’t get as many calls as they think they might. Although most people only receive 5 calls a day, most people would refuse to live without mobile phones. At the end, I found three people that volunteered to give up using their phone for 3 days. I asked them to keep a note on what they found different in their daily lives without phones, and interviewed them afterwards.
Combine with the earlier observations, the patterns I found through this probe are listed below:
l People mentally rely on mobile phones. They like the concept of “having the option to make emergency calls”.
l For some not so heavy users, not having their phones with them is fine, but if their contacts stop bringing their phones with them, it will drive them crazy. That shows how people see mobile phone as accesses to others. I consider that as an important reason for people to want their phones with them all the time: to have accesses to other people.
l According to my three participants, they all mentioned while not having their phones with them, how they felt about how time changed: they all felt time seemed to flow slower. I think that represents how technology can shape our lifestyles and effect how we feel about our lives.
Giving all the results from the probes, I found that the main problem is the lack of control. We don’t have enough control of our mobile phones either mentally or physically. Also, due to the rigid form provided by current technology, we don’t have enough control of the information. Another interesting thing is that people tend to think it’s the receivers’ full responsibility to control their phones instead of the callers’ responsibility to call at the right time.
Considering the result of my user probes, I decided to propose a gadget that provides pre-interaction functions and enables the users to gain more control of their mobile phones. The gadget would look like a wrist watch and has three buttons on it. Basically it works like a remote of your mobile phone. Each button has different function but they all mute your ringing phone right away to help you avoid the potential awkwardness brought by the ring-tones. ( so you don’t have to fish for it.)
The “yes” (O) button will give the caller an immediate assurance that shows on the caller's screen, that says: "hey, please hold on for 15 sec, I will pick up this call, just need a sec". In the mean time by delaying the actual talk, the receiver is allowed to be prepared of the delay. The “no” (X) button will reject the call, but also send a message to the caller says" hey, I got it but its not a great time for me. I'll call u back ASAP". By actual reacting to the button, the receiver can give the caller a sense of assurance, also preventing himself from being rude and just declining the call. The “ignore” (-) button just simply mute the call, allows the users to pretend they didn't get the calls.
With these pre-interaction features, the users ( the receivers) can interact with the callers before the conversations actually happen. The callers also get real-time feedbacks so they won’t be as anxious as they might be. In another words, both sides(caller and the receiver) can be less anxious.
To illustrate this concept better, I made two video scenarios; one is about how the reject button can help a professional worker avoiding the awkwardness in his surrounding (which is an important meeting) and the tension between his caller (which is his inpatient wife); another is about how the answer button can helped giving a freelance programmer more time to prepare himself taking a VIP’s call.
Evaluation and Future Development
To see if my design clicked on the users, I held a focus group and designed a questionnaire asking the potential users would they want to use the gadget; and if this was an actual product, would they buy it; how they feel about the functionalities and the appearance; what they would want to change or add…etc.
8 of 13 participants said they would buy the gadget and like the functionalities of it. However, 4 of them mentioned that they want to make it smaller and modify the buttons a bit. By observing their reactions and asking them questions, I found that my proposal clicked on the heavy users who have already been suffering from their phone behaviors the most. 2 of them (Jia, 27,Rohini,25, graduate students)got very excited right after my introduction of the gadget and said “ yeah, that’s what I need”, also a professional worker(Mark, 29, project Manger) said he has been wanting his phone to have this kind of function so he can provide his clients more a sense of assurance for a long time . On the other hand, those 5 who said they wouldn’t use it are people who have more distant relationships with their cell phones. They always turn their phones into vibrate mode, they don’t check their phone every hour, and they don’t care about their phones as much as those who would use the gadget. One of the participants (Kenneth 29, designer) just simply put “ I just don’t use my phone that much, I don’t need this”. One common feedback I got is that people were hesitated to wear another accessory, and they asked if this gadget could be in other forms. Another feedback I have is that people asked if they can customized their own message to adapt to different situations and their personal tastes. While considering the future development of this project, these feedbacks are really valuable.
Overall, I think my proposal does have its merit for people who have problems controlling their phones, especially for those heavy users. By dealing with some of the non-obvious emotional needs we have, the functions I proposed here can alleviate the anxiety level and decrease certain degree of awkwardness, which are what I was shooting for at the first place. However, to develop this project to the next stage, for example, to the field of product design, I definitely need to do more research and iteration on the look and feel side of prototyping. Another possible field for the future development of this project is critical design. The rough idea I have for now is to change the form of the gadget from wrist watch to collar, make people actually wear this device on their neck and push each other’s button. I presume that will change people’s feelings toward this project dramatically. But at the same time I think it will also change the focus of the project. For now the simple pre-interaction gadget is aiming on providing more control and options to our emotional needs. Hopefully I can take it further in the future.
l Jan Chipchase 2008 “mobile phone anti-social behavior” event, http://www.janchipchase.com/blog/archives/2008/02/monday_morning.html#comments
l Barry Brown, Nicola Green, and Richard Harper (Eds) 2002,Wireless World: social and interact ional aspect of the mobile age
Steve Talbot, 2007 Devices of the soul”
l Howard Rheingold, 2002, Smart Mobs
l Anthony Dunne, 1999, Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design.
l James Auger, Jimmy Loizeau, Stefan Agamanolis, 2003, Iso-phone: a total submersion telephonic experience