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How annoying is your phone?

This new mobile phone was designed to be very simple in function and easy to use. The top row of buttons gives instant dialling to three preselected phone numbers, with large “call” and “end call” buttons beneath. Below the keypad are simple power indicators (right) and a sliding on-off switch.

Kyocera Corporation

There is no doubt about the strong, worldwide demand for mobile phones — but are they always easy to use? As functions multiply within ever smaller devices, it seems that an increasingly complex series of steps might need to be followed in order (for instance) to find a stored e-mail address and send a message with an attached photo. According to the 2004 annual Lemelson-MIT Invention Index study carried out in the United States by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), nearly one in three adults said the mobile phone is the invention they most hate but cannot live without, narrowly beating the alarm clock and the television. “Cell phones have clearly been beneficial in terms of increasing worker productivity and connecting people with family and friends,” said Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, a non-profit organization that celebrates inventors and inventions. “However, the Invention Index results show that the benefits of an invention sometimes come with a societal cost.”

The issue of “usability” in technology has been recognized by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in two of its published standards: ISO 9241-11, and ISO 13407 which says “Human-centred design is characterized by the active involvement of users and a clear understanding of user and task requirements (as well as) an appropriate allocation of function between users and technology.” With regard to mobile phones, the question is being addressed in Japan, for example, by the introduction of handsets that are designed to be very simple to use. In September 2005, the carrier KDDI announced the release of “Simple Cell-Phones.” One of the models (manufactured by Japan’s Kyocera Corporation) offers voice-only services with easy-to-use controls, and is aimed at the growing market of senior citizens. Many other people, however, could also be attracted by a phone that is just that, and nothing more.

Design in communication devices should relate not only to the technology involved, but also to how the devices are used in daily life. Does your computer or your phone allow you to interact with it (and with people trying to contact you) in a way that is intuitive, convenient and comfortable?

A squirrel comes to the rescue

The Cellular Squirrel is a desktop robot that prevents you being disturbed by non-urgent phone calls.

Stefan Marti


When a phone rings (or, nowadays, plays a tune) people often find it impossible to resist answering immediately. Work is put aside, conversations with friends are interrupted, or (worst of all) a car driver’s attention is diverted from the road — in many cases, responding to a call can lead to inconvenience, or even danger. In the case of phones in an office or home, one solution to the problem could be to use a squirrel!

“Usability really just means making sure that something works well: that a person of average (or even below average) ability and experience can use the thing — whether it’s a website, a fighter jet, or a revolving door — for its intended purpose without getting hopelessly frustrated.” (Steve Krug “Don’t Make Me Think” Que Publishing, Indianapolis, United States, 2000.)

While a research student in the Speech Interface Group of the Media Lab at MIT, Stefan Marti developed an “autonomous interactive intermediary” that he calls the Cellular Squirrel. It is the cuddly, animatronic casing for a device that controls incoming calls in a sensitive way. Rather than responding passively by simply ringing at the same volume and tone every time, the squirrel attracts attention by, for example, winking its eye or nodding. It “is able to use the same subtle, but still public, non-verbal cues to get our attention and interrupt us like humans would,” Mr Marti says.

The squirrel also helps by deciding the importance of an incoming call, then either alerts the owner or takes a message. It does this by using what Mr Marti calls an “issue detection system.” He explains that, after answering the phone, the squirrel “engages the caller in a conversation using speech synthesis and speech recognition to get a rough idea of what the call might be about. Then it compares the recognized words with what it knows about what is currently ‘on the mind’ of the user. The latter is harvested continuously in the background from sources like the user’s most recent web searches, modified documents, e-mail threads, together with more long-term information mined from the user’s personal web page.”

The device has a duplex audio and duplex data connection to a phone via a class 1 Bluetooth module. It is controlled by connection to a personal computer.

Stefan Marti


  Inside the squirrel is a brass skeleton with micro servos to control movement, and there are sensors in its extremities to detect the owner’s touch.

Stefan Marti

Mr Marti constructed the Cellular Squirrel during his work towards his doctorate at MIT, and it remains simply a prototype. But he points out that his effort is part of a larger project that explores ways to make mobile communication devices better adapted to people’s needs. “Most people dislike cell phones because they either feel tethered to them or they are annoyed by others who use them in inappropriate public places, such as restaurants or movie theaters,” Mr Marti says. “We are exploring ways to give these devices human-style social intelligence, which means that they would know what we as owners expect them to do, and especially what not to do, without our having to tell them explicitly every time.”

Technology continues its rapid advance, but too often good design is ignored. We are frequently confronted by machines that demand our attention with flashing screens or buzzing alarms, and which are inflexible in how we are allowed to use them. This adds significantly to the stress of everyday life, even though we may find devices such as phones to be essential. As they become ever more complex, we will need to find ways to interact with them in a “human” style. Instead of passive lumps of metal and plastic, perhaps our future phones will become our cuddly companions.

World Usability Day

Although technology can bring wonderful benefits, poor design can lead to great frustration. On 3 November 2005, World Usability Day was marked by events around the world to highlight the importance of paying attention to the needs of people who actually use a device. According to the day’s organizers, the international, non-profit Usability Professionals’ Association based in Illinois (United States), the aim was to promote “the value of usability engineering, user-centred design, and every user’s responsibility to ask for things that work better.”

In Minneapolis (United States), for example, a World Usability Day event was addressed by Susan Dray, an expert in how people interact with computers. She described a visit to South Africa, where an interface had been designed for hand-held computers to allow the devices to be used by illiterate Bushmen. “They could then use their exquisite knowledge of animal habits to transmit extraordinarily valuable data to wildlife managers,” Ms Dray said.

Efforts to improve technology in developing countries fail, she said, when there is lack of awareness of what user needs really are, failure to develop products that meet those needs, and failure to continue relevant product support. This also applies to countries everywhere. Poor design of products or services can make many people give up trying to use something, because of the difficulty involved. This not only results in losses for business; it also creates completely unnecessary hurdles on the road to building a truly inclusive information society.



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