What killer feature is missing from smartphones, apart from better battery life?

When the iPhone 7 launched, it was widely criticised in the technology media for being evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Likewise, the Google Pixel is considered a better implementation of existing features than existing Android Competitors but fails to offer something decidedly new. This begs the question, can smartphone companies still innovate? Or are the days of people getting excited by new smartphone launches with a world-changing feature behind us?

As Arthur C Clarke once wrote, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". However, it seems with time, what was once considered magical becomes mundane. A quick trawl of the internet suggests that the feature many are crying out for is improved battery life. However, an article with four of us asking for improved batteries would be decidedly dull, so we put the question to our UXers Kenton, Adi and Adam:

“What killer feature is missing from smartphones, apart from better battery life?”

Kenton

You can custom build a PC so why not custom build a phone? Phone companies seem to land themselves in trouble when they unexpectedly cut features or hardware from their latest updates (hello headphone jack). But what if you could add take a skeletal phone frame and go from there. Now you can decide what’s important to you and prioritize accordingly.

Google tried something similar with Project Ara, which they officially canned in September 2016. Essentially you buy a basic model which you can augment by pulling off and swapping out modular components. These components range from better cameras to more memory, bigger displays, additional sensors and scanners, you get the idea.

The project wasn’t without its share of issues though. With so many different modules you have to make sure they all play nicely with each other. Furthermore, each component is its own separate device leading to a phone that is far bulkier than its regular counterpart. I think the real kicker though is it’s just too complicated for most users. It runs directly counter to the mantra of simplicity and ease of use. Having said that, I still think there is some potential in the idea. Perhaps if it were more akin to a PC Specialists but for your phone.

Drop down menus would let you choose your case (rugged or sleek?), display, processor, memory and all sorts. And when it starts to wane in a couple of years time, don’t throw it out a buy a whole new phone, upgrade your old one!  

Adi

I have two young daughters who’ve perfected the art of stealing my phone. So far it’s been dropped on the floor, in the bathroom sink (the most likely room for a woman to break her phone), in their cereal, out the car… you get the idea. This has caused varying levels of damage to it. The most serious being the sink incident which required replacing it completely. And, to add insult to injury, I’d only had the phone about four months (unfortunately, the average iPhone sustains some sort of damage just 10 weeks after purchase!).

After encouraging my husband to join the modern world and replace his brick with a smartphone, it very quickly decided to take a trip down the toilet (57% more likely to happen if you’re male). After getting his first iPhone he experienced the frustration of 25% of iPhone owners by breaking the screen (16% more likely to happen if you’re aged 18 – 24).

While we’ve managed to avoid this so far, one in eight households damages an electronic device during a celebration with 33% of those devices being a smartphone – hugely frustrating when Christmas and birthdays are already a huge expense without a broken smartphone to add to the cost. We already pay enough as it is, without the added expense of repairing damage or replacing one altogether when it breaks. Considering there are already life proof cases on the market, I’d like to see phones become a lot more durable, especially when it comes to liquids!  

Adam

Smartphones have become an essential tool, both in people’s personal and professional lives. However, that change hasn’t always been beneficial. According to a study by Nottingham Trent University, the average person checks their smartphone 88 times per day:  Unfortunately, these 88 times are likely to include several worrying habits including:

  • Compulsive checking (usually caused by fear of missing out)
  • Phantom buzzes (thinking they felt the phone vibrate when it didn’t)
  • “Leaky” Interactions (starting one task, being distracted by something else and continuing to use the phone).

According to a Deloitte’s 2016 Mobile Consumer Survey, 68% of British adults use their smartphone whilst having dinner with family. Even worse, 1 in 3 admit to checking their smartphone after they have gone to bed, interrupting sleep and reducing the ability to switch off.

This smartphone dominated lifestyle may have a detrimental effect on our health and wellbeing. A study, conducted by the University of Frankfurt and published in Journal of Occupational Health Psychology indicates that extended work availability had a negative impact on three core mood components the following morning: energetic arousal, calmness and valence. It also increased cortisol (stress hormone) levels the next morning.

Whilst we may have reached the era of peak smartphone, with sales growth slowing and technology companies only making minor, incremental improvements, I believe that it’s time for designers to take stock of the unintended, negative consequences their products are having and deliver a new killer feature: Contextually aware, AI powered notifications. Your smartphone notifications are fundamentally broken, due to a lack of contextual awareness.

If you were confident that your phone would alert you about relevant activity across all applications, you wouldn’t check it so frequently. When I pull out my phone to take a photo on a beach, I don’t want to be confronted by business emails. However, I don’t want to miss out on opportunities either. So why not process that information and surface it at a more appropriate time? It might be appropriate later that day to share some time-sensitive information whilst I’m sat messing about on Reddit or Facebook as my wife tries on clothes in a shop. (Sorry Becca!)

Alternatively, some of that information can wait until I’m back at my desk. The ability to intelligently discern when to bother me is nuanced. It depends on context rather than simple rules such as time or location. Not only that, but this service shouldn’t be restricted to email. Sometimes I’ll have business discussions on WhatsApp or iMessage and occasionally I’ll have a personal discussion on Slack. With appropriate privacy controls I’d like this new tool to screen out all of the noise. To eliminate the fear of missing out and help me live in the present.

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