InformationWeek Article Bowen Research


Research: Those Over 30 Can't Figure Cell Phones Out

Posted by Eric Zeman, Sep 3, 2008 04:15 PM

According to some data from Bowen Research, more than one-third of adults over the age of 30 can't stand their cell phones. Why? They can't seem to figure them out. Those under 30 don't have the same problems. Are younger users better suited to some technologies?

For the record, I fall into the over 30 crowd. You're welcome to guess how far over 30, but I'm not telling.

Just this past weekend, my mother asked me how to use the speakerphone on her new cell phone. She couldn't figure out how to get it to work consistently. She's not alone. Bowen Research's Hugh Bowen notes that "even basic features like dialing, speakerphone and using the address book prove difficult and confusing for users 30 and up, a group that number more than 40 million in the United States. Many of these fed-up phone users spend time reading manuals and contacting customer service only to give up trying to determine how to use phone capabilities like texting, syncing with their computer, e-mail, games, and ringtones."

Cell phone manufacturers should take note here. The problem, it seems, stems from what those polled call confusing user interfaces. Some UIs — especially those found on smartphones — can be unbelievably dense (cough, cough, Windows Mobile, cough, cough). Tasks that aren't intuitive lead to frustration and many users will give up.

Mr. Bowen continues, "Cell phone manufacturers aim to distinguish themselves from their competition with increasingly complex features and unique interfaces, yet consumers over 30 have this frustrating sense of 'enough already'. That demographic wants features that are easily accessible, not lost in multiple levels of menus within menus; they want large fonts they can read; and they want a simpler button setup so they're not so confused about what they're doing, hitting keys by accident, etc."

I can only hope that Mr. Bowen is referring to the silver-haired set with this last comment. While I want features that are easy to find and use, my eyes aren't so bad that I need large fonts and my thumbs aren't so crippled with arthritis that they need large buttons. Yet. Guess what, phones such as this already exist and are already marketed to the Sept-, Sect- and Octogenarian sets.

But that doesn't take away from the research's discoveries about usability. Many study participants in the 30-and-over group noted that many cell phone features are impossible to learn and that cell phones are "out of your control" because you try to do one thing, and something different happens.

The end result is that the older folk skip out on most of the phone's features. Participants in the under 30 category indicated they used 52% of their phone’s features. That's respectable. That figure dropped to 40% for their more mature counterparts.

This is truly a shame, and something I hope mobile phone manufacturers and user interface developers pay attention to.