What does the design of a smartphone assume?

Hooray for classes that get you to produce blog content.

As noted in the last post, I’m still a bit blog-blocked, but I’m also back in school. This means more Media Studies work and technology observations! Here is a post I wrote for a class on Interaction Design. We’re reading Janet Murray’s “Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice,” and she has exercises to get the wheels turning, like this one.

Choose a digital or mechanical artifact you use regularly and identify the cultural values that have shaped it. Does the design incorporate assumptions about privacy, space, leisure time, or other aspects of life that might vary across societies or groups? Does the artifact include features that reflect historical values, such as stricter gender roles? What activities does the artifact assume to be the most valuable? What related activities does it ignore or support less completely? How would the design be different if it came from a different cultural context?

Believe it or not, both of these were considered mid-range smartphones at one point.
Believe it or not, both of these were considered mid-range smartphones at one point.

Since I spend most of every day within arm’s reach of a smartphone, its features often feel unnoticeable or “transparent.” It is only when I’m having technical difficulties or need to replace my phone that I am forced to appreciate just how much it has transformed my everyday rituals. This design exploration helped reveal underlying assumptions behind the device.

The traditional function of a phone – making calls – is available but not encouraged by the smartphone’s design. One of the most striking features is how the front of the phone is entirely taken over by a screen used for web browsing and interacting with the content in various apps.

Calling and texting is de-prioritized by this physical setup. The screen will display a touchpad when I select the phone feature, but this only happens when I have the clear intent of making a call. Normally the touchpad is hidden, leaving an open canvas punctuated only by the icons that can be tapped to open apps. A keyboard can be brought up on the screen when I am messaging someone, but it is also a vehicle to type when tweeting or writing a caption for a photo on Instagram.

While these elements downplay some traditional “telephone” functions, it appears that legacy conventions are still valued by the design. The central button on the home screen brings me to a screen where I can make calls and search through contacts. Although the makers of the phone realized a typical user might not spend much time with the phone making calls, they valued the human connection element enough to make this one of the central default icons.

Assumptions about privacy, space, leisure time, etc

The device assumes that privacy is important, but leaves it to individual interactors to set privacy levels or educate themselves about security risks. A passcode, which can be alphanumeric or gestural, locks the phone, but the interactor must first create and store the code. The device itself does not prompt this action, although it is conventionally known to be a good practice. Once a code is set the phone can be locked with the touch of a button, and it automatically locks after a certain amount of idle time.

Privacy guidelines are even more murky in other situations. When in range of wifi networks the phone encourages the user to connect, but there is no warning dialog about the known security issues with wifi hotspots.

A smartphone is also designed with built-in assumptions about space and leisure time. The 4.7-inch screen on my phone is small enough to fit in my hand or be tucked into a large pocket. Its makers assumed that portability is essential, but that the user would tolerate more size than the phone’s forerunners had in order to use the screen. The screen was advertised as having a “self-healing” quality, and important parts of owning a smartphone include buying a case and having a protection plan. These details show that smartphones are build with the assumption that they will be brought with the user through their daily life, and will likely get damaged.

Although many of the apps can be scrolled through at a leisurely pace and I can document a vacation, play games or listen to music on the phone, I don’t conclude that it was build for a consumer with an excess of leisure time. Because of fast download speeds and the ease of scrolling through timelines on social media apps, the phone supports activities that are done in short bursts of time. Smartphones make email always accessible and the default notification noises sometimes work to prevent the interactor from “zoning out” or “unplugging.”

How the design would be different if it came from a different cultural context

The features of a smartphone which encourage constant use fit in with social trends in America, but might look different if phones were designed for various cultures. “For many Americans, cellphones are always present and rarely turned off,” according to a recent Pew Research study. Guidelines and protocols around acceptable times for cell phone use are still developing, but Mobile Research Intelligence, a Seattle-based research group that tracks and measures consumer use, found that Americans spend an average of 4.7 hours a day on their smartphones. The same group found that “Phoners in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico spend the least amount of time on their device – about two hours a day.”

In cultures which do not value or encourage constant mobile phone use, there could be more flexibility in the design with less pressure to make phones indestructible. In a culture which values leisure time and a slower pace of life, the phone might be larger and support tasks that require concentration such as writing, elaborate games or art, rather than quickly loading apps which help “kill time” or can be accessed quickly. Whole new habits and rituals might develop around using the phone less throughout the day, or as a meditative artifact rather than an “on the go” device.

Smartphone design also assumes access to electric outlets in which to charge batteries. In areas where power is scarce or cultures which value energy conservation, more development might be devoted to making solar powered smartphones or rechargeable batteries. Habits and rituals might develop around shared chargers or proper battery care that do not exist in a culture in which phones can be easily plugged in to recharge. If the culture was more attuned to communal well-being than individual responsibility, the individual user might not have to work as hard at securing their phone. Public wifi networks might be either be designed to be safer, or the phone itself might advise the user of security risks.

I’m sure I missed something in there. What else stands out about smartphones (or any other piece of technology) when you step back from daily use and think more deeply?


2 thoughts on “What does the design of a smartphone assume?

  1. For me, the standout part is the move from Blackberry-type smartphones (half keyboard, half screen with a fingerpad for scrolling) to almost exclusively full touch-screen phones. This has greatly improved visibility and readability of content, as well as ease of use for internal phone functions (switching apps, making calls). Blackberry-type smartphones were intended for business email users who needed a keyboard. I used to hate touch screens, but their usefulness can’t be understated. I imagine people who are visually impaired have different challenges depending on the phone. I also think the choice of physical buttons (volume, ringer/vibrate/mute, power) are probably correlated with some of the most commonly used phone functions.

    1. Good points! I was reluctant to switch over to touchscreens, too, but can’t imagine going back. I guess in a nostalgic way, I kind of miss a physical keyboard, but not in terms of what’s easier to use every day.

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