Striking the balance between useful and burdensome

You could make a cool phone people use a lot that then drains its battery or one with lots of power that is a pain to drag around. It's a problem Billy MacInnes has been thinking about

I must admit that I missed this interview in the FT first time around with the man whose name is usually preceded with the three words “Apple design guru”. I’m talking of Jony Ive.

I got to it via a report about the interview on ZDNet which highlighted an intriguing aside about the iPhone and its perceived short battery life.  The FT article revealed that when the issue of people needing to recharge their iPhone frequently was raised, Ive replied it was a consequence of people using the phone so much and depleting the battery because it was so light and thin. With a bigger battery it would be heavier, more cumbersome, less “compelling”.

In other words, there’s a kind of circular logic at play here where the work put into developing a design that encourages people to spend more time using their iPhone also leads to them depleting its battery much more quickly because they’re using it so much.

Ives’ argument is that Apple could have made an iPhone with a bigger battery that lasted longer but people who bought it would probably have used it less. While that would be good news on the battery front, it would be negated by the fact that the phone would be a less effective device and would be used less because it was bulkier and uglier.

The other point, although Ives didn’t mention it, is that if battery life is a live issue because it doesn’t last as long as you’d like, you’re probably spending more time physically looking at your phone and interacting with it than you would be if the battery life was guaranteed to last 24 hours at a time. You’re going to be spending more time thinking of when and where to recharge it and how to use it while you’re recharging it.

So not only does the better design of the phone encourage you to use it more but the limited battery life forces you to spend more time thinking about the phone and to pay more attention to it.

By contrast, a phone with a bigger, longer lasting battery and a weaker design, loses out on both counts. You’re not going to use it as much because it’s not as friendly and intuitive as the iPhone and you’re not going to have to think about it as much because the battery life lasts much longer. When you think about it, that’s much closer to our approach to high-end mission-critical IT equipment where we want to have as little to do with it as possible.

For ordinary people, however, if they buy a device like a phone or tablet and they don’t use it a lot, the general feeling is that they’ve wasted their money. Apple’s (and Ives’) trick has been not just to design something that people want to buy but to make sure they want to use it afterwards. That’s not as easy as it seems.

This was last published in June 2015

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