Over on SvN there’s been some discussion about the ideal mobile phone UI and how it hasn’t really been designed yet.

I imagine the market in the USA may be completely different, but from what I know about the South African and UK mobile phone markets, I think that the lack of progress in simplifying the user interface design of mobile phones may in fact be deliberate.

The reality is that pretty much all brands of mobile phones have their unique brand of user interface. The usability isn’t great in ANY of them — pick up a strange phone and half the time you can’t even work out how to make a call! Some people view this as a real limitation and only really learn how to use a very few functions of their phones. More often, especially amongst younger people, a LOT of time is invested in working out how to use the phone, finding all the hidden little features that are badly (or not at all!) documented. Learning how to use your new phone is almost like a game.

With each successive phone, however, it can get very tedious to learn how to do the bog-standard things (making a call, sending a text) all over again. Even those who like the challenge would prefer to be finding NEW functionality rather than rediscovering the wheel every time they buy a phone. This is what leads to self-imposed brand lockin.

In the UK, there are many people who won’t even consider moving away from the brand of mobile phone that they first bought (and invested the time to learn how to operate). There are Nokia people, Motorola people and Ericsson people, but very few people move brand, unless there is a really distinctive new feature to move across for. One such example was the introduction of the Motorola Razr — the thin shape was so desirable that many people crossed the brand line to try the new phone.

When you consider that the cellphone manufacturers have actually managed to get people to self-impose brand lockin, it’s hardly surprising that they continue to keep the UI divergent and non-intuitive! After all, this has previously been a great strategy in other markets — you can’t tell me that there’s any other reason that usability lock-in to explain the prevalence of Lotus Notes?