Originally, I posted a response to a blog post written by my colleague, Felipe Smolka, that really grabbed my attention—definitely give it a read here. I decided I’d elaborate my response further and give it some more thought outside the confines of a comment post.
Bear in mind that this post is a response to the aforementioned article and it should be read first.
I’ve always valued user experience (UX) and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), so the idea of the iPhone prevailing based on UX is always a great anecdote to me. It’s easy to say, 11+ years after its initial release, that it’s the most popular mobile device by far. The iPhone paired with other Apple products provide a great and inclusive ecosystem… but I think that looking back to 2007 really shows the importance of UX vs. feature-set.
In 2007, before iPhones released, everybody had a Blackberry or a Razr in their hands–and these phones were GREAT (by 2007’s technological standards). They could send MMS, take videos and utilize Bluetooth to share files (videos, music, etc.) … and then the iPhone released.
The iPhone, when it was released, couldn’t share files over Bluetooth. The iPhone could NOT send MMS. The iPhone couldn’t even take videos!
… but the UX was just too good to ignore.
Does look and feel outweigh feature function?
Losing those features was an okay trade-off for the population of users. It didn’t take much to weigh the gains against the losses—the iPhone was sleek and new. It utilized an incredibly smooth touch screen. Apple’s use of scrolling through lists was ahead of its time (and even now, higher performance machines still struggle with a good touch scroll). The phone felt good while being held, partially due to the rounded edges. Apple took it one step further and even gave the app icons rounded edges!
Apple positioned the phone in a great way as well. The iPhone’s predecessors were iPods that completely took over the digital music market. Utilizing the experience and integrating the iTunes and music experience into a phone made it so fewer devices were being carried around. It was a phone that was also your music player (that you wanted) and also your camera!
These little pieces of HCI made the user feel good to use the iPhone, even if it was very rudimentary at the time. The ease of use paired with the smooth navigation between screens outweighed the lost features that were becoming integral to mobile devices at the time—and it wasn’t until years later that those features became available from Apple.
I think the automotive industry has taken a blended approach, overall, to adopting this methodology. They’re making a shift towards a better UX, but sacrificing some of the things people (maybe enthusiasts) love about cars. With a computer controlling more processes behind driving, it really doesn’t feel as personal as it used to. I’m in the dwindling population of drivers who prefer manual transmissions, and every tech-infusion for the consumer electronics show (which has become increasingly automotive focused) or the Chicago Auto Show, or any other litany of car shows has meant losing more of what I love about driving in lieu of technological progress.
Low-cost commodity vs. high-cost commodity
Another point of distinction is that phones and cars are in distinctly different price ranges. Phones were traditionally a low-cost commodity (but not so much in the recent years!) with short lifespans and could be replaced quickly and relatively easily. On the other hand, for most people, cars were (and still are) long-term commitments. For these people, cars aren’t replaced annually or biennially. Phone plans used to allow the buyer to choose a new phone every two years. Because phones were low-cost commodities, carriers didn’t mind eating the cost of them, as the cellular plans would more than cover it.
Cars, however, were not. There was no subscription for which you paid for continued use. Cars have always been quite expensive, and thus the ownership aspect was meant to go for a long time. These were meant for longevity, for continued daily use, and for reliability in commuting.
With that in mind, over the last decade, features in cars have increased drastically while features in phones lagged in innovation. The secret sauce of what made the iPhone great didn’t need to be changed—just improved using better ingredients. And feature changes in phones (the iPhone in particular) weren’t as noticeable, as they could be updated over the air, resulting in many minor incremental upgrades pushed over short time windows through the course of many years.
With new features in vehicles, though, it wasn’t the same. The car you’re driving doesn’t receive upgrades in the same way. It’s the nature of software vs. hardware. Most feature changes in vehicles have resulted from improvements in technology, but if you drove the same car for a decade, upon the purchase of a new car, the shock of seeing everything can be overwhelming.
Turn keys evolved into push to start. Vehicle idling received start-stop technology. Engines shut off half their cylinders while cruising to conserve fuel. Back up cameras became mainstream. Autonomous driving is becoming feasible. Remote start is becoming a common option.
The cost of these upgrades come with inherent differences.
These features all came through advances in technology that couldn’t be pushed at no cost to somebody driving a car currently—thus it’s no surprise that manufacturers are looking to the industry where frequent turnaround for new devices annually or biennially was not only expected, but embraced. The incremental upgrades that manufacturers are now touting that show up annually during these auto shows, consumers embrace. Finding a model by replicating what was done with iPhones for years is the next step—and as everything transitions to the “as-a-service” model, vehicles-as-a-service seems increasingly feasible.
The industries are shifting business models.
The iPhone, though, seems to be undergoing the reverse as we look at it now. Users are keeping their phones for longer periods of time, no longer opting to change them out annually. This shift can partially be attributed to higher costs of the phones themselves, but also because of carriers no longer subsidizing them.
Seeing both the automotive and mobile phone industry undergoing these changes, almost opposite to one another, is an intriguing shift. It’s important to note that the massive shift to the iPhone came about when the industry was burgeoning—but now it’s saturated. Meanwhile, the auto industry has been saturated for decades and is looking towards the model that the iPhone took during its insurgence.
Either way, both are commodities relied upon almost daily by every person in the United States and all of us will be affected in one way or another. But what I learned from 2007 when I got my first iPhone and switched carriers to boot (remember when it was exclusive?) is that UX overwhelmingly means more than all the features that can be touted. This, in fact, is the most valuable business lesson I’ve ever learned: do what’s best for your user’s experience. After all, features can always be added later.
Let me know what you think. Contact us here.
About the author
Frank Zhang serves as a product manager for LeasePlan USA. In this role, he focuses on delivering a superb user experience with intuitive, customer-centric and data-driven solutions. Frank has focused his career in the fleet and software industries, always focused on bringing value through client success. He served in the U. S. Army for six years and earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Georgia.