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Simplifying complexity - The challenge of user-friendly telecom devices

Some months ago, my neighbour had asked me to help her set time and date on her new mobile phone and store her favourite numbers and addresses. I looked into the manual, and after about an hour we managed to do the job.

She would not have been able to succeed without help, although being a 55-year-old woman and representing quite a large user group. Modern telecom devices have become increasingly difficult to use. Customers not so familiar with new technology have trouble to operate them. Is this something we have to accept, or are there ways to make telecom devices more user-friendly? There are several reasons for this problem. Modern telecommunication devices are becoming increasingly complex, yet most of them need to become smaller and smaller. Increasing competition forces companies to keep their development costs low, and to bring their devices on the market as early as possible. Many features make it complex You may ask why we need all this complexity and all these features, which most of the users do not use anyhow. Firstly, there are the system requirements, such as more efficient radio interface standards or improved communication protocols. Secondly there are the numerous gadgets and features, with a growing number every day. A modern mobile phone for example is close to a digital me, providing all kinds of personal services to its owner, including camera, MP3 music player, PDA, navigation device and electronic purse. Latest surveys by Cap Gemini show that younger people want feature rich devices, whilst older customers would be happy with fewer features and simpler devices, of course at a lower price. Missing usability increases the digital divide There is a growing concern that missing usability is increasing the digital divide. Whilst younger people have fewer problems with complicated terminals, and even accept services like SMS, where they have to type in letters through numerical keypads, older people often dont adopt such services because they feel unable to operate them. Surveys like Eurescom project P903, Cross-cultural attitude to ICT in everyday life, showed that elderly people are using ICT services much less. However, they are increasingly adopting the basic telephony function of mobile phones. They are not so much accessing the Internet, probably because of the high threshold of operating a PC. The current research issues in usability and the economic value of usability are revealed in an interview with usability experts Dr. Nico Pals and Joke Kort from the Dutch research organisation TNO. There is light at the end of the tunnel There is a hope that more sophisticated technical solutions help to overcome the problems of operating complex devices. In the ideal case the user would just speak to his/her terminal, and the terminal would answer in understandable sentences. An article by linguistics experts Els den Os from Max Planck Institute and Dr. Lou Boves from the University of Nijmegen on the state to the art in speech recognition and artificial speech technology reports what is possible in this area. Another ideal way of operating devices would be to just control them through ones own thoughts. Although this sounds very futuristic, first achievements have been made in this area. An article from the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Architecture and Software Technology about the latest research in controlling devices directly through brain waves takes a look in the future. Until such sophisticated solutions will be reality, there is a lot of work by design experts necessary in order to make telecom devices as user-friendly as possible. A firsthand report from leading mobile phone manufacturer Nokia allows us a glance behind the curtain, showing in which direction the development of user-friendly mobile phones goes.The overview article by Eurescom mess@ge editor and Eurescom programme manager Peter Stollenmayer can be found in the December issue of Eurescom mess@ge at For more articles, please view the table of contents at A PDF version of Eurescom mess@ge 4/2004 is available for download at You can subscribe to the print edition of Eurescom mess@ge for free at,