Overlooked, Part Two

A bit over two years ago, I vented about the increasing complexity and inconsistency in smartphone interfaces.

If you missed that post, or have forgotten it–two years is a long time to remember anything these days, given all the demands the ever-changing crisis du jour places on us–the gist was that Apple keeps changing their mind about how iPhones should work, while Google takes a laissez-faire approach, allowing developers to do pretty much whatever they want. The result is that, unless you’ve been following along with the evolution of your phone’s UI, there’s an Everest-level learning curve to surmount. At the time, I suggested that someone considering their first smartphone should take a look at the phones designed for seniors; two years on, I’m not sure that’s still a valid recommendation.

Because it seems as though there’s an unnatural law that the more complicated a product is, the less documentation comes with it.

For many smartphones, the documentation seems to consist largely of a single piece of paper showing you where to insert the SIM*–with no explanation of what it is and what it does–and a peel-off sticker on the screen that points to the various buttons and ports.

* Back in the day of the flip phone, your contact list was saved on the SIM. Moving to a new phone? Transfer the SIM and all your saved data was magically on the new device. Although SIMs can still store contacts, no phone has done so by default for at least a decade, and some don’t support it at all. Current phones store contacts on their internal storage, just like any other data. Yet phone salespeople are daily confronted by people who demand that their old SIM be installed in their new phone because “I can’t lose my phone numbers”.

Even the Jitterbugs and other senior-focused phones are cutting back on paper documentation in favor of on-device “Help”. If you can figure out how to access the help screens, you probably know enough about the device that you don’t need them.

And it’s not just smartphones.

Bought a computer lately? Very few come with any printed documentation beyond the legally mandated safety information. It’s a rare day when I don’t have to show someone how to turn on their new computer. As for the difference between “Shut Down” and “Sleep”? Don’t get me started.

Even gadgets that use to be simple enough for anyone to figure out are succumbing to the trend. Think about the simple alarm clock. You’ll have to think about it, because you probably can’t find one. First the manufacturers added radios. Then came multiple alarms, followed by on-ceiling displays, charging ports, and integrated coffee makers. And yet the manual will typically be four pages of illustrations intended to be language-independent.

Fortunately, one variety of device continues to keep documentation creators employed: the landline phone. I bought a new phone system for my mother a year or so ago. It comes with five phones, has a built-in answering machine, speakerphone capability, and large, (fairly) clearly labeled buttons. To make a call, you dial the number and press “Phone”. Maybe not totally intuitive for those used to waiting for a dial tone, but simple enough that most people eventually figure it out. Of course, if they can’t, they can always refer to the handy manual included in the box. It’s 104 pages long–and the section on making a call takes up a grand total of two of those pages. (I just read those pages, and it turns out if you miss hearing a dial tone you can use it in more or less the traditional way: pick it up and then dial (you do still need to press “Phone” for it to actually dial, but it’s still a nice nod to user expectations.

Even better, you can actually hang up the phone. That’s right: unlike your smartphone, if you set this phone down in its cradle, it disconnects the call! Try slamming your smartphone down to express your rage at the latest telephone scammer and all you’ll get is an expensive repair bill.

Too bad the telcos are doing their level best to do away with landlines, much less landline phones.