Bad things happen when the buyer and the user aren’t the same person

I was at Technology Review’s Emerging Technology Conference (TRETC) today which was great and about which I have much to say. Before I delve through my notes to put up some posts, something occurred to me based on several things I heard today.

First I overheard someone say to a colleague who had just gotten a new motorola phone that Motorolas have crappy interfaces, which I wholeheartedly agree with.

Second In the panel discussion “Online Application War” someone pointed out that the reason so many enterprise applications (interestingly he singled out all of Oracle’s back office applications) have crappy user experiences is that the buyer probably never has to use the system. This likely means that these apps are being bought on the basis of feature checklists. (The extension of this is that the beauty of web apps is that people can make an end run around their IT department to use apps they want to without having to get permission).

So this brings me back to my hypothesis about why people buy so many Motorola phones: the “person” who is buying the phone has never used the phone. They’re making a decision based on features (camera: check, games:check) and the look of the phone. Most buyers never get an opportunity to actually try the phone out, because most of the display models are empty cases with stickers for screens. Which is why Motorola must justify spending so much more on industrial design than UI design. Imagine if people were forced to buy cars this way?

Once the user gets the phone home and uses it, it is either too late or too much hassle to return it (or they just don’t expect enough). Then they get used to the warts, two years go by and the cycle starts anew. Should I take the pink phone, or pay extra for the same phone in blue?

[Update] – I found this post (and related comment thread) on the lackluster UIs in all cell phones over at 37signals.

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