Essays & Articles


Minimizing the annoyance of the mobile phone

The Annoyance, Irritation, and Frustration of The Mobile Phone — A Design Challenge

Nearly one in three (30%) adults say the cell phone is the invention they most hate but cannot live without, according to the eighth annual Lemelson-MIT Invention Index study.

It is easy and fun to think of the great advances in telecommunications, computation, and entertainment that will mark the next few years. But while we may relish the thought of all those wonderful technologies and opportunities, let us also remember that these come at a cost. The cost is partially monetary, but more and more it is in human-measures: annoyance, irritation, and frustration. It is what makes us wish to throw away the technology even as we embrace it.

We are in real danger of a consumer backlash against annoying technologies. We already have seen the growth of mobile-phone free zones, of prohibition against phone use, camera use, camera phones, in all sort of public and private places. The mobile phone has been shown to be a dangerous distraction to the driver of an automobile, whether hands-free or not. If we do nothing to overcome these problems, then the benefits these technologies bring may very well be denied us because the social costs are simply too great.

There are many sources of frustration or potential liability. Here are five:

Technological — equipment that fails to work as advertised (“can you hear me now?”).

Poor usability design — “I know there is some way to do this, but I can’t figure out how”).

Lack of control — the telephone demands attention on its own terms, not when we wish it (I’m sorry, but I should probably answer this”).

Annoyance imposed upon others — all those around the users of the technology (overheard, personal conversations).

Safety while driving.

Technological Limitations

Technological limitations are obvious and, in theory, can be overcome, although political regulations, market forces, and the “not in my back yard” philosophy of allowing cell sites does make the job more difficult.

Poor Usability Design

Poor design has no excuse. Nonetheless, it is amazing how badly most cellphones are designed from the point of view of the user of the phone. Nokia is the one company that has put major effort into the design philosophy underlying ease of use. They, and the PalmOne Treo, produce the easiest to use phones, where ease-of-use includes access and use of all the things surrounding the phone capability itself, which today includes, as a partial list, camera, voice mail services, SMS messaging, and address books. But both these companies could do better. As for the other vendors — they have a long way to go. Mind you, the solution requires a change in mindset that says that human interaction is as important a design goal as technology, so experts at human interaction must be in product planning from the onset. In this regard, both handset manufacturers and service providers share the blame equally.

Lack of Control

Lack of control can be overcome by making it easier to send and receive quick messages, without disturbing others. Just as SMS and email allow the sender to send when convenient to them and the receiver to read and reply only when convenient (moreover, with reading and replying possibly done at two separate times), we could design so as to encourage the same facility with voice services. Suppose we institute well-designed, minimal hassle, near real-time interaction facilities for both text and voice.

Near Real-Time Interaction.

The point is, that for much communication, real time interaction is not required. Instead, what is needed is rapid interaction (much as is done with today’s Instant Messaging). We need rapid interaction, but it need only be “Near real-time.” This transforms the conversation from one where neither participant can control the exact timing and attentional demands upon themselves to one where each participant can choose to read or listen and respond only when workload considerations are appropriate: the individual participants control.

There are several existing technologies that should make this easy to do: email, SMS messaging, Instant Messaging, and voice messaging. Alas, not all are relevant to rapid responses from the mobile phone environment, but even those that are suffer needless complications in use.

To send an SMS to someone (using my Treo), one button gets me to SMS, one click gets a new message. Then I type the recipients name (but auto-completion means I need only type the first few letters of the name), then the message, and then a simple click on the “send” button. Total time for a short message — 38 seconds (I just tried it).

(My experience with other handset vendors is not so positive. On one handset, made by Motorola, just finding SMS was a chore.)

Now contrast the positive result of SMS with that for voice mail requires me to push one button to get to the phone section, type in the phone number of the person, wait while it rings and rings and ring, wait while the phone answering machine gives me the person’s message, wait while the voice mail service gives me it’s message, and then wait for the beep. This just took me 88 seconds — 1 minute and 28 seconds — and I only got to the beep — I didn’t actually leave a message. Moreover, all that ringing potentially annoyed the receiver and people nearby. Why can’t I just leave a voice mail as quickly and easily as an SMS? No ringing, no listening to lengthy explanatory messages?

We could go far toward reducing the annoyance and frustration of messaging by ensuring that simple text and voice messages could be exchanged instantaneously, without needless hassle. Today’s story is ridiculous. (See the section on safety, below.)

Annoyance (With Others)

Annoyance with others comes from many sources. Some might consider this a social issue, but there might very well be technological solutions. After all, it is the technology that has provided the affordance — the technical terms that describes the ability to do some action — that is so annoying. Perhaps we could refine the technology so that it better affords politeness to others.

Consider the loud voices people use while on the phone. There are a number of issues that determine how loudly a person talks in conversation, a major issue being whether or not it the recipient appears to hear. With a telephone, because the recipient is known to be at a distance and is, moreover, not visible, there is a natural tendency to speak loudly.

Notice that speaking level is determined, in part, by auditory feedback — how loudly one hears their own voice. With the modern mobile telephone, there is no feedback of one’s own voice in the receiver.

In the early days of the telephone, the problem of speaking level was widely noted and discussed. The technological innovation was clever: a small amount of a person’s voice was fed back to the earpiece, and people then naturally adjusted the loudness of their spoken voice to produce a comfortable level of feedback in the earpiece. Numerous studies in auditory psychophysics were performed to determine the correct amount of this feedback — sidetone was the technical term. With the advent of the mobile telephone, sidetone has disappeared, and with it, the so-necessary feedback required to maintain voice level.

Why was sidetone eliminated from mobile phones? Two possible answers come to mind, and my suspicion is that both are correct. One is that modern telephonic engineers have no sense of history, and so they lack all the experience and knowledge that led to the early development of sidetone feedback. The second answer is that sidetone poses more difficult problems in the out-of-doors environment of the mobile phone, where wind noise on the microphone and relatively high-levels of ambient noise pose technical limitations on sidetone.

Well, I think it is time to bring sidetone back. Certainly with today’s noise-filtering technology, we could cancel natural background noises. We could also filter the signal so as to feedback only a narrow slice of spectrum, using psychophysical studies to determine which frequency range would be most likely to be effective, while minimizing contributions from external noise sources.

But there are other possible solutions as well. For example, we could develop voice cups, shielding the speaker’s voice from external listeners. It might be possible to use the noise-canceling technology of earphones to minimize the sound of the speaker’s voice to outsiders while still capturing the speech for the recipient, perhaps by combining this with a voice cup.

Safety While Driving

The evidence continues to accumulate that using a cell phone while driving is a major distraction and potential source of accident. This holds no matter whether the phone is hand-held or hands-free. The most dangerous period is during dialing, but just holding a conversation leads to a decrease in reaction time, to missing traffic signals, to shorter following distances, and to less lane control. Note that these finding apply both to younger and older drivers.

It is clear that these findings need to be addressed. Several obvious issues come to mind. One is to try to limit distraction during critical driving times. Several university research projects have been attempting to develop context-aware systems for his purpose: Motorola Labs played an active role in some of these projects. Another is to simplify the entry of information about calls. Still another would be to institute near real-time interaction, which would enable each participant to control the timing of the interaction. This way, a driver could decide when to receive a message, when to reply, and even to pause replies part of the way through in order to attend to driving. See the section on “Near real-time interaction,” above.


Technology provides many virtues to modern life, but at some societal costs. If we do not attend to the societal costs, they may cause legal restrictions on the use of the technology. Why not address them proactively, using the technology itself to fight the problems?

Paper prepared for the 2005 Motorola Research Visionary Board. Copyright © 2005 Donald A. Norman. All rights reserved.