How the iPhone 4 Issue Could’ve Been Prevented

by on 07/12/10 at 9:22 pm

Note: This post is a response to Consumer Reports confirms iPhone 4 antenna problems

As many of you all know by now, there is a major design defect in Apple’s iPhone 4.  When you hold the phone in your hand the signal strength drops, and so do your calls.  You may be asking yourselves, “How the hell does the world’s best design company make such a disastrous mistake?”  It’s hard to know the exact details since I don’t work at Apple, but I believe the problem would’ve been prevented had Apple performed better usability testing on the iPhone.

From what I read, Apple seems to test their products internally with their employees.  This itself presents a problem because a developer or engineer working on the iPhone is not a real target user. A developer or engineer simply holds too much inside information and knowledge in their heads to be able to judge or test the iPhone in an unbiased way.  An engineer’s focus and perspective is totally different from the target user’s.  The target user focuses more on the fundamental functions and uses, such as making calls and handling apps.  The engineer focuses more on advanced and detailed things, such as graphics and screen flow.  What Apple should have done, was test the iPhone on real target users.  If they did this, they would’ve probably caught the antenna issue before they released the iPhone to the public.

Besides testing on real target users, what Apple should’ve also done is test users in their natural environment.  A user’s natural environment and context can affect how they use the phone. Because most people may use their phones in different places, at different times and for different purposes, you would get a variety of insight on the user experience at all levels when you test in natural environments.

Things like cases, headsets and docks are accessories people may use which can affect the overall experience with the iPhone.  Thus, it’s important to test the iPhone with the use of different accessories as well.  With the iPhone 4 antenna problem, putting the phone in a case actually diminishes the problem and does not weaken the signal strength as much compared to holding the phone in your hand without a case.

Apple puts a lot of emphasis and attention on the design of their products.  At the same time, if the same amount of energy were put into proper usability testing there probably wouldn’t be an antenna problem.  Even the best designers in the world can’t arrive at a perfect design without testing.  The reason for this is because testing brings to light so much insight to design that you wouldn’t have otherwise found.  Testing is not just a discovery process, but it also confirms design ideas as well.

Most people design something and stop at the first few versions of their design.  However, if you continue to iterate and improve your design by using testing to confirm your ideas and discover new problems, you’ll be on the path to a perfect design you and your users will be happy with.  Apple is certainly one of the best when it comes to designing beautiful products.  But even the best designers can sometimes neglect usability testing.  They may be so sure and confident of themselves that the thought of rethinking or changing something would make them uneasy.  Testing your design on real users in their natural environment and making changes to the design based on the results is the best way to make sure that your product doesn’t end up like the iPhone 4.


How the iPhone 4 Issue Could’ve Been Prevented How the iPhone 4 Issue Could’ve Been Prevented

Author and editor-in-chief of UX Movement. Loves great web experiences and fights for the user.

3 Responses to “How the iPhone 4 Issue Could’ve Been Prevented”

  1. Josh Powell

    Jul 20th, 2010

    If apple did this kind of user testing, they wouldn’t have the same level of secrecy they hold as important. The fact that Apple has sold so many iPhones vindicates Jobs priorities, and taking an occasional hit like the Antenna Problem is a bump in the road compared to the level of hype that being secretive like Apple is helps to generate.

    • anthony

      Jul 20th, 2010

      I do think the SECRECY is the reason they don’t do usability testing on actual users. But you’re saying that their level of SECRECY does more good for them than bad. I think if you’re a company like Apple being secret is a necessary thing because you’re protecting your product. However, at the same time its also obviously a bad thing as you can see with the antenna mishap. Believe it or not, that bump in the road has actually deterred a lot buyers from purchasing iPhone 4′s that would’ve otherwise have bought one had they not heard all those stories about “Antennagate.” I suppose if you’re Apple a small hit in sales isn’t going to hurt you much financially, but there are some users that are really upset. And when a portion of your users are upset that can tarnish your brand and reputation, which is why Jobs quickly recognized this and held a press conference to talk about Antennagate. In the press conference he expresses how they want “to make all their users happy”. So even though the problem doesn’t hurt them FINANCIALLY much, it hurts their IMAGE and REPUTATION a lot, and that can hurt them in the long-term. That’s why Jobs showed images of their testing labs and talked about how they thoroughly test their antenna. I think Jobs did heal some of the hurt Antennagate has caused them, but the fact remains, testing the antenna is NOT what is needed here. It’s testing it on USERS to get REAL WORLD DATA and FEEDBACK. That’s how you catch things like a faulty antenna when a user grips the phone in a certain way.

      Just because you’re testing it on actual users doesn’t mean you have to test it hundreds of people. Getting good usability data doesn’t require you to test it on that many people. You can test less than 20 users and get really solid data and feedback from them. Also, there are non-disclosure contracts users can sign in order to ensure nothing gets leaked. I believe there are ways of testing it while maintaining a level of secrecy. But that’s Apple’s decision, not mine.

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