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Smartphones get more sophisticated, but owners can’t keep up

  • Washington Post
  • Published Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, at 6:57 p.m.

If Frank Washington has told his mother once, he has told her a thousand times: Do not change the account passwords on your iPhone.

His mother called the other day. She had a password problem.

“I thought we agreed you would keep the password the same,” Washington said he told her.

“But the phone asked me to change it,” his mother insisted.

Her befuddlement was partly his fault. The District Heights, Md., scientist had succumbed to his 69-year-old mother’s pleas for an iPhone, buying her one for Christmas. He had now become her tech support.

“I told her to call Apple support this time, because I was done with it,” Washington said.

Earlier this month, the world’s gadget makers and tech swamis gathered at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to celebrate the latest gizmonic advances – wearable computers, refrigerators with Internet connections, teddy bears that measure pulses, iPhone-controlled drones, Facebook apps for cars.

But as the devices get more sophisticated – Samsung’s new Android phones recognize “air gestures,” which amount to waving hands above the screen – there are hordes of users who can barely keep up. Sixty-two percent of Americans now own a smartphone, a Gallup poll shows. For many of them, smartphones are confounding and intimidating, and they often wind up just using the phones as expensive cameras that can make calls – if they don’t hide the phone icon by accident.

And lest anyone think the technological stumbling blocks are limited to senior citizens, consider the example of a 41-year-old interior designer in Montgomery County, Md., who is so embarrassed at her smartphone ineptitude that she would allow only her first name – Jennifer – to be used in explaining the repeated trouble she once had snapping photos.

“I couldn’t get the camera flipped around so it would take a picture of an object and not myself,” Jennifer said. There were a lot of pictures of Jennifer. “Finally a client said, ‘Here, let me help you with that.’”

While there are apparently no studies that quantify gadget incompetence or measure whether smartphones are more mystifying than, say, programming a VCR, revealing hints turn up in usage statistics. About 81 percent of cellphone users send text messages – among the easiest functions to use on a smartphone, requiring just basic spelling and typing abilities – but only half the nation’s cellphone users download apps and read or send email, according to research by the Pew Research Center.

Women are slightly less likely to download apps then men, but twice as likely to find smartphone use at a business lunch unacceptable.

Some of the most highly touted smartphone innovations are barely used at all. A 2012 Harris Interactive poll showed that just 5 percent of Americans used their smartphones to show codes for movie admission or to show an airline boarding pass. Whether that’s because of a lack of interest or lack of know-how (or both) is not entirely clear, but experts who study smartphone use, as well as tech-support professionals who work with the confused, say they see smartphone obliviousness at all ages and for all kinds of reasons.

Digital Immigrants have the toughest time. They did not, like their Digital Native children or grandchildren, grow up with computers in the classroom or tablets in the back seat during long car trips to take the place of counting license plates. They grew up with pencils, paper and phones attached to walls. But lately, they’ve gotten Androids or iPhones for Christmas or from their employers.

For Digital Immigrants, there is nothing intuitive at all about manipulating data with their fingers, whether it be swiping screens back and forth, pinching to shrink an image, or entering information into glass. They typically worry that doing something wrong on the phone will cause it to self-combust.

According to Jeff Johnson, a consultant who worked on some of the earliest computer interfaces, those users get lost in part because designers are not like them – which is to say older and very practical – and aren’t dreaming up software with any industry-wide guidelines for usability or consistency, like, say, a washing machine has.

As evidence, he read off several design principles from an Android developer’s website: “Enchant me, simplify my life, make me amazing.”

“Whatever happened to usability?” he marveled. “Make me amazing. What does that even mean?”

The other problem with smartphones is that for many users they are way more powerful than they need to be, a story that repeats itself in the history of computing.

Desktop computers in the 1980s had more power than was needed for a typical family with children typing homework or playing “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” Now smartphones have more computing power than the earliest desktops, and with them comes added complexity, which can be bewildering and even a turnoff.

Kyle O’Donnell, 25, a Ph.D. student in economics at George Mason University, was startled recently by his iPhone.

“I found out the other day that I could do voice control with it,” he said. “You can do directions or whatever just by saying stuff. I didn’t know I could do that. I actually don’t want to do that, and I don’t know how to do that. It seems more confusing to do it that way.”

Confusion points smartphone users in many directions. For iPhone owners, they can turn to the Genius Bar at Apple stores, where appointments must be made several days in advance. Stephen Hackett, a former Genius who wrote “Bartending: Memoirs of an Apple Genius,” said the company teaches its employees to be extremely empathetic to users no matter how simple or silly their problems might seem.

Like misplacing the phone app.

“Losing an app in a folder is definitely something that people do,” he said. He acknowledged that some of the issues can wear a Genius down. “Every shift someone will roll their eyes and say you’re not gonna believe what this person did,” he said.

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