As a resident of New York City, I’m lucky to live in one of the most multicultural places in the world. Although the city is a melting pot of ethnicities, personalities, and opinions, at the end of the day, it’s just a space comprised of bubbles. We travel daily within our chosen cultural, educational, or political spheres, but within those lay another type of bubble: the one that surrounds you when you’re completely engrossed in your phone.
Every day on the subway, I see countless people staring intently at or tapping away on their smartphone of choice, oblivious to whatever else is happening around them. Living here, it’s quite easy to assume that everyone on the planet has an iPhone or Galaxy (spoiler alert: not true).
Globally, there are 5 billion mobile phone users. Of those 5 billion, only 1 billion have smartphones. I say “only” because that’s about 14% of the world’s population. Within the U.S., smartphone users have just recently become the majority, but not by much. Thirty-five percent of adults still use a different type of cell phone and 9 percent don’t own a mobile phone at all.
While smartphone use is unquestionably on the upswing, it has by no means reached a global tipping point. Yet, we often approach content and design with the assumption that each user has the ability to tap, swipe, and pinch their way through mobile experiences.
Facebook recognized this oversight back in 2011, launching the Facebook for Every Phone app. While potential advertising revenue is significant motivation for putting Facebook on all phones, there’s also a less cynical perspective; that of providing everyone with equal online access. Turns out equality is popular. The app’s user base recently surpassed 100 million, proving that if you build it – and build it well – they will come.
In the process of creating an online experience for a flip phone, Facebook had to radically simplify its design and content while maintaining functionality—essentially paring down to the nuts and bolts of the Facebook experience. While retrofitting a product for a different channel isn’t anything new, this success in simplification has me wondering why we don’t more often rely on flip phone guardrails—the original mobile—to help create products that are simple from the start.
Wunderlist is an example of a product that, in its most basic form, could work for a flip phone. At its core, the app is essentially a digital to-do list. While the app wasn’t developed for a flip phone, its concept could easily function within such low-tech constraints. Starting with a straightforward product allows Wunderlist to add extras without losing the core experience. The pro version of the app provides additional features and enables more interaction, but these bells and whistles aren’t necessary in order to experience the app’s main function (tracking your to-dos).
For many people, their daily to-do list includes one very vital action: take medicine. This fundamentally basic yet incredibly important task is the foundation of several mobile health products created for patients in developing countries. One example is SIMpill, which programs the patient’s medicine schedule into the pill bottle and communicates with the patient’s mobile phone. If medication isn’t taken on time, the patient receives an SMS reminder.
While the mobile health field is still emerging, the absence of technology in the developing world makes it absolutely necessary for products to function within the constraints of the flip phone. These limitations demand the simplest ideas from the start, yet prove that beginning with the basics doesn’t preclude user experiences from being intuitive, helpful, and welcomed.
With these products in mind, I think it’s worth looking at the idea of “mobile first” in a different light. Instead of traditionally associating the term with designing for smartphone and tablet experiences, let’s expand its use to include the 4 billion non-smartphones in the world.
By stepping outside of our bubbles and looking to this majority, we might find inspiration for creating simpler products from the outset.
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