Making cellphones personal
Good design is about more than good looks -- the interaction with cellphone users has to be beautiful too.
It might come as a bit of a shock that the president of Ziba Design, a design consulting firm that works with big corporations, isn't a fan of the slim cell phone, which has won accolades for its sleek, sexy look. But Vossoughi's quibble isn't with the phone's appearance. "I hated the interaction with it," he says. "It was awful."
For Vossoughi, whose clients include Intel (Charts), Sirius (Charts) and Logitech (Charts), good design is about more than good looks. It is about a good user experience that makes the consumer want to spend time with a product.
He singles out cellphones and other consumer electronics for clinging to outmoded ideas of design. "I was walking around the Consumer Electronics Show, and I thought, 'Everyone here is focused on products. They don't understand that it is the experience that counts." By focusing on products only, he says, the phone makers, he says, risk turning their devices into beautiful commodities.
Vossoughi's solution for cellphone makers is pretty radical in this age of Swiss-Army-knife gadgets that pack a camera, MP3 player, Internet access and other features into a single device. He thinks mobile phones try to do too much, confusing consumers. He proposes a modular system with a simple display as its core. Consumers could buy additional accessories - the numeric keypad, a full qwerty keyboard, a camera - and plug them in based on their needs that day. (So if you're going for a run, you might want just a very lightweight device that makes phone calls in case of an emergency; but if you're going on a business trip, you might want a device that doubles as a laptop computer.)
Voussoughi's cellphone idea underscores a couple of principles he tries to apply to his various projects: personalization and extension of the consumer experience. His proposal gives consumers the opportunity to accessorize their phones with only the services they need; that kind of control helps ensure that the consumer gets the experience he or she desires.
The plug-ins could even come in different colors or designs, allowing the customers to further personalize their phones. (And consumers love to personalize their cell phones: Ringtones are now a $3 billion-a-year business, and custom user interfaces that allow customers to create "themes" for their screens and menus are coming soon.)
Accessories are also good business, Voussoughi notes, because they encourage consumers to keep coming back to the brand, thus building loyalty.
Voussoughi's idea certainly is intriguing, and he says that one cellphone maker has expressed interest in pursuing it. But it certainly runs contrary to the goals of mobile service providers, who would like consumers to use the various gizmos on their phones to send pictures or download games and other online fare, thus incurring additional airtime charges or special monthly service charges.
But mobile operators need to start thinking differently, too. While the biggest operators in the United States, Cingular and Verizon (Charts), recently have posted strong financial results, they have an underlying problem: their main product, airtime, is considered a commodity that can't command high premiums. If Voussoughi can figure out a way to make sure cell phones don't become a commodity, perhaps he can turn his attention to the mobile operators next.
Next year's models: On a recent prowl through Tokyo's electronic alleyways, Fortune's tech guru Peter Lewis was drawn to six stylish products. None is available in the U.S., but that may just be a matter of time.