For those that don’t know, “Celltop” is a suite of mobile widgets designed by the amazing Frog Design especially for Alltel, who is my service provider at the moment. Celltop works on certain phones only, and there are about 10 free widgets out of the box, with others available for purchase. An interesting idea, in theory. When I first saw the concept, with its slick looking interface, I wanted to put my hands on it and play! In reality, the fun was short-lived.
The design feels pretty nice at first glance… the colored backgrounds and typography on top of them seem readable. But because they put two cells on the screen at one time, they feel a little “squished” for my taste. I think there’s a way to unsquish them and display only one using the full screen, but I haven’t yet figured that trick out. As a user experience specialist, I deliberately don’t want to use the Help for it, because I am trying to ascertain the application’s intuitive learning curve. (Unfortunately for me, that meant my husband ended up telling me how to listen to ringtones because he figured the secret out first.)
A brand design, an amazing application interface, and ultimately the entire user experience of any system is dependent on two external things:
1. The technology that runs the interface must enable the software to work (data & wireless connectivity that seamlessly works without issues, etc.)
This is where my Celltop experience begins to crumble. I tried for several days to put my zip code or city into the Weather cell, and it wouldn’t connect to the Alltel database for some reason, but finally on the third day of trying, it worked and now I can see my local weather. I got this same error on some of the other cells, as did my husband who has been letting me observe him use this system for the first time. I can imagine how much this would frustrate a non-technical user, who is tentatively attempting to use his phone for reasons other than making calls anyway.
2. The marketing plan and price structure must offer enough value that customers will pay to become users, without flinching.
(Note to marketing: this does not mean value to YOU, for them to buy your stuff – it means value to the purchasing end user!) The “Free cells” included have little meaning or purpose for my real life. They do cost airtime to update the data, so free implies free use of the widget interface, I guess. I am interested in about 2-3 of them, and only because I want to try to use this software. The free cells are:
Realtone (aka “Give Us Money”)
I cannot remember the last time I was away from home and thought “Boy! I sure wish I knew the RODEO standings right now!” Alltel has got to be kidding me. Providing virtually no value, while attempting to obtain my money and taunting me with more valuable “for purchase” cells doesn’t make me want to use Celltop at all. (The ringtones cell is second in the list of cells the user sees, and those “fun” ringtones cost 3 times the amount one pays at iTunes for an entire song, about the cost of a loaf of bread or 1/3 the cost of a complete CD. Parents, you’ve been warned!)
This is not Frog Design’s problem, unless they also proposed the marketing plan for this mobile application, but unfortunately for them, it does impact the entire user experience. The technology “partner” in this case has made business decisions that directly impact a user’s interaction with the design. (Update 6/28: I did find an article that indicates Celltop’s design was revenue-driven, so none of this is an accident.)
More cells are available for purchase, and I’m not sure if prices vary, there’s a flat fee, or heaven forbid, yet another monthly fee. Some of them would be nice to have, if for no other reason than to amuse yourself at the airport or when the electricity goes off due to the many Midwest storms we have lately. The other night I was stuck looking at the different times on the World Clock… not too amusing. However, the “Mind Reader” cell so I could probe the inner depths of my family’s secret thoughts (hehe) or perhaps a game, or that Fortune Teller cell (“Madame Know-it-all, when will the lights come back on???”) would have been nice to have during the dull hours of no electricity. Amongst the incredibly male-dominant cells of sports that aren’t being played right now, the rodeo and news and stocks I could care less about, couldn’t they throw a girl a bone? Recipes, horoscopes, cute shoes for sale… something?
Apparently not, and between the data connection errors, somewhat questionable usability, and the blatant attempts from Alltel’s marketing to get more money from me, the entire experience leaves me with a displeasurable taste in my mouth. A potentially good idea, but not executed well technologically, strategically, or idealistically, unless you believe the press releases. And I don’t mean to bash marketing attempts here – a large part of what I do is meant to directly or subliminally sell the product I am designing. It is my goal to help companies make money, so the money can flow into employees pockets, and into the economy and benefit many others than myself or the company who has hired me. But I try to be honest with clients when I see them putting their needs before the users, because it is my job to be an evangelist for the people who use the systems I help create.
Celltop is nowhere near being ready to compete with the interface of the iPhone, in my opinion, despite what some reviews say about it being a lower-cost alternative. I just wish, as an Alltel customer, it met some of my needs and made my way-too-expensive LG Scoop more than just a very costly device that texts and calls people. I prefer using the regular interface for texting and my call logs anyway, vs. Celltop, which I have to specifically launch in an extra step, and then wait for data to update to be able to use a cell. There are some Celltop cells I might like to own in the future – Search and Moviegoer are of actually real-world value to me, and their inclusion as freebies would have spun this entire experience in a different direction. It might have been nice if they let users choose their 5 free cells, so that every one of them could have provided benefit to the user, as opposed to give me a whole lot of nothing for “free.”
In conclusion, I’d just like to remind any marketing folks out there that we users are not stupid. We know the difference between asking us to pay money for valuable services and a money grab. It annoys me to see things like the Celltop button being placed in the position of the left softkey, and then making that choice unalterable by the user, while the right one can easily be changed. I am going to assume that is another bad marketing decision, because before they shoved Celltop onto our phones, I had selections on the left and right side that made sense for ME, as a user who wants to get to frequently used functions quickly. That decision resulted in taking away a highly valued feature from my phone. Users remember these things.
If you’d like to learn more about Celltop’s design, here are a few links:
Update July 3, 2008:
I found a forum thread where someone offers a hack for altering the Celltop softkey so you can change it. Try it at your own risk… I haven’t yet.