Scott Weiss, the author of Handheld Usability (the book and blog), recently posted the results of a survey of over 800 New Yorkers on the importance of several factors when considering the purchase of a new phone. Weiss notes that the survey respondents value mobile ease-of-use 3 to 2 over appearance. “The finding is astounding, because it shatters the commonly-held believe that appearance is more important to consumers than usability”, he writes. After ease-of-use respondents considered appearance, internet access, MP3 player capabilities and mobile television features, in that order. Weiss adds, “the highest percentage of respondents (33%) rated Mobile Television Features and MP3 Player Capabilities as Neither Important nor Unimportant in their mobile phone purchase decisions”.

While I agree with his ultimate conclusion — that usability is a big deal and ease-of-use should be a goal of all handset manufacturers — I question drawing that conclusion based on the survey information provided.

In my professional experience survey participants frequently say things that do not correlate to their actual behavior. How else to explain the sales figures for the first quarter of 2007? Nokia topped the list of mobile phone manufacturers, its converged mobile devices such as the N73, N70 and E65 - the ones that offer internet, television and music - selling particularly well. Motorola, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and LG Electronics round out the list, in that order. This despite studies of consumer satisfaction and device usability that typically place Nokia and Motorola well down on the list. Among customers who owned their phones for less the two years, a 2006 J.D. Power and Associates Evaluation Study found that those who owned Nokia handsets were unsatisfied with their physical design, operation, features, handset durability and battery function. Mr. Weiss’ extensive 2005 study of Media Download Usability found that the Motorola’s RAZR on Cingular’s network ranked 11 out of the 13 handsets tested based on performance and perception data.

All this begs the question: if consumers are less than satisfied with the ease-of-use and performance Nokia and Motorola handsets why do they continue to purchase them in such numbers? Usability is indeed important to consumers, but I think the promise of sleek new designs and new or “improved” features lures consumers who have been disappointed by a manufacturer’s devices in the past to make follow-on purchases. There is also the argument for “the devil you know” - it is easier to use a device with which we are familiar no matter how frustrating, rather than learn the idiosyncracies of one from another manufacturer. And despite what those 800 New Yorkers said about not caring about television and MP3 features on their devices, I predict they will be out there purchasing converged devices when there are services that are compelling enough to warrant them.

The truth is, what people say about what they do and what they actually do are not necessarily the same. Researchers are advised to take survey data with a grain of salt and balance those findings with recorded behavior.

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