Do you need support contacts for good user experience?

Amid all the fuss about whether Microsoft was banning open source phone apps from Windows Phone 7 (just the copyleft licences, but that's enough to...
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor and  Mary Branscombe, Contributor

Amid all the fuss about whether Microsoft was banning open source phone apps from Windows Phone 7 (just the copyleft licences, but that's enough to cause debate about motives - which are probably all about running a commercial app marketplace, just like Apple's similar prohibition) and the news that developers can now submit up to 100 free apps rather than just five (which might avoid the cheap and nasty apps that clutter up many commercial app marketplaces), one announcement slipped by without much notice. "based on feedback from the developer community," developers no longer have to include a support contact in their apps.

I thought that was a terrible idea, that sacrifices user experience for the sake of making a developer's life easier - and isn't a smart move for developers either. For every irritating user asking a time-wasting question, you'll get someone who's found a genuine bug or just a way your app can be better; it's like having a free focus group, and it's good marketing too. Without a feeling that there's a real person or company behind the app, I'm rather less likely to pony up anything more than a trivial amount of money for an app.

Some developers agree; Ginny Caughey of Carolina Software , the developer behind the PasswordPadlock commented to me that "I think Windows Phone 7 developers who don't provide tech support info in their apps are hurting themselves more than their users. I just hope other developers realize how useful users' feedback can be and will continue to provide contact info. I know I will." Ironically, the day before the Microsoft announcement, I saw Windows Phone developers on Twitter asking users who had problems with apps to mail the developer rather than just posting a bad review.

I've had some great discussions with Windows Phone developers, understanding what they're working on and how they plan to update their app; often the feature I ask about is something they're already planning - and they want to know how many users care about that in a way that lets them have a conversation rather than just seeing a review that complains that they don't already have it.

I asked Microsoft to explain why they'd changed this; after all, protecting the user experience is one of the things that has made Windows Phone such a nice device to use (if you can actually find one to buy). Todd Brix, who’s in charge of the Marketplace and Developer Experience Product Management team, replied -and while it's no longer a requirement, he makes it quite clear that he thinks it's still a very good idea to include contact information. "We have revised our certification criteria for applications submitted to the Marketplace to make the inclusion of consumer support contact information a highly recommended, but optional, practice."

Why the change? "While we still believe and will continue to share data and encourage developers to voluntarily provide customer support contact information as part of their app or game experience, we no longer think it is right to fail an app or preclude it from being published because a developer either overlooked or did not want to provide such contact support information. "

In fact, he thinks the Marketplace users will vote with their fingers. "We believe the market and consumers are better able to decide whether a developer’s decision to provide customer support contact information indicates a pride of creation and a mechanism to get direct customer feedback or not. The data we have collected and observed suggests that apps that include customer support contact information are better rated, downloaded more often, and result in better developer results and a better customer experience."

Forcing developers to do the smart thing can seem somewhat draconian. But I think Microsoft needs to keep setting a high bar for Windows Phone apps. After all, it's the user experience rather than the number of apps or the phone features or anything else that Windows Phone 7 stands out for. The work of the design teams and user experience experts at Microsoft and the insistence that this is the user experience for all the phones is deliberately distinctive. T

he user experience for a PC is a world away from the way people interact with everything else in the world. As interaction designer and principal researcher at MSR Bill Buxton put it rathr amusingly at the MIX developer event last year, "If you found a PC a thousand years in the future, the assumption would be that you have no legs, you have no mouth, you have an ear - just one, you have an eye that can do 80Hz - and you have one claw with 80 fingers." Buxton designed a digital saxophone and a multitouch drum but it's not just musicians who need more natural ways of interacting with computers. "Everyone has acquired through a lifetime of living in the world a collection of really deep specialised skills." And wouldn’t it be nice if technology took advantage of those?

In the same discussion developer vice president Scott Guthrie told me more prosaically why user experience matters so much for the phone. "One thing I think the Windows Phone team did a great job on was stepping back and rethinking whole user experience and doing it in a way that is unique and distinctive and has a very different ethos. At Mobile World Congress you walk the halls and you tend to see dozens of knockoffs of the iPhone ; they have a bunch of buttons on the front screen and a user interface that looks kind of like the iPhone not as polished, not as consistent. The easiest thing for us to do would to be something like that."

Instead Microsoft is competing with Apple where the iPhone is strongest, and where you wouldn't expect Microsoft to shine; the user experience. And getting that right takes an insanely detailed focus on every little part of the experience. Microsoft sacrificed features like copy and paste; it sacrificed multi-tasking and access to native functions. It demanded that developers used new concepts like panoramas and hubs. And it said to developers in essence, 'if the users have a problem with the experience of your app, there has to be a way they can talk to you about that'. Penalising developers who don't do that seems harsh - especially when Microsoft is already taking a beating on the excluded open source licences -but relaxing the focus on user experience for Windows Phone would be a big mistake.

Microsoft knows that apps matter for Windows Phone; they're showcased in the latest advert. So it needs to make sure that the message to developers is 'make it great for the users'. Just as the message to Nokia has to include 'don't mess up the user experience with all the freedom we're giving you to customise things'.

I'd love to hear from any Windows Phone developers who don't want to include support contact details in their apps to understand why.

Mary Branscombe

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