UI not sole differentiator for smartphones

A smartphone's user interface is good for fostering brand loyalty and helping brands differentiate, but consistency rather than "radical innovation" is key to retaining customers.
Written by Ellyne Phneah, Contributor

Innovating on the user interface (UI) for a smartphone remains an important differentiator for many phonemakers, but it is not the only point of difference and vendors need to ensure their innovations are not too radical as to alienate existing customers and put off new ones with their inefficient functionalities.

Charles Golvin, principal analyst at Forrester Research, said UI plays a key role in terms of brand and platform loyalty. Customers tend to develop "digital muscle memory" and feel empowered and productive once they become familiar with the interface, and they need simply to do their tasks without having to figure out how to do them, he explained.

Singapore smartphone user Jasper Tan confirmed Golvin's observation. "Some phones' user interface still do not appeal to me after all these years, so [UI] will be an important consideration when I decide which phone to buy," he said.

Golvin did note that innovating on UI is just one point of differentiation though. Other factors include the level of investment in devices, content, and cloud services to manage people's contacts, photos and other digital content in their smartphones, he said.

Improving the ways to connect with friends and colleagues via services such as iMessage or having popular messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Tango available on the platform are also another reason why people would choose one phone over another, he added.

An Apple user, Olivia Ong, said she did not choose the iPhone because of its UI but because iMessage would allow her to save money. "I believe smartphone companies are big on user friendliness these days, so user interface is not a concern at all," she said.

UI innovation a "double edge sword"

The analyst did point out that smartphone manufacturers and software developers will need to be careful with how they innovate on the user interface, as it could prove to be a "double-edged sword".

"Consistency is likely more important than radical innovation. Ensuring new UI designs have the customer in mind, helping them be more productive and capable, and not simply design for design's sake [are important points to remember]," Golvin advised.

For example, Apple's iPhone UI has evolved since it was first introduced, such as adding more home screens, customization, folders and centralized notifications. It has not undergone radical changes though, he said.

Samsung's UI, on the other hand, is a customized layer on top of the Android's standard interface. So for users to switch from Samsung's Android experience to HTC or LG, they may not have the same level of comfort and familiarity as iPhone users upgrading from an older version to a newer one, he noted.

The customizability of the Android platform does have its appeal among certain consumers though. Civil servant Keith Chan, who switched from an Apple to a Samsung smartphone, said he made the decision because the former's UI is more "flexible and customizable".

"From now on, I am sticking with Android smartphones because I am tired of how rigid Apple's user interface [can be]," Chan said.

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