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Abundance of features frustrates users

June 17, 2007|James S. Granelli | Times Staff Writer

That new Apple iPhone and its nifty features look tantalizing. Lots of other cellphones also are loaded with plenty of doodads. But do you really use them?

Probably not, a recent study suggests. Chalk it up to function fatigue.

Customers worldwide are frustrated with increasingly complex handsets, poorly written manuals, inadequate explanations by salespeople and rising service costs, according to a February survey by a unit of the Chief Marketing Officers Council. Many of the cameras, keyboards, music players and other features in cellphones go unused.

"In many cases, handsets today are overly engineered," said Brian T. Regan, the council's senior vice president in charge of the Global Mobile Mindset Audit.

Recently, people have been buying BlackBerry Pearls to talk and send text messages, not to use its primary feature, e-mail, said Delly Tamer, chief executive of online retailer LetsTalk.com.

The biggest complaint among 15,000 customers the council surveyed was that their cellphones had too many functions they didn't use. About 17% of U.S. customers and 16% worldwide said the number of features was baffling.

Nearly as many also said that the features were difficult to use and that the cellphones were hard to customize to their needs.

"It shows that manufacturers are still designing devices without a lot of customer input," Regan said.

Based on Apple Inc.'s penchant for satisfying consumer needs, he expects the iPhone will be the first mobile phone with added features that customers can understand easily.

So far, though, complex functions have stymied the huge growth in revenue that the U.S. industry projected a few years ago. Sales of data packages needed for Internet, e-mail and messaging, for instance, amounted to 13% of Verizon Wireless' first-quarter revenue, similar to the previous quarter.

Jeffrey Anderson is savvy with computers but irritated by the complexity of the mini-computers that many cellphones have become. "I'm not sure I want to spend the time and energy to find out how to use these new cellphones," said the retired accounting manager, who lives in Mount Shasta, Calif.

GreatCall Inc. in Del Mar, Calif., is making a business out of bucking the trend. Targeting baby boomers, the privately held company rolled out its Jitterbug phone last fall with simple calling plans. It offers two Samsung Electronics Co. phones, both with larger buttons, a padded flip top for better listening and other easy-on-the-tech features.

Jitterbug's customers, most of whom are over 50, "want something that is comfortable and not confounding," said co-founder and CEO Arlene Harris.

But folks of all ages are looking for a better cellphone experience, Regan of the marketing council said. "Function fatigue is a global issue."

james.granelli@latimes.com

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