A Cell Phone for Baby Boomers

How Jitterbug designed a mobile phone and service to appeal to even the most technophobic seniors

Selling technology to technophobes may not seem like smartest business strategy, but when the technophobes in question are the 100 million baby boomers and seniors in the U.S., bridging the technology gap starts to look like a real market opportunity.

For mobile-industry veteran Arlene Harris, the opportunity was too good to pass up. Harris is the mastermind behind Jitterbug, a company launched last October that combines a unique mobile phone (designed by Jitterbug and manufactured by Samsung) with a suite of services designed to meet the needs of older users. Because Jitterbug controlled both the product and service design, it's able to deliver a seamless, innovative cross-channel experience, a rarity in the mobile-phone industry.

Providing familiar touchstones to ease the mobile-phone experience became a major part of Jitterbug's design after early research showed that older users found conventions like signal strength meters unfamiliar and confusing. Instead, when you open a Jitterbug phone it emits—get this—a dial tone. "If there's no dial tone, you can't make a call," Harris says. To reach a Jitterbug operator, who can place calls or answer questions for you, dial 0.

Getting Back to Basics

Some elements of Jitterbug's industrial design may seem like quaint throwbacks, such as an earpiece that actually covers your ear and a microphone next to your mouth, not somewhere around your cheekbone. But while these elements undeniably reinforce a sense of comfort and familiarity for Jitterbug's users, they also have practical functional benefits. For example, the soft rubber cup around the earpiece doesn't just make the phone more comfortable, it also blocks ambient noise, making the phone easier to use for the hearing-impaired.

Instead of icons or menus, the phone presents features as a series of simple questions, which the user answers with the bold YES and NO buttons on the handset: Do you want to check your voicemail? If not, press NO and the phone will ask if you want to look at your phone list instead. Jitterbug offers two models: one with a typical telephone keypad (albeit with larger, brighter buttons than most mobile phones) and one with no keypad at all. The Jitterbug OneTouch has just three buttons: one to dial 911, one to reach a Jitterbug operator, and one that can be programmed with a number chosen by the user.

Harris says the company grew directly from the idea of delivering a better experience to older users. "I had some ideas about how the experience of actually using a cell phone could be more comfortable for older people," she says, "ideas about how we could make cell phones and the services around them more friendly for people who weren't going to adopt [the products that were out on the market]."

A Sympathetic Ear at Samsung

But to deliver that experience, Jitterbug would have to defy all the trends in the mobile industry, particularly the trend toward smaller handsets packed with ever-growing lists of features. "I said, 'We need to think this whole thing through, and sort of erase everything that we've got so far. Let's redefine what we should be doing, based on research and based on good old common sense,'" Harris says.

Harris thought she might have difficulty convincing a manufacturing partner to go along with her idea, but she found a sympathetic ear at Samsung. She says "they knew that there was a huge opportunity for this older market, but none of the carriers were interested." Harris showed some prototype phones to Samsung, and two hours later, executives there were convinced. The final Jitterbug phones were designed in close collaboration between Harris and Samsung's industrial designers, and took about two years to bring to market.

Harris recognized that a product alone couldn't meet the needs of her audience—it had to be combined with services to create an overall system. As a result, the product was designed in tandem with services that would be delivered to subscribers.

Changes to the product design would affect the service design, and vice versa. The voicemail system won't work with any other phone because it's designed to use the Jitterbug's YES and NO buttons for commands. Similarly, because the phones cannot be programmed directly, they couldn't be used without Jitterbug's service. "It's not just the design of the handset, or what the call centers do, it's all about the entire experience," Harris says.

Web Controls

This system approach took Jitterbug's partners at Samsung by surprise. "They knew that we would have to be a service provider, but they had no idea the extent to which we wanted to integrate [the product with the service]," Harris says. "For them it was a handset, for us it was a system. The handset was just one element."

In the same way that Apple (AAPL) was able to simplify the design of the iPod by offloading its administrative functions to the iTunes desktop software, the Jitterbug is simplified because the phone is managed entirely remotely. The configuration and programming of the phone is handled entirely through a Web-based interface—whether by the user, a relative or caretaker, or one of Jitterbug's operators—and transmitted to the phone automatically.

The Web interface even offers an option to do the unthinkable: disable a feature entirely. Turn it off on the Web, and the feature simply disappears from the phone. "We don't want them to see a screen that they don't want," Harris says. "If all the customer wants is the phone list—no call history, no voicemail—that's all they see."

The Big Picture

In designing the phone, Harris and her team had to make careful choices about which features belonged on the phone itself and which should be pushed to the Web. "We were always asking ourselves, are these things part of the service offering, or are they really administrative in nature?" Harris says.

Harris says she's considering adding features common to other phones on the market, such as a camera, but not if it compromises the experience her product delivers. A camera on a Jitterbug phone would have to be one that customers "can actually use, actually get some delight out of," according to Harris. "It's not just putting a camera in the phone. It's the rest of the experience."

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