Ethnography and the iPod

As part of a long and critical post on the design and usability problems of the iPod (entitled “What’s wrong with the iPod), Jeff Axup of Mobile Community Design also looks at the social systems surrounding iPod usage:

“We all know Apple didn’t do an ethnographic study of how people listen to music before they started. They had a “visionary” come in with the idea to make a mp3 walkman with a hard drive in it – that had already been on the market for years (see Nomad Jukebox). If they had taken the time to do their research first they would have found that people use Walkmans in complex social settings. Users are often distracted. They often use the devices to shield themselves from unwanted attention. They use it while doing other things (e.g. shopping, entering the bus, talking to people). They hold it primarily in a pocket or purse. They struggle with headphone wires. They make subtle changes to their music rapidly and then drop it back in their pocket. The IPod is not designed to support or improve on these things.”

He argues that “the [Apple] designers [do] not understand the social nature of handheld devices that hold personal data”, and concludes that “the innovation at Apple appears to happen in the marketing and sales departments and not in the mobile design department” and that the only way Apple can avoid being overtaken by mobile phone companies is for the iPod to “deliver a sufficiently superior social media experience”.

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