Innovation & Design

Can T-Mobile Become the Heroic Mobile Carrier We Need?


In embracing Google's open Android platform for cell phones, T-Mobile can reinvent itself as an ideal mobile carrier. Here's how to do it

U.S. mobile carriers are known to most as the gruff, insensitive bullies of the mobile landscape. They hide behind balkanized billing services, huckster-style contracts, and technical obscurity, all the while creating strained and contentious relationships with those who cross their path. Handset manufacturers must submit to the carriers' tyranny or risk having their distribution channels choked. Customers feel pain with each preposterous roaming charge or confusing billing statement.

Last week, T-Mobile took a brave step toward rehabilitating itself. As the first U.S. carrier to release a handset that runs Google's (GOOG) open Android platform, T-Mobile is trying to break with the past and seize the opportunity to emerge as a consumer hero among carriers.

How can T-Mobile capitalize on this moment? How can a brutish mobile phone carrier become a hero? Here are some ideas:

Welcome Openness

Android's Apache license allows carriers and device manufacturers to control their code: Parts of the system can be crippled or disabled so that carriers offer only approved applications in the Android store. More than anything else, T-Mobile should refrain from doing this.

Applications will be essential to deliver on the mobile Internet's promised experience. If T-Mobile reflects the spirit of the Android platform and the Internet by allowing consumers the freedom and flexibility to do what they want, its service will embody an emerging trend customers have grown to want: Openness. T-Mobile should banish yesterday's walled gardens and ridiculous proprietary ringtone stores and choose instead to embrace all that Android stands for.

Invest Directly in the User Experience

Carriers have historically made minimal investments to deliver exciting user capabilities because the return on such investments has not been readily apparent to them. An insensitive cultural heritage, combined with the pressures that afflict capital-intensive businesses, has left little room for carriers to develop empathy for their customers. The result is a history of strained, often contentious relationships with consumers.

The process of interacting with U.S. carriers is abysmal. Their plans are inflexible and difficult to understand. Bills are confusing. Handset choice is limited to a subsidized set dictated by the carrier. In the rush to monetize services and sell large volumes of handsets, little priority is placed on designing great user interfaces and intuitive mobile services. As a result, devices are difficult to use. Features and services go unused. No one wins.

T-Mobile can change this—for everyone, not merely their own customers—by developing a strategy that truly considers how its patrons will use and enjoy its services. By investing in research that targets consumer interests, T-Mobile can foster a sense of empathy for customers as well as identify unmet user needs. T-Mobile should commit itself to fulfill those needs and foster long-term relationships with customers as the basis for its decision-making.

The Android platform and user interface vastly improves on the crippled and broken interfaces customers are contending with today. But the Android UI and feature set is still evolving and can be improved. T-Mobile should help to refine and ripen the interface on a range of handsets at different price points. Why not invest in developing applications that will resonate with users?

Offer Contract-Free Plans

Forcing customers into indentured contractual relationships lays the groundwork for a relationship of resentment. T-Mobile should drop mandatory contracts in favor of building and improving relationships with its customers. As it happens, the company would merely be racing to the fore of an inevitable parade by doing this promptly. Back in July, a Superior Court judge ruled that the practice of charging consumers a fee for ending their cell phone contract early violates California state law. Verizon has already announced it will offer contract-free plans.

Create Powerful Brand Relationships

With the release of the iPhone, Apple (AAPL) proved the value of creating products that delight customers. AT&T (T) only grudgingly joined the party—missing an important opportunity to align itself with some of the most loyal customers on the planet. With the iPhone, Apple deepened its relationship with consumers while AT&T remains "just a dumb pipe" in the public's eyes.

T-Mobile has already proven its ability to deliver a compelling user experience with the lauded and successful Sidekick. Now the company should capitalize on the opportunity to strongly and visibly align itself with the Google brand. In doing so, it must build a brand that is customer-centric.

Regardless of age or culture, the mythology of the hero captures our imagination because it reflects the human qualities we prize most. Heroes are champions who do the right thing, even when it's difficult—and we revere them for it. T-Mobile has taken a small, but brave first step to separate itself from the bad-tempered fractiousness of the carrier industry.

Strong. Brave. Empathic. Compelling. These are the qualities T-Mobile can embody. In doing so, it can emerge as the heroic carrier of our age.

Rachel Hinman is a mobile design strategist for Adaptive Path, a user experience and design firm based in San Francisco, California. She is the creative force behind the 90 Mobiles in 90 Days project and a recognized thought leader in the mobile user experience field.

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