Design & behavior change for AT&T's problems

If you’re an Apple fan, you’re probably aware that AT&T recently switched from the hallmark “unlimited” plan for Apple’s iPhone and iPad devices to a segmented data plan - 250 MB and 2 GB (don’t worry - if you already have an iPhone or iPad, your current plan isn’t changing). To make things simple, and more humorous, I will henceforth refer to the iPhone/iPad as the “iPhad.” Anyways.

In my mind, this is a pretty big mistake on AT&T’s part, in terms of the experience they provide for the iPhad. As Chris Andersen likes to say, there’s a big difference between $0.00 and $0.01, or in this case, 2 GB and unlimited. Even though AT&T claims that 65% of their users would be content with the 250 MB plan, and a further 98% with the 2 GB plan, there’s still a big difference. One of the contributing factors is that the average person has no idea what 250 MB or 2 GB looks like*. Nor do they know how much data each of their individual actions takes up - how much data is a Foursquare checkin? A tweet? An email download? This, by the way, is the same problem that people have with counting calories. Many will just try to cut back, and be mindful of their data usage - calling the theater instead of checking Fandango, etc. And the experience of the iPhad is ruined (my bet is that Jobs is pissed. All you that have been waiting for a Verizon iPhone, well, I’d start paying attention now).

It might seem that this is the only option for AT&T, as this little chart shows, data usage is going up. Way up. But that’s not necessarily true.

Let’s start by doing a quick and very, VERY oversimplified rundown of how AT&T’s (and others) cell service works. These telecoms have backbone networks underneath all the areas of the U.S. that they service. These are the same cables that deliver internet service to your house. As I understand it, these cables are chugging along fine, and aren’t really in that much danger of being overwhelmed. The problem lies in the cell phone towers themselves - cell phone towers connect to a limited number of cell phones or wireless devices in its covered area, transferring and connecting data to them. The cell towers are connected to the network infrastructure in the ground. So, the issue is when too much data centers around one tower - that’s what makes the network run slow and shitty. That’s why I can’t post tweets during a Sharks game at HP Pavilion, yet have no problem with posting about my favorite chocolate at Woodside’s fairly underpopulated Robert’s grocery store.

It’s true. Limiting data plans will decrease the overall load on the network, which will include these overloaded cell towers. But why not try by addressing the problem directly - those overloaded cell towers? How might AT&T recreate the experience on overloaded cell towers so as to provide better service to all its consumers? I don’t have the winning answer to this, but I think you could get creative about it. Here’s one solution I might try.

While the status updates are already a little much - at the top of my screen, I get my network information (signal strength, 3G or EDGE network), the time, and my battery life. But it might be worthwhile to put in a fourth - the amount of bandwidth I have in this connection. This could actually be limited (for example, if 5 users are connected to a cell tower, each gets 20% of the bandwidth, or more likely, a more complicated model), or just a “suggestion” (there are 50 other people on this tower, so that means you ought to aim for a lower data consumption).

Tragedy of the commons aside, we really do know how to share resources if you put us in the right position. I’d even argue that we know how to share bandwidth (I think of slow connection days with my brother yelling at my sister to stop streaming Hulu so he can play video games). But we get the concept of “our fair share,” and we don’t hold people in contempt if they relegate us to our fair share. Having information about how much bandwidth is available due to the number of other people on the network can start to dip into strong social instincts. Researchers have found that sharing how much energy neighbors use will decrease heavy energy-users use. So, even if you don’t actually limit the amount of bandwidth so everyone is getting a “fair” amount, people will naturally begin self-regulating and this, in turn, will naturally help AT&T’s issues with network usage.

Further, even just having feedback and predictability about the service quality we’re getting will reduce anger about it - partly because the user can now take steps to do something about it (they have more control). Having more control over a situation almost always reduces stress about that situation. When I can’t place a call in an area with 2-bars, I gently curse AT&T, move to an area with better signal, get over it and make my call. If I can’t make a call with 5 bars, I curse AT&T and don’t know what to do about it. By limiting the amount of data I have available to me on a crowded cell tower, I might realize that Union Square is not the place to be streaming Netflix, and I might opt for a lower-bandwidth activity instead**. In addition, this change would encourage iPhad users to connect to wireless networks instead of cellular networks naturally - there’s nothing more rewarding than a big fat 100% or full 5 bars - further helping AT&T’s network load.

When the cell phone was invented, it was invented purely for the purpose of making voice calls. Or, if I was feeling really adventurous, I might send an SMS, but that still traveled over the voice network. If I wanted to make a call, the quality of said call was purely a matter of how well connected I was to the nearest cellular tower. Nowadays, we’re connected to two different, completely separate modes of data transfer - that same voice network, and the newer data networks. But instead of building a mental model that these two modes are different (as they have by providing a separate signal for wi-fi connectivity), cellphone hardware’s reliance on those little signal bars communicates to consumers that they’re one and the same. It makes sense to delineate these different networks, because they are different. One of the basic tenants of interaction design is to provide feedback. Currently, no provider is doing that for these data networks. So, it just makes sense that we do. The fact that this feedback might change our behavior is just a plus. Sure, we might have to rethink this when we start on 4G networks, but for now, that’s a ways into the future for the AT&T locked-in iPhad users.

* Sure, the users most likely to know what this looks like are those data hogs that AT&T is going after. But really, soon we’re all going to be datahogs (video on iPhone 4, anybody?), and even while we’re not, it still ruins the experience for the rest of us.

** When you think about these examples, you realize these types of behaviors might even increase the sales of AT&T Microcells and similar products - if I understand that bandwidth is a shared resource, and I can pay a one-time $150 fee to have my own personal stock, this might make more sense to me than paying $150 to access a network I’m already paying for.