Mobile Projects Shouldn’t Overlook ‘Dumbphones’

    by Adam Klawonn
    September 14, 2009

    This week, CityCircles (formerly Daily Phoenix) attended a lunch event at Arizona State University that allowed us to have one-on-one conversations with college seniors who were interested in our project. (The event is summarized here.)

    This was a crucial event. ASU has a huge footprint in the Phoenix area because it has 69,000 students. They buzz around the Valley in cars, on bikes, on foot and yes, on light rail. This makes them a huge group for us as potential users and collaborators.

    As we talked to them, we realized that an assumption we made early on — one that many other projects probably make as well — was not accurate. In the hype surrounding the race to 3G and 4G and touch-screen phones and do-it-all applications, only a fraction of the market uses these smartphones. The rest of us have, for lack of a better term, “dumphones.”


    This means that designing a platform for smartphone users could lead one astray. Every student we spoke with had different versions of phones that used a native web browser. We initially considered this reality and were encouraged by our advisors to do so, but we didn’t realize how dead-on the advice was until we interacted with some of our users.

    So there are two takeaways here: organize events that allow you to interact one-on-one with different groups of your core users; and gear your mobile development towards dumphones. You can always build that slick mobile app later.

    For more on our ASU experience, check out our video:


    CityCircles at ASU from Adam Klawonn on Vimeo.

    Tagged: asu citycircles light rail mobile phoenix smartphones

    2 responses to “Mobile Projects Shouldn’t Overlook ‘Dumbphones’”

    1. I would add that making your application, whether it’s geared towards “smart” phones or more basic-featured devices, based on an open API on the backend is helpful because it allows others to extend your work to different platforms and interfaces. As an example, the Chicago Transit Authority’s bus tracker is designed to run in a mobile web browser. However, because someone was able to reverse engineer the backend API I was able to make a Twitter-based interface to the bus tracker system that would work on my SMS-only phone.

    2. Amy Gahran says:

      I’ve been researching “dumb phones” as a news platform for a new community hub called Oakland Local (launching this week).

      A couple of things I’ve learned:

      1) The wireless industry term for anything that is not a smartphone is “feature phone.” Using this search term vastly enhances your research.

      2) For “feature phones” that offer web browsing, the browsers are vastly different. Drupal and wordpress both offer good bare-bones mobile themes that seem to work well as a lowest-common denominator.

      3) Feature phones make it difficult for community members to interact back with the news/info site. So curb your expectations on that front, and expect that it will mainly be a distribution channel.

      4) Many feature phones support e-mail, so consider e-mail alerts as a potential mobile channel.

      5) Text messaging can be a powerful distribution, promotion, and interaction tool. But for people on feature phones with low-cost or prepaid plans, texting is relatively costly. If your goal is to reach people with lower incomes, offer SMS channels but don’t send out too many messages. Also, allow people to customize which texts they receive, as much as possible.

      – Amy Gahran

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