The Smartphone and the Teddy

In 1992, linguist Donald Norman wrote a book called Turn Signals Are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles. In this book he described something that he called “The Teddy.”

Let’s assume we’ve reached the time when the power of information technology has increased enormously, with the whole country — nay, the whole world — wired so that anyone anywhere can connect to the huge communication network. As a result, society has evolved to the point where everyone always carries a portable computer with them, except that it is thought of not as a computer but as a personal, confidential assistant… We could communicate with Teddy by talking… Eventually, as we came to rely upon our Teddys, we would reach a point where we would be disoriented without them.

Norman continued with his description, acknowledging that “The Teddy is the stuff of science fiction” but inviting readers to imagine “People going around apparently mumbling to themselves but actually conversing with their Teddys” and parents telling kids not to use their Teddys at the dinner table.

At the time that he wrote the book, Norman presumably didn’t have access to the internet, since there were only 50 web servers in the world; if he did, it was not like the internet today. He might have had a cell phone, but he says at one point that Teddy could remind us to make phone calls, so he was not envisioning the Teddy as a phone.

But that is what he was describing: a smartphone with internet access.

It is only a generation later, but we now have smartphones. 74% of American adults under 50, according to the Pew Research Group, own smartphones. It’s 83% of those under 30, and half of all those between 50 and 65. Only 19% of those over 65 use cell phones, but the numbers for all age groups increase with education, affluence, and urban living.

More than half of smartphone owners use their phones when they shop. Most visit websites, get directions, use geolocation apps of various kinds, text, and check their email. Two years ago, Google found that 67% of web users already wanted mobile-friendly sites, and were more likely to visit sites that came up well on their phones. 44% sleep with their phones nearby. Isn’t that a Teddy?

Now let’s look at how businesses respond to this distinct change in consumer experience and behavior.

  • A Hibu study in December 2013 found that 45% of small businesses in the U.S. have no website (a number confirmed by Google and the U.S. Census Bureau) and only 6% have a mobile-friendly website.
  • Only 8% of coupons produced by CPG companies are available on phones.
  • While consumers report spending 10% of their time with mobile content and only 7% with print, print marketing spend accounts for 25% of marketing budgets and mobile for 1%.

The gap is too large.

A client in a meeting last week told me that he couldn’t see any point in marketing other than online marketing and charitable sponsorships. I agree, but I’m willing to believe that other kinds of marketing continue to be valuable.

What I’m not willing to believe is that businesses should see that two thirds of consumers use smart phones and decide to be in the 94% of companies that do not have a mobile-friendly website.

Ready to step out of the herd and acknowledge that smartphone use is the norm and not the exception?  Here are some things to put on your list:

  • Make sure your website is mobile friendly.
  • Make sure that information about your brand, including reviews and product specs, is readily accessible by mobile visitors.
  • When you use promotions and coupons, make sure they’re accessible by phone.







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