in User Interface

Three ideas for improving iPhone data roaming usability

As I am currently spending the holidays with relatives in Stockholm the issue of data roaming on my iPhone has suddenly shifted to front and center. After updating the software to v 2.2, I had somehow hoped that the various usability annoyances of this feature, which goes from being virtually inconsequential for most users to being a core feature for international travelers, would have been addressed. Not so, unfortunately. In fact, it seems that the only party that has taken some action in this area is the carrier AT&T, by sending a helpful text message when the iPhone connects to a carrier other than theirs. Apple, on the other hand, while in most other ways having created a masterpiece of good user experience in the form of the iphone, seem to have let this particular ux aspect slide a bit.

First, a bit of background. When the very earliest buyers of the iPhone decided to take them abroad, they made two key discoveries. First, the iPhone and all of it’s features work almost seamlessly anywhere in the world where you can get cell service. Second, the fee for this convenience is astronomical. Early adopters of the iPhone would return home to be greeted by bills from AT&T sometimes in the thousands of dollars. One reason for the high cost is that the iPhone displays real web pages as opposed to the watered down web pages on cell phones of old, meaning that the amount of data being pulled down increases significantly. Now, while using your phone in the US this is not an issue since the data allowance for AT&T users of the iPhone is unlimited. Not so when traveling abroad. And the feature which determines whether or not you will have access to those conveniences and also incur the astronomical expenses when abroad is the data roaming feature. Let’s therefore look at some ways in which the feature could be improved.

1. Set the feature to be off by default when accessing a non-native carrier

Just like AT&T responds with a text message when the iPhone connects to a non-AT&T carrier, so too should the iPhone make an equivalent adjustment. In line with a basic principle of UX to do no harm (i.e. to incur additional expenses without first notifying the user), the default roaming feature should be deactivated. Better yet, a notification could appear the first time the iPhone connects to a non-native carrier, allowing the user to decide what to do.

1. Make changing the data roaming settings easier when abroad

Currently, when having turned off data roaming, and trying to connect to a web page or whatever, a mildly helpful message appears, explaining how to gain access to the web page, describing the multiple steps required to access this very buried feature. Why not instead just provide access to the feature, allowing me to turn it on? Obviously, I am interested in getting online, so why do I have to exit the browser, and dig down into the iPhone settings and then back again to the browser? Better yet, why not have the iPhone go into International mode and make features like this accessible with a single click? Additionally, there should be an option to only leave data roaming on for a limited time period. Perhaps this seems like feature bloat, which is one of the very things the designers of the iPhone have done so well in preventing. I would say that it is not, since the additional features are highly contextual.

3. Replace ‘data roaming’ with something more understandable to non-geeks

Unless you’re a networking dorkball, you are unlikely to understand what “data roaming” means. This is a great example of where technological jargon has been allowed to surface up into the user interface label. Why not something like “international mode?” Of course, technically speaking, it is possible to need this feature without having traveled abroad, such as if you are in a domestic location where only non-AT&T carriers are available (I actually don’t know what the fees would be in that situation.)

Part of me knows that this feature upgrade probably isn’t at or even near the top of Apple’s list of iPhone upgrades, but nonetheless, I’d be curious to know if others have had similar frustrations.