Sacrificing Usability for Functionality.
Every time I find myself in the market for a new phone, I find myself running through the same tiring routine without fail. It's the dread of picking something which could be absolutely revolutionary in how it helps me get things done, or it could be an absolutely intolerable and infuriating experience tainted with a thousand half-baked features someone wants, but surely not me. This is the yearly internal battle I fight every time new Samsung devices release. I don't want to hate on Samsung. On the contrary, I really want the S23 Ultra right now. But has Samsung done enough to streamline their software and smooth things out to make it less… exhausting?
The issue with simplicity is that it’s inherently complicated. There are a few typical outcomes of simplifying something like phone software. The first is that you create a product which looks clean but lacks obvious features that may be front-and-center in another environment. Another issue is that you may actually reduce the user experience by making it less intuitive. You’ve essentially created a worse product by making something too easy because the user is now removed from the process that would otherwise provide them with important context or options. Like a button which automates a common task, but may only provide a single outcome, where some users may do things that vary slightly from 'the norm’. A frequent complaint Android users seem to have about iOS is of this very nature. It’s just too simple. It’s dumbed down. It’s restrictive.
Now, obviously to anyone with half a brain… this isn't true. But that's how it feels when you expect a large amount of control over things and suddenly those controls aren't available. There's also the case to be made about why those controls are detrimental to so many people's experiences with their phones. Too many buttons where you don't need them isn't useful. It's stressful. Samsung is known for shipping phones with more switches and toggles for basic tasks than a jumbojet has to manage an entire flight. It puts people off because it creates an element of uncertainty. It removes the responsibility of thoughtful design and control from Samsung and puts all that responsibility on the user. Figure it out yourself, there's a setting for that somewhere.
So the same reason people love Samsungs is the same reason people hate Samsungs, and likewise with iPhone. There's no perfect balance, but there are middle ground options which users like myself lean towards. A core selling point of the Google Pixel lineup has always been that it's a "clean" or "stock" experience. For the sake of accuracy, I'm not going to refer to the Pixel as "stock Android", but I'm totally comfortable in describing it as clean. It's still Android, and there are many ways to open it up and tweak settings most users wouldn't even realize existed. But it stops well-short of throwing flexibility at the user as if it was a full bag of tools and just saying "build it yourself". The features presented focus first and foremost on what the most pertinent options the vast majority of users will need to adjust, if they need to adjust them at all. The defaults on Google's phones are, for the most part, exactly where they should be. But every user is different, so the next step is making sure it's not too rigid to work for different folks.
All that leads me to where I am now. As a mostly happy Pixel users and dare I say, fan, I'm quite happy with the experience. But functionally, I'm not so sure I'm totally satisfied. I was convinced no more than a month ago that my ideal workflow was going to be a Pixel phone paired with a Pixel Tablet, and the tablet would be where I get all my more 'complex' tasks done. I would dock it at my desk and have a keyboard, mouse, maybe a storage device, and I'd get cracking on the things I needed to do. But… After revisiting the Samsung Galaxy Fold, I'm not so sure I want two devices over one. It's a struggle for someone like myself who is constantly scratching at options that could improve my workflow. When it's folded, it's just a phone. I can use it like I would use my phone now (albeit a little narrow). But when it's unfolded, I've got myself a very small tablet which is at just the right size to have a full app on the left, and two vertical split screen apps on the right (maybe a YouTube video and an article, for example).
So, a foldable! I’m the perfect candidate for such a device with the way I end up using my phones. But hardware is not the barrier for me. As I touched on earlier, that software presents a challenge. I don’t want to be bombarded with panels and settings and popups every second of the day. And I promise I’m not saying those features are useless, but they just present me with a lot of work to do before I can get it out of the way and actually use the device. I suppose the worst case scenario here is that I stick with what I’ve got, be happy with my Pixel 7 Pro as I already am, and then wait for the Fold 5 to launch and see if it’s a good fit, and if I don’t like it, I’ve lost nothing but energy spent on anticipation. There’s a Pixel Fold on the way, too. But what if the features I would really like just don’t make their way to the Pixel Fold? What if it’s just too usable and not functional enough? Not that they’re mutually exclusive, but those two things are often approached as if they are, and the result is products which are overcomplicated or underperforming.
Either way I’m making some sacrifices. If I switch to Samsung I sacrifice simplicity and I sacrifice camera quality. If I hop to the Pixel Fold, I likely sacrifice some features and build quality considering it’s a first generation device. Maybe the trepidation I’m experiencing is somewhat silly… how tragic for me that I can’t find the perfect device! Oh the humanity…
But the devices we use shape our lives. The execution of their hardware and their software impacts everything I do and create on these devices. I want to be comfortable, and I want to be happy with spending money on a product rather than feeling overwhelmed or disappointed. I'm looking forward to what the future holds, but the biggest takeaway for me lately is that Samsung could learn a bit from Google, and Google may just need to learn a bit from Samsung, at least in the foldable department. Only time will tell.