Smart devices may never fully replace purpose-built electronics

31st March 2022
Sam Holland

While devices – particularly smart devices, like smartphones – are becoming ever more versatile, many design engineers still have to work around an age-old truth: a jack of all trades is a master of none. Using alarm clocks as a product example, this article by Sam Holland looks at how, despite the rise in so-called ‘general-purpose’ devices, there is still (and perhaps always will be) a market for purpose-built devices like alarm clocks.

I wake up to the sound of an alarm clock. Not an alarm that plays from my phone or my smart speaker, but a traditional, dedicated alarm clock that sits on my bedside table.

Not only is it easy to set the time of the alarm, but the alarm clock allows me to input two different alarms and it even has a plug to wire up a peripheral device: a vibrational pad that can be placed under the user’s pillow to help jolt them awake if they have hearing difficulties.

Of course, my smartphone has the ability to play far more than just two alarms – even with my own choice of music – and can also vibrate to help wake me up. But I always choose, and have far more reliance on, my purpose-built alarm clock to wake me up. As the next sections will reflect, my preference can be considered a product of the alarm having the right balance between the user experience and the user interface.

The UX and UI

The UX (user experience) and UI (user interface) can be described as two different sides of the same coin. And the best design engineers will find a way of making the user experience and the user interface function in seamless harmony. Consider a virtual reality headset that the user not only finds comfortable and intuitive (the user experience), but can also be controlled effortlessly so the user can engage with all of the digital information displayed on the headset’s monitor (the user interface).

As this analogy reflects, the UX refers to how it feels to use a certain technology; and the UI refers to the hardware and/or software in place that (should) make that experience intuitive. Simply put, the user experience and the user interface are collectively vital to the success of product design.

Let’s go back to the example of my alarm clock proving a more reliable device than a smartphone or smart speaker ever could be. Why is this? The UX and UI benefits of my purpose-built alarm clock, particularly in comparison to my smart devices' alarm functions, are as follows.

UX considerations

The alarm clock is a permanent fixture and is therefore at my disposal every time I need to set an alarm – nothing more and nothing less. Meanwhile the user experience when using my phone is flawed owing to the fact that there are so many other software functions that there is not even a guarantee that the alarm will go off if the phone updates itself overnight!

And while my use of a smart (i.e. voice-controlled) speaker as an alarm clock is in fact relatively intuitive, if my Wi-Fi crashes in the middle of the night – or the intelligent voice assistant didn’t hear my original command properly – the alarm function will still be bound to fail. Whereas, as long as my alarm clock remains plugged in at the wall socket, almost nothing short of a power cut will stop the process working effectively.

UI considerations

My alarm clock has buttons and dials (to set the alarm and adjust the clock screen brightness respectively), which means that I have immediate and intuitive feedback whenever I use my alarm clock.

In contrast to this, my voice input for adding an alarm to my smartphone or smart speaker leads to a process that is delayed, may not register with the smart assistant’s AI properly, and altogether doesn’t feel as manageable as hand-controlled buttons and dials. The same goes when using my smartphone’s touchscreen to set the alarm: it is more fiddly to use touchscreens than buttons, which is one of the reasons why physical keyboards are sold as peripheral devices for phones and tablets.

A jack of all trades is a master of none

Taking stock of the UX and UI considerations of the three devices, it is clear that my smartphone and smart speaker each make a passable at best, and fatally-flawed at worst, alarm clock. Meanwhile my dedicated alarm clock achieves its sole purpose all but perfectly. Accordingly, I tend to avoid the former devices in favour of the latter for setting alarms, and this makes me an example of a consumer who reflects the market for purpose-built devices.

Design engineers continue to appeal to this market – which continues even as smart devices are becoming more dynamic than ever before. (Consider, for just one example, how communicative, AI-enabled, and even medically-focused the wearables market has become since starting life with what were largely basic fitness watches.) So far, it remains a firm truth that there are just some smart device features that can’t compete with the ‘good old-fashioned’ technologies.

But this may not be the case over the decades to come: YouGov reported all the way back in 2011 that almost 60% of 16 to 34 year olds use their smartphone as their main timepiece. And this was around a decade ago, and the trend sees no sign of stopping! This means that the reliance on smart devices in favour of dedicated products may be a sign of the times: the tech preferences of the generations known as ‘gen Z’ and ‘millenials’ may end up overtaking that of the older generations who currently still enjoy the use of purpose-built electronics.

There are exceptions to every rule, however: with a small majority of hardcore smart device users comes a large minority who may not be able to let go of their traditional technologies.

But nevertheless, smart technology should only improve, so there is always the chance that purpose-built devices really will become obsolete if smartphones and other modern tech can be designed with near-perfect versatility in mind. Because while the phrase ‘A jack of all trades is a master of none’ persists, there’s a missing part to the original saying which has been lost in common parlance. With my emphasis added, remember this real version of the saying:

“A jack of trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”

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