The Now of Device Usage: Opportunities for Developers in 2016 and Beyond

By Karen Marcus

Recently, Intel UX Innovation Manager Dr. Daria Loi and her team conducted a study to determine how technology users around the world feel about their computing devices. The study, titled Current Usages: A Global Perspective, explored which devices are people’s favorites, which they use most often, which they use for certain tasks (and why), and what they wish the devices could do better. The research included 1,200 people from six countries across an age range of several decades.

The study found that, while devices such as smartphones, laptops, desktops, and tablets allow users to perform many critical work and personal functions—and that most users have a favorite device (see Figure 1)—there are many areas for improvement. This article discusses the study’s findings in detail and suggests numerous opportunities for developers to create software that can perfect users’ experience.

Figure 1. Study responses for favorite device

Figure 1.Study responses for favorite device

No One Size Fits All

Findings from the Current Usages: A Global Perspective study showed that for most people, their smartphone is their favorite device (39%), followed by laptops (30%), and then desktops (21%). But none of these devices can provide the interface to help users achieve every task as they move among work, personal chores, and play. For example, phones are great for taking pictures, listening to music, participating in social media, and communicating with others, but because of screen size and (true or perceived) security reasons, they’re not as useful for tasks like shopping, banking, image editing, and emailing.

Dr. Loi observes, “A smartphone is portable, so that’s the device people tend to reach for most often. Because it’s a favorite device, we want to think it’s perfect, but currently, there’s no perfect device, and that’s why people own multiple devices. However, not all current or emerging users—especially those in developing nations and young users—can afford multiple devices, nor do they want to carry them around. So, as technology developers, the question for us is, ‘How can we create a future that enables people to do everything they want without the bother and expense of multiple devices? How can we help them streamline?’”

In looking for such areas for convergence, developers may want to take note of what users already value in their devices. When asked about the most important features of their devices, survey participants most frequently cited as their number-one feature the operating system, and then performance, screen size, ease of use, and brand—in that order (see Figure 2). Loi notes that ease of use should be of particular interest because it has “huge repercussions for developers as ease of use absolutely needs to be there; otherwise, people won’t buy.”

Figure 2. Study responses for most important features

Figure 2. Study responses for most important features

The Device Shuffle

According to the study, some functions don’t skew strongly in any one direction in terms of which device people prefer when performing them. These functions include reading locally stored books, magazines, and text; browsing photos stored locally or online; live chat; interactive text platforms; video chatting and conferencing; and playing casual games. For these functions, says Loi, “People are moving across devices, depending on the capabilities of each one.”

They may also use different devices based on where they are. When at home, people tend to do things that require a laptop or PC, such as online purchasing, online banking, studying, and playing advanced games. At work or school, they perform tasks on laptops or PCs—including presenting reports, creating and editing documents, emailing, and reading online news or text—and smartphones, including checking the weather and using a calendar. Another location where people tend to use PCs more is Internet cafes and similar dedicated spaces, where typical tasks include using VoIP, video conferencing, and updating blogs or websites.

When on the go, smartphones are the device of choice for tasks like searching locations, navigating, taking pictures or recording videos, and listening to music. “People have expectations based on where they are,” explains Loi. “Their tolerance in terms of responsiveness is different depending on their location. What they expect to see changes when the context changes. Here, the goal for developers is to create applications that work well across contexts or are capable of changing so that the experience for users becomes seamless, no matter what the situation.”

Smartphones Getting Smarter

Whereas some tasks are device-agnostic, others are more commonly performed on a specific device. Forty-three percent of study participants identified smartphones as their device of choice for everyday tasks like checking weather, storing contacts, and using a calendar; 47% said that smartphones were best for searching locations and navigation; and 62% said that smartphones are best for recording photos and video (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Study responses for favorite device for locate and check functions

Figure 3.Study responses for favorite device for locate and check functions

Yet, people hesitate to conduct online shopping on their smartphone because they have a sense that it’s less secure. Some participants specifically mentioned that they can’t always see the entire screen and are concerned that they might not see a button or other element they need to be aware of to ensure they’re completing the purchase according to their wishes. However, Loi says, “People would like to perform these tasks on any device, so that’s an opportunity for developers to create the software and infrastructure to enable them to do it safely and securely. This will become increasingly important as Google and Apple push their solutions for using smartphones as credit cards.”

Other potential areas for improvement with smartphones include functions to reduce people’s reliance on other devices when on the go or when those devices are not available. For example, how could a smartphone provide richer productivity capabilities? Considering that people increasingly use their phones as a primary camera, how can camera capabilities be enriched? And, since people want to listen to music on their phone, can smartphones be equipped with better functionality and user interfaces?

Developers have yet another opportunity with smartphones: making them more useful for education. Loi notes, “Teens and young adults cannot imagine living without their phones, yet these devices are rarely integrated into school curricula. In fact, we ask them to leave their devices home or to turn them off; yet, to them, a smartphone is an appealing, familiar, exciting everyday tool that offers an opportunity to make learning stick. In this context, our challenge is to work with educators to develop solutions that enable fluid, seamless, delightful, relevant, deep learning.”

PC Performance Wins

Despite the love affair people have with their phones, when it comes to certain tasks, their laptops, All-in-Ones, and notebooks are their preferred devices (see Figure 4). Specifically, 38% of users choose laptops for editing or modifying media, 47% choose them for creating or editing documents, 36% want them for updating blogs or websites, 41% use them for online banking and bill payment, 44% use them to browse products for potential purchase, and 41% use them to purchase products online. Loi notes that screen size is a primary reason for these preferences, “It’s easier to move around and do fine-grained work on a larger screen.” In addition, she says, “Many software packages aren’t available for smartphones or are prohibitively expensive. The ecosystem of software plus the practical, physical performance advantage of laptops make them the device of choice for these tasks.”

Figure 4. Study responses for favorite device for online purchasing

Figure 4.Study responses for favorite device for online purchasing

Survey participants also favored laptops for communication and entertainment functions, such as watching online videos (36%); watching locally stored videos (37%); uploading, downloading, sharing, or transferring media (38%); emailing (42%); and voice over IP (VoIP) and other online voice platforms (35%; see Figure 5). Loi explains, “These are applications that require the high performance that smartphones don’t yet have. In the future, the capabilities of PCs may migrate to smaller devices. Again, the right ecosystem, software, middleware, interface, and infrastructure—in addition to the right ports to easily transfer media—would be needed to make that happen.”

Figure 5. Study responses for favorite device for writing and talking

Figure 5. Study responses for favorite device for writing and talking

Other areas where survey participants preferred the performance and screen size of their laptops were presenting reports (59%), playing advanced games (24% for laptops and 25% for desktops), browsing or researching information online (38%), studying (47%), and reading online news or text (39%; see Figure 6)). Loi observes, “People can perform some of these functions from a smartphone, but phones don’t talk to other devices (such as projectors) as well as computers do; their performance doesn’t enable usages such as advanced gaming; and their limited screen size is an issue when engaging in focused, prolonged, and multi-tasking-rich usages such as studying or researching.”

Figure 6. Study responses for favorite device for reading, learning, and research

Figure 6.Study responses for favorite device for reading, learning, and research

Speaking of Technology

To better understand participants’ feelings about their devices, Loi and her team interviewed a number of them to gather qualitative information to enrich the quantitative data gathered through the global survey. One important finding was that people increasingly have a love–hate relationship with technology. Loi says, “People realize that they can’t live without their devices, but they also feel that they’re enslaved by them. A typical sentiment was, ‘I want to be able to continuously leverage devices to do the things that are important to me, but I also want them to be smart enough to get out of the way when I don’t need them.’ For example, if someone is in a meeting, his or her smartphone should have this contextual awareness and prevent incoming calls. There’s a lot of potential for creating machines that can learn users’ behavior and take initiatives to disengage when not needed.”

“I miss the times when we weren’t always ON.” —Aron, 20s

On the “love” side of the love–hate spectrum, study participants had things they appreciated about their devices, including that they help to streamline life, connect with others, and interface in real time. But, Loi observes, even the benefits that people like could be better. She queries, “How can we enrich the way we connect with others, beyond existing tools? What technological solutions can be developed to make us feel more present and connected with others, regardless of physical distance?”

“I want to connect to family more; we seem to be looking at [our] devices instead of talking to each other.”
—Carol, 40s

Along with an appreciation of technology comes frustration. Some of the top areas people wish they could change were that device batteries die too fast, that devices slow down or freeze, that they’re susceptible to viruses and privacy intrusions, that they’re too big for true portability, that they’re too small to store everything, and that they’re difficult to operate. A key irritation for study participants was that they want to be more mobile. Loi says, “We’re an increasingly mobile society—a society that fully relies on devices to get things done. But, to be useful tools, those devices need battery life. When I talk to users, it’s clear that charging has become an obsession for most, an impediment to being truly mobile and effective. Among other opportunities, wireless charging can provide great benefits in this context; yet, there needs to be an efficient, reliable, intuitive ecosystem to deliver that usage.” She notes that passwords are another “problem we need to solve,” along with technology changing too quickly, which would be helped through efforts to enable people to transition from older to newer operating systems and applications.

“Stuff changes quickly all the time; it’s hard to keep up.” —Raul, 20s

In response to these frustrations, study participants had thoughts about how the technology could serve them better. They expressed wanting it to be more personalized, power efficient, affordable, ubiquitous, more voice-based, and operating system agnostic, among other things. People also want technology that’s less in the way and more capable of contextually anticipating some user needs. Loi remarks, “People want power, control, and options. Another key factor is ease of use. For developers, usability has to be a top priority. If a user can’t find a function, then it’s essentially not there, and people won’t buy the application.”

“I like to make choices. I don’t want to be told what to do.” —Francis, 30s

Despite the frustration of constant change, people are excited to see what comes next. Loi says that many of the study participants described futuristic features they’d like to see on their devices—what some participants called Iron Man experiences. These features include the ability to think messages to communicate rather than having to speak or type them; live holographic images to chat with; and a super-sensitive microphone that could pick up voice commands from anywhere in the home. Loi says, “Social media and Hollywood give people ideas and expectations for what might be next. Some people don’t understand why these futuristic technologies aren’t already available. Despite their complexity, many expect them to be on the market soon, in many cases sooner than they actually will be .”

“The ability to show someone else exactly what you are imagining. . . like a 3-dimensional hologram.” —Sheila, 20s


Significant strides have been made in computing technology in recent years, and there are many things people love about their devices. Yet there are many areas in which technology could be even more convenient and user friendly. Dr. Loi of Intel headed the study, Current Usages: A Global Perspective, which set out to understand how people around the world use their devices now and how they would like to use them in the future. The study revealed the following areas of opportunity for developers:

  • Streamline functionality so that people can carry (and spend money on) fewer devices.
  • Continue to improve usability.
  • Improve security and visibility on smartphones for online shopping.
  • Improve smartphone functions (such as cameras and music access) to take the place of separate devices.
  • Make smartphones more useful for education.
  • Make PC software packages more available and useful for smartphones, and give smartphones the capacity to handle more robust applications.
  • Create a more seamless, contextual experience for users.
  • Improve communications technology to make people feel closer to those with whom they’re communicating.
  • Make battery charges last longer, and find new ways to charge devices.
  • Help people migrate from older applications and systems to newer ones.

The key, says Loi, is delivering a better vision for the future. For this to happen, she says, “It’s critical for all new developments to be grounded in an understanding of what people do, want, need, and desire. This research is meant to influence what we as an industry do based on a clear, data-driven understanding of what users are doing and what they care about.”

About the Author

Karen Marcus, M.A., is an award-winning technology marketing writer who has 18 years of experience. She has developed case studies, brochures, white papers, data sheets, articles, website copy, video scripts, and other content for such companies as Intel, IBM, Samsung, HP, Amazon Web Services, and Microsoft. Karen is familiar with a variety of current technologies and solutions, such as cloud computing, enterprise computing, personal computing, IT outsourcing, operating systems, and application development.

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