Let's drag office phones into the 21st century

Why is it that office phones are harder to use, do less, and look uglier than much cheaper home phones? Why do we put up with this?

Why is it that your typical office phone stinks compared with the one you have at home? Here are a few of the ways they are harder to use, do less, and look uglier.

Office phones are ugly: They are typically anonymous black blobs with boring key shapes and colors and utilitarian speaker grills. Stylistically they are circa 1985 and made with shiny black textured plastics that would embarass a home phone or cell phone.

Office phones are hard to use (part one): They typically come in two types: Those with just one cryptic "function" button that through a combination of numeric keys controls a variety of functions like call-forwarding, changing the ring volume, and so on. Or they are of the type with an LCD screen, a bunch of soft keys, and equally cryptic abbreviations of functions like "RngAgn" and "SScUsr". Either way, to do anything more advanced than take and make calls requires a trip to the manual (if you have one). Why is it still considered a blessed miracle when a three-way conference call is successfully connected?

Office phones are hard to use (part two): And don't get me started on the voice mail commands. Have you met a voice mail system yet that has numeric key commands that make sense? Why is the first choice always to leave a message rather than pick up your messages? Since when have I called my voice mail to leave a message for someone else? Yet on many voice mail systems button 1 is for leaving messages, and button 2 is for retrieving them. And then you have things like dialing 7-6 to delete a message, or 8-4 to "administer your outgoing message"--where is the logic in that?

Office phones are hard to use (part three): We have VoIP phones at our office that have lots of snazzy features. Problem is they are impossible to access without a manual to remind you about what they can do, and how to do it. Office phones have blown the integration of hardware, software and services to such a degree that they are now the hardest piece of equipment to use in an office. In software development it is common knowledge that 70 percent of features never go used by most users. With office phones I'm sure it is over 90 percent. It's hard to even do the basic things one expects in a cell phone, such as storing names in a phone book or speed dial. (I'm not holding up cell phones as a paragon of usability, far from it, but it shows how archaic office phones are.)

Office phones have cords: Why am I tethered to my desk? You almost cannot buy a home phone with a cord anymore, even the cheapest sub-$40 phones are cordless. Now I'm sure there are practical reasons for this--interference from lots of phones in one area, mixing up which handset goes with which base--but really there must be ways around these. Cordless and cell phones have led us to expect untethered talking, and it helps with productivity because one can do other things while talking on the phone. So at the office, where productivity is very important, why am I prevented from doing so?

There's probably more, but you get the picture. Can someone please step up and drag office phones into the 21st century? We'll all be better off.

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Tech Culture
About the author

    Adam Richardson is the director of product strategy at frog design, where he guides strategy engagements for frog's international roster of clients, envisioning and creating new products, consumer electronics, and digital experiences. Adam combines a background in industrial design, interaction design, and sociology, and spends most of his time on convergent designs that combine hardware, software, service, brand, and retail. He writes and speaks extensively on design, business, culture, and technology, and runs his own Richardsona blog.

     

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