Mastering the mean telephone machine

In last week’s guest post, my son Robin let us discover the art of abstraction. Using the microwave oven and the smartphone as examples, he wrote about the benefits of making a clear separation between the internal mechanics and the external interface of an apparatus.

But even when appropriate abstraction is made to hide implementations detail from end-users, understanding and utilizing new machinery may be a challenging experience for many people. Technology marketers shouldn’t underestimate the intellectual capabilities of their customers, but they shouldn’t overestimate them either. While engineers and experts may consider a concept or a product simple, the average Jane or Joe may find it hard to understand or to handle. Even the fact that most of today’s articles are shipped with a (often too comprehensive) user guide, does not mean that consumers will actually read the handbook, follow the instructions, and remember them for future occasions.

Recently I stumbled upon a beginner’s guide to telephone use, dated 1917. Of course, for a 21st century digital native it’s child’s play to use a mobile phone (though I wonder if some of today’s kids would still know how to use a plain old wired black telephone set with a rotary dial…) but put yourself in the shoes of an early twentieth century low educated US citizen. Maybe for him or for her that new telephony service wasn’t that straightforward at all. I’m sure he or she has appreciated the sweet and simple stories shown on the images below.


So, long live abstraction! Long live simplicity! And long live user-focused products, with easy understandable user manuals.

Related posts:

Mr. Watson, come here!

Although one always has to be cautious when using humor in presentations (read my “monkey see, monkey do” post  for an example on how not to do it), a well-chosen joke can be good to (re)gain the audience’s attention and a cartoon is sometimes a welcome alternative for boring stock clip art.

One of my favorite resources to tap from for business presentations is of course Dilbert, a recognizable stereotype for tech-company employees (that often happen to be in the audiences I present to…). Also Randy Glasbergen offers a large catalog of great cartoons.

I am also lucky to have a professional cartoonist among my friends, that once created a few exclusive drawings for one of my conference talks. The full slide show is available on SlideShare, but telecom industry outsiders may need some explanation about the dialogs below.

As my presentation addressed the evolution of telecommunications services from traditional voice telephony to text messaging, video and multimedia, I first showed a takeoff on Alexander Graham Bell, who once invented the first telephone.


As early as in 1876, Thomas Watson, assistant to Alexander Graham Bell, had the dubious honor of being the first worker ever summoned by his boss via the phone. Through the famous words “Mr. Watson, come here.” Can you imagine this same scene more than 130 years later, when voice communication has (partly) been taken over by video? (note that I created the original presentation for an industry event in 2009, and that the 2013 Mr. Watson would probably show up on a mobile device rather than on a PC screen.)


The last part of my talk was addressing a roadmap for the replacement of old telephony (also known as the Public Switched Telephone Network or PSTN) by next-generation multimedia services, offered through an IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS). An operation that takes time (actually, this migration is still going on today), and assumes a temporary cohabitation of the old and the new communications infrastructure and services (as shown in the 3rd cartoon, with sincere apologies to my mother-in-law.)


As a final note, never forget to mention the cartoonist and acknowledge his copyrights. My sincere thanks to Carré Cartoons, and keep up the good work!

Other articles about Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson: