Searching for Digital Detox

2019 saw the rise of the minimalist smartphone. Numerous devices launched this year sought to simplify and declutter our digital lives. Most recently we have seen the launch of devices such as the Light Phone 2, Punkt, and even the Palm phone which debuted at Verizon. New feature phones, such as the recently unveiled Nokia 2720 Flip which will include WhatsApp, Facebook, one-touch Google Assistant, and 4G, also want to ride the digital detox wave.

With smartphone sales declining overall, carriers are trying to latch on to the trend early.  In the case of Verizon, the carrier first launched the Palm smartphone to market as a companion device only. However, to capture the demand coming from people who just want to have a smaller, more compact device, Verizon opened up sales for the Palm as a primary smartphone. None of the devices that are so far on the market have turned out to be blockbuster sellers. Nevertheless, it’s important from both an OEM and carrier perspective to understand where the demand for these devices is coming from, and how to better position existing products to capture higher sales and revenue opportunities.

A Jobs to be Done-based Approach to Innovation

You might be familiar with the ‘Jobs to be Done’ framework developed by Clayton Christensen. If not, here is a brief synopsis. The concept will help us understand why and how people buy or ‘hire’ products that they do. It’s a powerful analytical tool that we can use to assess products and services. In the context of digital detox products, the key question is – what are the problems that these devices are trying to solve? Here I break it down into two job drivers:

  • One is a functional job. Customers looking at these devices want it for certain functional aspects. This can be having a less bulky device or having a more durable or simplistic device.
  • The other is an emotional job, which is more about how a consumer wants to feel and be perceived by using the product. Here these phones are targeting those consumers who want to feel empowered to take ownership of their digital lives or those who want to show or be perceived as elegant, minimalist, and design-conscious.

Assessing the Minimalist Smartphone Potential

The key is to find functional or emotional job drivers that would appeal to consumers for which these minimalist phones could provide a better solution. Perhaps these minimalist phones are better off competing in the feature phone market. Here too, consumers want no fuss devices with great battery life and durability. But where are feature phones lacking in terms of the Jobs perspective? Well, they certainly get some functional jobs correct, but lack in the emotional job aspect, i.e. they are not as stylish. Or perhaps consumers may gravitate to a more minimalist smartphone form factor if the price point is right (certainly under US$100, probably around US$20-$50). Of course, this suggestion has its flaws too as you may likely have to market the phone differently, which can alienate the current customer base. But it’s another way of positioning minimalist phones to get more traction.

Wrapping it Up

Minimalist devices have a niche, but it will be hard to get significant mainstream penetration in their current market position. Carriers and OEMs are already partnering heavily via smartwatches, which are cornering the secondary device market. Minimalist phones, even when marketed as a digital detox device, still target the same functions that smartwatches do. The ‘jobs’ approach shows us different ways of looking at these products and gives us alternative positioning strategies to potentially explore.