How people use smartphones today

Dhruv Ghulati — Co-Founder & VP Product @
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At the beginning of TechStars, we conducted an extensive survey among those who had signed up for our mailing list. We wanted to learn how people use their smartphones, and what frustations they have. Although some of the responses confirmed what we already knew, we also heard of problems and hacks that we honestly could never have thought of.

Devices have become more than just machines

This seems obvious to most people, but it is an interesting thought. Desktop computers have never had the personal nature that things like tablets or phones have had. Apple, with the iPod and iPhone, was one of the pioneers in positioning devices as personal add-ons for people to use to help form individual identity. It was clear from some responses that the variegated ways we use smartphones, from the apps we choose to download to the different uses we have for them, have made these devices almost as personal as pets. One user describes it as:

“It’s a part of life for most of my external interface with the world”

In that way, the importance of making sure that devices transform into interactive, thinking and deliberating friends of ours becomes ever more important from a technology standpoint.

“App Switching” vs. “Small Screen” Problems

My homescreen on Android. The concept of apps as being “walled gardens” was one of the things that HTML5 was hoping to solve by replacing native apps. However, we are still bound by iOS and Android, to an extent.

Most problems people have with their smartphones mentioned that maintaining context and parameters between apps is tremendously difficult. For example, as one user describes it:

I get a message from a friend with his account information, asking me to transfer her money. I need to copy her account information, open up my internet banking and paste the account info plus the amount to my internet bank. I switch between apps and fill in parameters one by one.

The second major problem with smartphones is that screen estate is smaller, which leads to limited usability for certain types of human tasks.

There are probably a bunch of other problems people have with phones. However, in a survey like this, you will seldom hear a problem statement like “my phone doesn’t know who I am”. This relates to Henry Ford’s famous “faster horse” quote, which says “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” .

As Steve Jobs often said, users are sometimes not the best qualified to offer up solutions to problems. and other companies have started to understand that AI is the holy grail to get us out of the stone age we have found ourselves with current OS and search architectures.

Survey Results — At a Glance

The interesting things we found
The main app switching problem people have is to do with maps and finding locations. This is especially the case for younger users.

Across the board, and for under 25s particularly, this is the most common annoyance people have with their phones.

This is a bigger problem for younger generations perhaps because of simply being out and about more. Some calendar apps and Facebook events are starting to allow deeplinks out to mapping apps like Citymapper and Google Maps, and generally allow much more interactive experiences, but getting an address from Google Maps and copying it to a conversation or putting it into Citymapper still hasn’t been solved. The communication of where to go, and planning coordination, is still a real problem in today’s apps.

Younger users rarely wait to do things on their desktops. Whereas older users, especially 25–35 year olds, have a much wider list of use cases.

It is likely this is because of how mobile has evolved. Many younger generations have experienced the world in a “mobile-first” way. The products and services they have seen simply have better mobile experiences, so thinking about technology in a mobile first manner comes more naturally.

Older users’ main problems with their smartphones relate to contacting people, making introductions, and taking actions related to email.

This may have been affected by our particular survey cohort, which is includes our first 400 signups on our website, but what it tells you is that for smartphone “power users”, professional productivity is generally the main use of the smartphone. Companies like Mainframe have been looking at how to identify the actions implicit in email bodies, for example, adding tasks in your to-do lists from the intent provided by the sender. However, automating or highlighting the potential end actions to perform from an email is an open problem.

Gmail automatically recognises if an email contains an event, and offers a link for me to add this event to my calendar.
Article reading, web browsing and email is the biggest issue for 25–35 year olds, and they have a much wider list of uses where they prefer desktop. For 35–45 year olds, the biggest “small-screen” problems related to email, and the biggest “app switching” problem related to sharing or communicating interesting links e.g. on Twitter.

Again, these data points might be skewed by the fact that a lot of our early sign ups may be potential investors or hires, or simply people who are tech savvy and read a lot about AI and machine learning. But still, it was useful to have proof that it isn’t just us who feels this. To an extent, this information is pretty obvious but for us at, we like to make sure whatever we build out has some proof point or backing, however light.

For over 45s, reading long articles and typing long text is a unanimous cause for waiting to be on desktop to accomplish tasks.

I found this point interesting from a social perspective. Older users of technology tend to have more of a culture of long documentation, elaborate prose and an officiated method of communication. The trend of bullet pointing and short burst emails is something that is only very very new. Thus, it makes sense that older users cited this as their biggest pain point on the phone.

For under 25s, many of whom are university students, researching articles and performing analyses is a common cause of “app jumping” problems.

There aren’t many apps or functionalities in today’s phones that truly cater to high powered readers and researchers of content. There is certainly a market out there for catering to article writers, media agencies and reporters, as well as research students and academics.

Here are some quotes from our survey:

“I have to switch screens too much from reading an article and sharing it and researching parts of it and notes.”
“I am always texting someone a paraphrased article, and have to switch back and forth between text and article to make sure information is correct.”

Being able to find new links and information, and discover new content or experiences, was not a major need or problem point for people.

I paraphrase an investor I once spoke to who mentioned that:

“Noone has convincingly solved the problem of experience discovery”.

This is a big point in case for the evolving of AI and how it can change our experiences as users. People are swarmed with new content, pushed to them at all times of the day, from all directions. We are suffering from information overload.

Making sense of this information, and having it surfaced at the right time by trusted curators and friends is the key filter that AI can create. AI can allow us to question the status quo in today’s world of being pushed products or services by third party services, vs. allowing users options to choose whether a recommendation is helpful or not. For example, Evernote’s “Context” feature based on text notes is a very difficult feature to crack effectively.

Some cool Android phone hacks to make your life easier

We at fundamentally believe that the interoperability of apps is a major issue for phone users today, in terms of allowing full device communication and user modelling. That said, in today’s ecosystem of iOS and Android, and the way the system has been built, people have found some clever short term solutions to make their lives easier. Often these are just more apps to download that then make the data content of other apps more helpful or less annoying. Here are some of the cooolest ones.

  • Use Cover to own your phone lock screen and surface the right apps for you in context (Home, Work, Car etc.). Cover has an feature which is basically “Alt + Tab” for mobile.
Replacing your lock screen with Cover.
  • Use Pulse to create a relevant newsfeed, for example setting up TechCrunch on the Pulse Widget.
  • Use Nova Launcher or Aviate to customise your homescreen for relevancy and easy access
  • Use the “current processes” button on Android to easily move back and forth between apps
Interesting way of shifting between apps as “processes” running, but maintaining their own contexts as silos.
  • Use PhonetoChrome to maintain constancy between the tabs open on your web browser and your mobile one. It sends links to Chrome, opening new tabs on your desktop so you can review articles later.
  • Use LastPass for storing passwords and credit card information.
  • For maintaining device context, use Pushbullet as an alternative to Airdrop.

A final word

Despite the efforts of pioneers like Doug Engelbart, Jef Raskin and Alan Kay, how we interact with our devices hasn’t changed much since the 80s. At we’re working on a product architecture and protocol we believe can solve many of the “app switching” and “small screen” problems people suffer from, as a first step towards solving much larger issues with how we interact with computers.

Jef Raskin’s “The Humane Interface”

Underlying all of this is thinking about a conversational, navigational, contextual UI for navigation and performing actions. One day, devices will have a cognitive layer that sits on top of the OS, and truly understands user intent and meta-communication. We hope that we can make the right steps towards this goal.


Appendix — Our Survey Questions

Here are the questions we used in our survey. If you have any feedback on these, please let us know — we are always learning!

  1. What do you use your phone most for? e.g. Messaging my friends, surfing the web, listening to podcasts etc.
  2. Which app(s) do you use the most?
  3. Which app(s) on your phone annoy you, but you still have to use? e.g. Too many notifications, difficult to find the important information, recommends irrelevant things
  4. Look at the apps on your phone. What things do you do on your phone that require jumping back and forth between apps? e.g. I message friends asking them where they are going out on the weekend. After they tell me the name of an event, I Google the event on my phone. I then book the tickets on my browser, or if the website sends me to the Eventbrite app, I book it from there using PayPal or my credit card.
  5. What “hacks” do you use to overcome limitations on your phone? e.g. I store my credit card details in an Evernote note. Whenever I need to reuse these details to fill out credit card forms on my phone in an app or on a mobile webpage, I copy and paste the text from this Evernote note into the form.
  6. What don’t you currently do on your phone because it’s too cumbersome and wait until you’re on your computer? Think of as many examples as you can!
  7. What is your age bracket?
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