Smartphone, Tablet, Laptop: What’s the Occasion?


I would never eat an energy bar for dinner. Ever. For breakfast maybe. Definitely as a midday snack.

I would never wear a suit to the movies. To work, sometimes. Definitely to a client meeting.

I would never curl up on the couch and read a book on my smartphone. On my laptop, maybe. On my tablet, definitely.

When I travel for business, I bring my laptop and leave my tablet at home. When I travel for pleasure, I take my tablet and leave behind my laptop. When I shop online it’s generally on my tablet: I like to browse while I watch TV, and my tablet makes that easy. When I check Facebook it’s generally on my smartphone on the go, when I can squeeze in the time, like in line at Starbucks. And when I write this blog, it’s on my laptop. Always.

These behaviors are interesting because I, like many consumers, have more than one electronic device, and each has developed its ideal set of functions. But these behaviors are only mine, and the extent to which they’re shared by other consumers is what really matters. Though I have a strong hunch that I’m not alone in preferring certain devices for certain occasions, the details around occasion-based mobile device use are not exactly clear.

Part of the reason may be our preoccupation with making sure customers get the one right product to fit their needs. Online retail sites, blogs, magazines, and e-zines offer quite a bit of advice about how to know whether a smartphone, tablet, or laptop is right for you. What do you care about? Portability? Weight? Battery life? Comfortable use? Are you a gamer? Do you want it for your kid? Plug that all into an algorithm and you’ll know what to buy.

We also seem to be concerned with the extent to which tablets will replace smartphones, phablets will replace tablets, tablets will look like laptops, etc. The assumption is that consumers only want one. Take any consumer at any one moment in time and, sure, if they are on the market it’s generally for just one device. But over a couple of years, most consumers will end up owning two or three. Why? Because no one device is perfect for every occasion. Size matters according to context, as does weight, and graphics. It’s hard to imagine a laptop replacing a smartphone: they were designed for two very different circumstances, and consumers regularly find themselves in both.

This means tech companies might benefit from a shift in perspective. Occasion-based loyalty research may answer a lot of questions that other research isn’t answering. Why a consumer is or isn’t satisfied with your product, or why they may or may not recommend you, may have everything to do with the context in which they are using it. Without knowing the context, you only see part of the picture.

I’ll listen to Metallica on the spin bike at the gym. It works for me there. But ask me who I like, and I’ll say Radiohead.