Is it looked at as unprofessional to not have mobile internet?
February 3, 2013 5:33 PM   Subscribe

My career in web design is progressing and I'm wondering how long I can get away with not shelling out for a data plan before it makes me look bad.

I'm in the field of web design in Chicago. I'm working as a contractor.

I don't have any sort of 3G/4G internet to my name. I have a laptop and take notes on paper instead of on a tablet like many of coworkers. I also have an iPod touch. I live in a big city so when I need to get email or maps there is usually a McDonalds or Starbucks nearby. For calls and texting I have a dumb-phone. This has sufficed so far. I don't do much traveling for work but that may change in the future (that possibility is one thing that makes me think about this now).

Previously I wasn't making enough to afford any kind of mobile internet but now I'm making enough to wonder if not having it is making me look cheap and/or unprofessional. I admit it would be a nice luxury but at the same time I do see it as a luxury and one I'm not certain I can afford. But if it's making me look bad and I need it for my career then I don't want to be cheap. Please advise.

If it does turn out that this is something that needs to happen, I'm also not at all sure about any of the particulars.
Do I also need a tablet? Can I get a tablet with 4G that can be tethered? Or should I get a smartphone or one of those mini personal hotspot devices? How much GB do I need on my plan?
posted by bleep to Technology (28 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
T-Mobile has a no-contract plan with unlimited 4G and text and 100 voice minutes for $30/month. Extra voice minutes are 10 cents each. Not sure about tethering. You could buy a big phone like the Galaxy Note that would also replace a tablet. Less to carry.

I don't think having a dumbphone is unprofessional as long as you're getting your work done and aren't inconveniencing your coworkers or client. But you coukd get a prepaid smartphone setup pretty cheaply.
posted by payoto at 5:39 PM on February 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I work in a similar field, and I think most of the time these toys are a distraction. Plenty of people still take notes with paper or work using a laptop. During client meetings, I don't pull any of that gear out unless I need to show a client something like how a webpage looks.

That said, I have a smartphone and a data plan since understanding how mobile works is a big part of my job.

I'm assuming that when you meet with clients or work on site you are connected via WiFi, right? Having a smartphone makes it incredibly easy to share or pass on documents (email attachments or in cloud storage). Phones are faster than opening a laptop, connecting to WiFi, finding a file, opening a browser.

But I think the toys get in the way sometimes, and are used to boost status. If you're good, you don't need to worry about that so much.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:49 PM on February 3, 2013

If you're good, you don't need to worry about that so much.
posted by KokuRyu
This is basically what I was going to say. Having a smartphone doesn't make you professional. If you've got the chops, nobody will care if you have the latest gadget.

Of course, having a smart phone may make you easier to reach, which may help you get or retain clients.
posted by maniactown at 5:57 PM on February 3, 2013

I got a data plan when I was working as a contractor primarily because it is (I think) seen as somewhat unprofessional to not respond to things quickly. I wanted to be able to enjoy myself while I was out for an afternoon and not have to worry about ducking into a McDonalds or a library or something to make sure no one had emailed me about something urgent.

I ended up with a data plan with Virgin Mobile-- $35 a month plus tax for unlimited (well, sort of) data plus unlimited texts and 300 phone minutes. I think it was a very wise quality of life investment, and I am much happier always knowing that if something crazy is going on with a client, I can follow the email chain no matter where I am.
posted by matcha action at 6:22 PM on February 3, 2013

It's looked at as unprofessional to not follow up on requests or respond - anyone who cares about whether you have a smart phone and a data plan is just a pain in the ass. That said, if I was PMing a freelancer that I could never reach, I'd be driven completely crazy. Part of freelancing is going to be providing a reasonable amount of availability and reachable-ness. If your people know to text you, for example, if they need something urgently, so you can then follow up on it, that's okay. You don't have to EXPLAIN, just say, if you need me to take care of something urgently, please text me, otherwise I may be engaged on other client work and I will check in on things x so often.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:47 PM on February 3, 2013

Hm. Good advice here. For context, I work 9-5 in an office and am rarely needed or contacted outside regular hours although I make sure everyone who has my number who may need it. This hasn't come up as a practical issue, otherwise I would just go get it over with.

I'm mainly worried about the perception of not being "with it" and if that's a "thing". The thing that makes me unsure is that I can't think of one person in my personal or professional life who doesn't have a data plan of some kind so I don't know if I'm engaging in "conspicuous non-consumption" of some kind.
posted by bleep at 7:02 PM on February 3, 2013 they have The Best plans (and customer service) virgin and boost, they're on the sprint network, but are (depending on your usage) even cheaper than they are...with no charges or penalties for overage (you just automatically go into the next bracket...see the rate chart on their speaks for itself)...and much better phones...I just got the galaxy note 2 for $100 cheaper than T-mobile prepaid (use this link to save an extra $25...full disclosure: I get $25 off my next bill if you do)
AND, most importantly for your needs, unlike ANY OTHER carrier, tethering and wifi hotspot (up to 10 devices) is absolutely free (virgin charges 15/mo extra)

as far as 'how many GB do i need?' depends of course on how much you, i'm mostly on wifi and keep all my email and etc sync set to 'manual'...i usually come in under 100MB(!)...which, on ting, costs $3/month (my last bill was $23...TOTAL)

also...the GNote2 is hands-down the most badass phone out there...1.6GHz quad-core processor, multi window (watch a movie while you email!), 5.5" screen with (drool) S-Pen! (it's a pressure sensitive drawing mini-tablet that fits in your pocket!) and etc! what's not to love? (full review here) ...i would not be surprised in the least if, with the right apps, you weren't able to get most of your work done on the phone itself...

Phones cost (a lot) more on a pre-paid plan, but you will likely make it up with a much cheaper monthly bill within 6 months...a regular 2-year contract plan can easily cost $2000-3000 over those 2 years...i am a total cheapskate when it comes to phone service, but ultimately the deal-breaker for me with boost and virgin is their crappy non-working phones (don't get me many nightmares)
posted by sexyrobot at 7:06 PM on February 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you are a web designer, can/do you design for mobile? If not, then you have issues, and getting a smartphone may help you produce better work by making you aware of the issues and tradeoffs with mobile websites. If you're already on top of designing all your sites for mobile, then it doesn't sound like a big deal that you don't have a phone.
posted by jacalata at 7:09 PM on February 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have an ipod touch so I can download and use apps in a wi-fi environment.
posted by bleep at 7:10 PM on February 3, 2013

A friend of mine told me today that she'd had to send in something ASAP over the weekend when she didn't have access to her computer and had to do it through her phone. That to me would be the one major reason you might need to have a smartphone with data plan, and the one reason why clients and work would expect you to have one.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:14 PM on February 3, 2013

ag, $2000-3000, i meant $2000-3000 MORE than a prepaid plan...
posted by sexyrobot at 7:19 PM on February 3, 2013

There are cheaper no-contract plans available nowadays. I just got my very first smartphone and have found that I don't actually use a whole lot of data due to most of my days being spent either at home or at work, and I've got wi-fi access at both. (It's awesome being able to get bus schedules and such when I'm not at either, though.) I use Ting and its data/minutes/text charged by actual use work really well for me, and I'd recommend trying it or a similar service. "Unlimited" data's no bargain if you don't actually use all that much of it.
posted by asperity at 7:39 PM on February 3, 2013

I think that as a web designer you should have and use a smart phone with a data plan. Almost everyone who is going to put eyeballs on anything you design is going to be doing it with a phone half the time. Professionally speaking, I think you need to be familiar with how that works. Kind of backing up the first part of jacalata's point, but honestly, I think even if you are on top of mobile design, you are not in touch with the user experience, which I think is key.

As for in meetings, etc. I tend to agree that the toys are a distraction. Pen and paper is a much more civil approach for taking notes. It's less distracting to you the note taker, for one, and unlike when you're using a smartphone, it's clear to the people you are meeting with that you are actually listening to what is going on, and not reading MeFi instead.
posted by looli at 7:44 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

If your interest in a smartphone is purely as a way of signalling your competence to clients, you should look into counter-signalling, which is the observation that often people with the highest level of a property invest the least effort in proving it. Consider, for example, the noveau riche flashing their conspicuously branded designer clothes while the old money crowd sticks to completely unbranded stuff from the family tailor on Saville Row. (I have no idea whether this example makes actual sense, but you get the idea, right?)

Luckily, as a web designer you have an easy way to prove your competence without resorting to free-association games. After all, Knuth stopped responding to email sometime in the nineties, but as long as TeX is around, nobody's going to ask whether he can program, right?

I'm not saying that you shouldn't get a smartphone, just that it doesn't make sense as a matter of signalling. I think looli et al. make a good point about having personal experience with the UI you're designing for. An iPad is not a good way to simulate a smartphone. And there's a lot to be said for eating your own dogfood.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:56 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't think less of because of your phone, but I'd wonder if you were really able to produce responsive, mobile-friendly designs. I'd wonder if you were familiar with the emerging tropes; if you knew from hands-on experience what worked and what didn't; if you could provide examples to clients of mobile approaches that you felt were particularly effective, or whose functionality was compelling. Maybe mobile isn't (perceived as) a big audience for your clients, though.

In short, I wouldn't worry that not having a smart phone might make you look out of touch. I'd worry that it not having one means that you are out of touch. At some point, it becomes a professional development issue.
posted by mumkin at 8:34 PM on February 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm also a designer (print) and I carry a smartphone. The biggest thing is access to email. But I can also show images to people if I need to. I'm on Page Plus, using an Android phone with background data off, and I check email as needed or websites or whatever I need (maps can save your skin if you forget the directions to a meeting.) My plan is 29.95 a month for 1200 minutes, 3000 texts, and 250 mb of data.
posted by azpenguin at 9:02 PM on February 3, 2013

At some point (very soon, probably next year) mobile use is going to surpass desktop use on the web and you'll need to be cognizant of the issues.

There are some really good writers thinking about this subject and there's a host of literature, but firsthand experience is going to be the ultimate teacher. So even it's an expense it's needed to stay current.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 9:02 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

It has been my thought process that if you need to have a smartphone or mobile internet access for work, your work should provide it for you including if you are self employed. Actions speak louder than words. Your work will speak a lot more towards your professionalism than carrying a smartphone will.

Since you could not afford a smartphone for a long time, you assume that others know that and view you as either cheap or poor or not professional. It is a poor assumption. There are so many valid reasons for not having or using a smartphone that most people just don't think about it. Your reasons are your reasons.

I often envy the person without the leash.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:00 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just one person's perspective and to your question re: does not having a smartphone with data plan, as a web designer, look "unprofessional" or "bad": as a long-time (15+ years) web producer I would think it very odd (and not in a good way) that any freelance designer I worked with was that unconnected. It would seem bizarre and I'd probably try to find someone else to work with. I wouldn't believe that you had enough personal experience with how people use mobile websites or apps to really know what you're doing in terms of design. I'm sorry if that's harsh but I know all of my project manager friends would feel the same.

(A separate point is that I can completely relate to the cost and "always available" issues noted above. I have a love/hate relationship with my iPhone so it's not that I think our modern day connectivity is an inherently beneficial state. But being truly and professionally dialed in to today's digital landscape really does require it, for better and for worse.)
posted by hapax_legomenon at 10:19 PM on February 3, 2013

A friend of mine runs a digital agency as well as a techy startup, and he just gave up his Nokia dumbphone for an iPhone past month. I think he enjoyed the low-fuss phone because it eliminated a lot of distractions, but he eventually found that it was too limiting to really do business on. He played the hipster too-cool-for-an-iPhone card for two or three years, though.

Once you have a smart phone, it's incredible how neat it is to have a camera+phone+Internet device all in one.
posted by third word on a random page at 12:46 AM on February 4, 2013

Just keep using your iPod with a freedompop connection.... No monthly fees if you don't use much data.
posted by mhh5 at 1:28 AM on February 4, 2013

T-Mobile has a no-contract plan with unlimited 4G and text and 100 voice minutes for $30/month. Extra voice minutes are 10 cents each. Not sure about tethering.

I'm pretty sure tethering is an extra charge under that plan. If they see web browser traffic with anything other than a mobile browser's user agent, they figure you must be tethering.
posted by radwolf76 at 2:25 AM on February 4, 2013

I'm mainly worried about the perception of not being "with it" and if that's a "thing". The thing that makes me unsure is that I can't think of one person in my personal or professional life who doesn't have a data plan of some kind so I don't know if I'm engaging in "conspicuous non-consumption" of some kind.

If you don't see a need for it and can do your work without it, then I don't see how anyone would ever even know whether you have one or not.
posted by gjc at 5:27 AM on February 4, 2013

I find that with both iOS and Android the user experience is very different over WiFi and 3G. I think it would be worth your while to get a data plan just for better understanding the user experience.
posted by mskyle at 5:57 AM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I do have an Android with a data plan because my last job required a great deal of both travel and communication, but I'm trying to figure out whether I can get rid of it now. Not because I can't afford it, but because I think that money would be better spent on lord knows how many different things. And because I wind up seeing emails that I don't have time to respond to and it just creates this backlog of read mail that I need to address at my desk.

There are some good observations here about knowing what sites look like on a smart phone -- that does matter, but if you have a good solution to that challenge, you're on solid ground without one.

I know at least a few very successful professional web and communication strategy consultants who set firm and explicit boundaries about when they check email and when they're available. If you manage your work and deliverables well you shouldn't need to be available 24-7. I don't think it reflects some kind of bonus professionalism to send email from the checkout line at the grocery store. I wouldn't bother explaining more to people than just that you like to set boundaries around your professional life and work when you're at work. That you find you manage your time better when you check email your desk.

Smart phones are fun. I like getting videos of my nephew on his new roller skates. But not enough to keep paying whatever insane amount it is that I'm paying for that.
posted by amandabee at 7:03 AM on February 4, 2013

I went without mobile data for many years until I got a newer-than-the-one-I-had handmedown iPhone that could not be jailbroken.

For an iPhone, Consumer Cellular delivers mobile data at about 1/2 the cost of AT&T. Unless you're streaming media, the minimum amount of data should be OK for you. They sell refurb iphone 3GS for a reasonable price, and that phone will run iOS6, which gives you turn-by-turn navigation via Google Maps. I play games when I'm waiting in line at the post office. I find I use the iPhone's lousy camera more often simply because I can then email the pic to myself.

Agree with many of the folks above that you need this, esp when you are designing for mobile.
posted by omnidrew at 7:28 AM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would be really wary of a web designer in a huge city without a smartphone. I'm honestly wary of any professionals in my field, or in fields I would subcontract to, who were not on mobile email. It just seems very out of the loop, out of touch. I want to hire web design contractors who are total nerds who know more and have more tech than I do. If they don't, how do I know they are ahead of the curve with development and design techniques? If you aren't making enough money to cover it, work a couple extra hours a month. There are ways to find a few extra hours of work. It will pay off.
posted by manicure12 at 9:43 PM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thanks for all your insights, I am definitely convinced. Especially regarding the recommendation for Ting, which sounds nice and should be affordable. Something I thought about in response to these answers was, even if you're getting away with it now, something will come up and you'll be glad to look prepared. Thanks again.
posted by bleep at 2:22 PM on February 13, 2013

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