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Mobile Users Are the Secret

As secret as the mystery of an Egyptian hieroglyphic is the nature of the people who use the wireless Internet. Unlocking their mobile behavior is a challenge, and there are some interesting revelations that experienced wireless developers share. Starting with the obvious: Users are mobile and what they keep on their person is important. What is that person's identity?

It can't be stressed enough how different and how misunderstood the mobile user is. This person drives personal content, wireless applications, and even mobile hardware. Any great wireless project allows discovery time to explore and define the mobile personality. In all my wireless years, the one lesson that recurs continuously is that the well-understood mobile user makes mobile applications. Yet almost every engineer new to a wireless project makes the same mistake—move a desktop application to the hand space; it fails. How come?

It's a mistake to fight a new war with the weapons and strategy of the last. Mobility is an advantage, in the same way that the new tanks of World War II proved to have decisive advantage over long, expensive lines of fortifications that some countries built. French planners thought the Maginot Line would delay the enemy long enough to build trenches—a World War I strategy. The secret of the tank was not so much its being "armored mobile artillery"; it was the radios inside that coordinated their striking power. It's questionable that Microsoft yet understands mobile users, even after five bombardments of "Windows everywhere"—Winpad™, WinCE™, PocketPC™, HandheldPC™, and Talisker™. The message remains, "Don't change how you work." Put simply, a desktop doesn't make sense in your hand. The lesson from Palm, Inc., that Microsoft Corporation didn't learn is that a desktop slows down mobile users. Paramount to mobile use, personal data comes first. As the world learned quickly, mobile warfare is different. History shows that those who understood the field of mobile warfare prevailed.

How not to write Windows software—that's the question. Indeed, when there were only PCs, developers for the first Palm Pilot™ carried small blocks of wood all day long, pretending to be mobile users in anticipation of the device that would one day make them rich. They did very PC kinds of things and took meticulous notes about what they were doing and expecting to get done. Mobile existence, they found, was different from PC existence. Mobile users work with notes, not documents. They think on their feet. They don't do spreadsheet analysis. They make a point rather than dazzle with presentation technology. They tap on a screen; they don't click with a mouse. They scribble, they don't type. They revel in the utility of personal information, always with them. Information takes on a different character, as mobile use shows.

Mobile use is at first entirely strange to conventional software engineers and interface designers. Even software engineers on the wireless warpath are shocked when they put down their emulators and actually walk about and use wireless devices. Even then, engineers don't really understand the application they've made unless they're in sync with the real users and what they're trying to get done. Mobile users are unique. They don't program, they don't think software is an art, and a good number don't even use PCs. Because they're walking about, they're busy and won't give full attention to any gadget. They expect to complete tasks in seconds and minutes. When a mobile user catches a quick ride in a taxi, with a sandwich in one hand, talking to a friend, and casually using your wireless application—that's the real world.

Desktop programmers create, and most PC users expect, an "altar" to ritualistically work in low light in a quiet place before a large screen, paying full attention to the monitor, invoking long incantations of peculiar commands. To get these command sequences right, users are assisted by lengthy documentation and online help. But mobile reality is choppy and sudden. Your application is way down on the priority list of things that will get users' attention. These users have no time, so whatever you do had better be direct, simple, and useful. The point is that your application isn't supposed to command stunning attention. It's to simply fit in with a mobile lifestyle, as transparently as possible. This kind of thinking is so different from approaches to the desktop that it's hard to convey to designers and engineers. Mobile users are often in social situations. In front of another person, the software needs to operate faster than on a desktop. In usability studies, the longest a user will wait when mobile is roughly one-third of the time he or she will tolerate on a desktop. As a person takes notes when someone is speaking, keeping up is barely possible on paper; with electronic ink, it's next to impossible and it looks awkward. A key realization is that when information is on you and around you, you begin to think differently. A person will cut corners and do what's necessary. The key challenge is this: What can a person do with a wireless device that can't be done on a desktop?

Line-busting applications are one of a new class of mobile wireless business applications. Almost as if on a stage, new mobile business users act out their service, using portable devices as props. In the line-busting prototypes at General Magic, we built a new service for Peet's Coffee, various airlines, and retail businesses. Retail personnel normally work behind a counter, where transactions are limited by the few cash registers available. With line-busting applications, when lines of customers build up, the staff can come out from behind the counter, take orders, process customers, and break up lines. The receptionist can be with the customer. Developers complete handheld applications with wireless Internet connections. The roving register is no longer a desktop application. For the new mobile business, the era of roving is arriving.

World Mobile Use

Using wireless handhelds on the go, businesspeople directly access succinct parts of company data. Japanese commuters are entertained on long train rides with i-mode cell phones. European friends and family are unified by SMS messaging. Banking customers use web phones to perform complete banking services—everything from getting a payroll check electronically, to looking at balances, to transferring funds. North American handhelds and pagers routinely perform vertical market tasks.

With wireless applications, innovative developers are placing useful mobile content in the pockets of end users. They cleverly take advantage of the specific time of day, location, and personal interests of the mobile user. In motion, people write on, talk to, and type on small wireless devices. People use them to take pictures, sense scan codes, swipe card stripes, interrogate badges, and perform rapid transactions with other wireless devices. Networks of people in the mobile infosphere use devices that sense the world and one another, and perform direct transactions.

Subscriber or User?

The face of the mobile audience deserves depiction. The telecommunications companies portray them as subscribers. The computer companies think of them as users. While both are correct, mobile wireless applications are best built for people with real identities. If possible, use the active name of the profession when addressing mobile users. An application for wireless stock traders should be built for investors, not users. The correct name should permeate your documentation and the way your team members and clients talk about the project.

You Are the Next Wireless Application

Where you are and when you're there can be magically pulled out of the air and combined with content to make relevant mobile applications. Knowing the personality of the audience is very useful in making decisions about the utility of the technology. A good wireless project ideally matches content to a personality. Because this traveling person is different, his or her interface should be different. Simplicity and directness work best. Developers can benefit from working directly with travelers who live a mobile reality. Development teams can also use the skills of an interaction designer who can articulate mobile personas.

A special practice in producing wireless applications for a mobile audience is developing personas. A persona is the characterization of the most important mobile user for your wireless application. Making personas helps developers recognize the goals and interface values of a traveler who uses mobile services. This requires study to produce the best possible direct interaction with content. Substance rather than fancy graphic form is what matters. The personal values of software and content are important for the interaction designer to characterize. In fact, personalization engines, made popular with custom shopping application servers, are increasingly important for wireless servers.

The Secret Initiation

Mobility creates an opportunity for developers to provide relevance and identity in their applications for the mobile end user. This is the way I think of the task of building applications: I'm on a mission to work directly for stock investors, building inspectors, home care nurses, restaurant diners, and business travelers to give them something they've never seen, sometimes something the world has never seen. I work for them; they inspire me, they tell me their secrets. They are the boss, not anyone else. They're the only ones who will teach me what mobile wireless makes possible. They become my friends, and they initiate me into the world of mobile use. Here are two important lessons they've taught me so far:

  • Speak in my language. Be familiar with my words, my images. Use a model about how I work with my friends, my business. As an investor, I work with trading portfolios, not filesystems. As a nurse, I work with patient clipboards, not user input and output systems. That logo is my company—I own a piece of it and I'm proud of it. Stick with the metaphors of my profession.

    A note of caution to developers: Although it's tempting to transcend metaphors to create an original digital application, it's much safer to use something familiar. It's easier for Intuit to get people to use a checkbook metaphor than it is to invent and then train them on some new imaginary personal banking system.

  • Information, when it's on me, is different. Information, when it's with me, is mine. Information on a desktop is someone else's. You had better give me something useful if I'm going to keep it in my hands all the time. I like a handheld because my data is with me. The Palm handhelds have four physical buttons that give direct access to what I use most often. I'll only carry about what's critical. Layers of windows and menus get in the way. I want simple delivery of content that's important to me.

Making Applications Personal and Easy

Location matters. It's a continual theme in wireless applications. A person can depend on a wireless device to explore a new city, locate a business, and arrange to meet someone. A popular wireless service shows nearby cafés in response to a typed ZIP code. The service is useful, but the user need not enter a ZIP code—the device knows where it is. Cell phones already know where they are to compute roaming charges. They're also required to provide location for emergencies.

Time matters. Web phones ensure the accuracy of time. People on the go appreciate exact time. Perhaps the ticking clock counting air minutes makes everyone more aware of time. If your content is marked with exact time codes and event date codes, you're off to a good start. Time really matters to mobile users, and they have increased requirements of wireless services. Your service will need improved accuracy and validation of content, and it will need a higher level of maintenance. To deliver mobile precision, most databases need serious up-leveling, since they were designed to deliver content based on older publishing and distribution models. For example, travel guides and databases rarely record the hours of a place. A fair percentage of their content is out of date. Mobile databases require updates that are more frequent and a model for self-regulating content.

Time can take advantage of XML in your service. XML is used to encode data such as calendars and events from multiple sources so they can be shared and coordinated. Meanwhile, back at the PC, when people are planning, times may need conversion to the local time, depending on the user's mobile location.

Personality and individuality matter. Personal information management is a key application on mobile wireless devices. It turns out that the PC is a good place to let users make their grand mobile plans. Given a large number of restaurants in a city, the traveler might want to download and be updated about nearby places that fit within a certain price range, cuisine, or level of quality. Personality of the owner counts both in application design and underlying content. Mobility should simplify choices. Transactions must be simple. There's no time to fill out forms. Many wireless transactions are tied to a trusted Internet member service. Amazon establishes their membership system from the PC. The entire set of forms for one-click shopping information is filled in ahead of time on a PC. Customers simply identify themselves via a username and password. i-mode is simpler yet—one field for a four-digit PIN. After signing in, the system brings forward preferences and can streamline transactions with automatic billing information already stored.

What Mobile Users Say

The use of wireless technology is in its infancy, and users new to the technology often heap on complaints. In the wireless industry, the hobbyist knows that battery charges last a short time and wireless coverage is limited. But consumers expect more. The rollout to consumers has largely kept wireless technology local. Figure 2 shows a "wall of wireless complaints" that were first heard in the early days of the wireless industry. Some are barriers to the broader adoption of wireless technology, but many can be overcome.

Figure 2 Wall of wireless complaints.

A litany of techno-grief is to be expected with any new technology. In the days of the first horseless carriages, there were no "self-starters." That wall of complaints might have included these items:

  • The crank—it's hard to wind the dad-blermed thing.

  • There are no fuel stations outside the city.

  • This automobile drives poorly over a horse trail, and tire punctures are a chore.

  • I could sure use a good roadmap.

Early automobiles were definitely contraptions only for locals, whose only solace on bad days was to hear the neighborly wisdom, "Your auto is scaring the horses. Get a horse." How the world changes when industries evolve.

There are good reasons for complaints about wireless technology. But there are things you can do about it. Complaints that the screen is too small, text is too small, or keyboards are ineffective can be levied against the handset manufacturers. But you can use large fonts and provide simple numeric choices. That web phone bills are too high is a flaw in telco market planning. But you can use handhelds or pagers instead. Over time, the industry "listens" to customers. As technology and infrastructure improve, the market grows. Until then, being forewarned when you build wireless applications is a good survival tactic. Listen to the complaints, steer around as many of these traps as you can, and be resourceful to avoid creating grief.

Mobile User Identity

Whatever users say, good or bad, the key effect of the digital network is the opportunity for rapid feedback when the content's producer and its consumer are brought closer together. In electronic networks, the cause and the effect happen so close to each other that it redefines commercial and personal relationships. The wireless Internet is different from the 1960s world of Marshall McLuhan, where identities were overrun by broadcast and mass media networks. During a televised interview on CBS in the 1960s, McLuhan observed,

We are on the air. And on the air, we do not have any physical body. When you are on the telephone or on radio or on TV, you do not have a physical body; you are just an image on the air. When you do not have a physical body, you are a discarnate being and you have a very different relation to the world around you. And this I think has been one of the big effects of the Electric Age. It has deprived people really of their private identity.

Reversing this trend is the wireless mobile Internet that grounds an individual in personal and physical experiences. It's not like the "immersive" electronic media—the telephone, television, or PC network where the user is engulfed. Unlike prior electric networks, the wireless Internet enhances physical presence. It underscores active personal identity. Manifesting presence is a direct and personal process as mobile users operate a bewildering array of devices. Fortunately, engineers can cut through this bewilderment with a few central concepts that unify all of the wireless equipment and technology. (See my other articles posted on InformIT for details.)

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