The MEX guide to user experience success

PMN are publishing ‘The MEX guide to user experience success’ as a reference document for the mobile telecoms industry. The guide will explore four areas:

    1. Know your customer
    2. Choose a partner, not just a platform
    3. Faultless marketing
    4. Make the experience personal

We are publishing the first part today and the subsequent chapters will follow over the next few weeks.

1: Know your customer

Great user experiences starts with understanding customers’ lives. The complexity of this task is enormous and often underestimated. It requires numerous inputs, from quantitative data to individual user stories. Companies must also have effective mechanisms for processing this information into an accurate picture of the user’s lifestyle.

There is a tendency to outsource this function because of the staff and budget consumed by building an internal team. As such, numerous specialist consultancies have sprung up who will take on the work, all claiming to offer unique methodology: some focus more heavily on the quantitative aspects, others tend towards user interviews or trend-spotting. They also vary in the way they submit their work: some deliver a written report and/or a management presentation, while others seek a more active role in helping to translate their customer understanding into a product plan by ‘parachuting’ into your development teams.

All of these approaches have their place, but unless senior management are able to actively empathise with customers, no amount of external consultancy or internal user experience research will help the company to truly get to know its users. Starting from the executive board, everyone within a company should feel connected to the end user experience. The process of understanding customers and translating that knowledge into an exceptional overall experience is becoming the key strategic differentiator in the mobile telecoms industry; external consultancies can help, but management must recognise this expertise as a core competency and encourage, nurture and protect it within the organisation.

Understand their lifestyle

What are your customers doing at 11am on a Tuesday morning? Do they spend a lot of time driving or are they frequent users of public transport? How long is their daily commute? Where do they spend their weekends and with whom?

These are the sort of questions which a company must be able to answer if it is serious about understanding a user’s lifestyle. Applying broad categories like ‘youth market’ or ‘mobile professional’ is woefully inadequate if you want to differentiate an experience. You have to get inside the minutae of a user’s daily routine to understand the myriad motivating factors which could help sell your products. There are often broad patterns created by geography, age group and profession, but it is the small characteristics which identify a user as an individual and can make the difference between an acceptable and an exceptional experience.

For instance, one of the most consistently popular design features of the Palm Treo is its hardware switch for toggling between ‘silent’ and ‘ring’ modes. It is low-cost, low-tech and would be easily over-looked by a technology company if its design team wasn’t focused on real user experience issues. It perfectly meets the needs of its target market – travelling businessmen – by giving them a fail-safe way of ensuring their phone is on silent when they are in meetings.

Palm’s founder and chief technology officer, Jeff Hawkins, is famous for his product development methodology. When he was creating Palm’s first PDA, he walked around the office with a small piece of balsa wood in his top pocket, roughly the shape of a handheld. He would produce the block every time he thought of a task which would require a PDA and pretend to carry it out on the imaginary device. His colleagues may have thought him a little eccentric, but in this way he was able to evolve the basic design by living the usage scenarios himself.

Such exposure must be at the heart of any user experience strategy. There are stock reports, surveys and trend analysis documents available to any company willing to pay for them. Most contain phrases like ‘we predict the market for X product will grow by Y percentage through 2010′ and most of them are not only useless as a basis for understanding users’ lifestyles but also wildly inaccurate.

The majority of products start with a premise: the founder or an executive spots a need in the market and decides to build a solution. The first step towards delivering a great user experience is allowing the premise to be disproved. It may be the need was identified with 100% accuracy first time, but it is likely to be far more complex than originally thought and the only way to understand this is to find a way to experience what the user is experiencing.

There are several options, ranging from observation labs to metric analysis, which can help build a picture or support a premise, but there is no substitute for immersing executives and product development teams in the user environment.

Research their budget and spending patterns

Pricing a product is an art, not a science. There is often considerable disconnect between the cost of providing a service and the price a user is willing or able to pay. This willingness to pay is determined by numerous factors, broadly defined by triangulating time available, location and the user’s current mission.

For instance, there aren’t many people who’d be prepared to pay GBP 1.00 each time they queried Google from their web browser. However, there are two companies who have built successful businesses based on this exact model by employing text messaging as the delivery mechanism. 82ASK and AQA promise to answer any question for a flat fee and deliver the response by text. AQA recently racked up its 3 millionth question: users are prepared to pay a premium because they are guaranteed of completing their mission, the service is location-independent and it is provided in an asynchronous mode allowing them to fit it into their activity pattern.

Conversely, BT conducted a study into mobile TV pricing earlier this year and widely publicised its finding that two thirds of participants were willing to pay GBP 8.00 per month for the service. However, while customers may agree to a figure on a paper, the reality is likely to be very different. The average monthly ARPU in the UK market is about GBP 21: how do you think most customers would respond if they were asked if they were willing to absorb a 38 percent increase in their monthly mobile expenditure to get TV on their handset? What happens when a competitor, such as Virgin Mobile, starts giving mobile TV away for free?

Sometimes it simply isn’t economic to build a product with a sufficiently impressive user experience. The gap between a customer’s price expectation and the real cost of supplying a service is simply too great.

It is also essential to understand how mobile spending relates to ‘wallet share’. The whole industry faces a macro challenge of convincing users to spend more of their disposal income on mobile services. It isn’t just about being able to offer a better service than your competitors: you have to demonstrate to a user why their cash is better spent on mobile than at the cinema, in a restaurant, on holiday or any number of other leisure activities. Developed markets have reached the point where almost everyone has a mobile and is using it for essential day-to-day communications. Users have an infinite number of choices to spend their wages on in the leisure category: mobile is just one.

Customers whose bills are paid by their company represent a different challenge. Are they able to add new services to their device without their company’s permission? If so, can you demonstrate a return-on-investment to whoever makes the decisions within that organisation? Do the users want to have their expenditure broken down into personal and business categories or charged to a separate credit card rather than on their mobile bill?

What about younger customers who do not have access to credit facilities? Or families who want to share services across a household account?

Budget is never solely a monetary question, it is as much about behaviour and perception as hard cash. It also plays a major role in defining the user experience.

Look at their digital history

Customers have an ever expanding ‘digital history’ which influences their user experience requirements. The most obvious example of this is a user’s familiarity with a particular interface. Nokia’s Series 40 GUI has huge strategic significance for the Finnish manufacturer because so many of its customers had their first mobile experience with S40 and its predecessors. As a result, there is a generation of users who continue to buy Nokia phones because they do not want to ‘learn’ a new interface.

This has implications for everyone else in the mobile business. As much as 30 percent of the global market is locked into the Nokia product cycle. To break that loyalty, you must either offer an experience so different and compelling it persuades them to try something new or something which integrates with the familiar look and feel of a Nokia device.

Every aspects of a user’s digital history has significance. Music players, desktop PCs, digital cameras and games consoles all exert influence on mobile design because of the expectations they create.

If a user is accustomed to sending and receiving email with a PC, they will expect to see certain interface conventions maintained in the mobile environment. However, simply replicating these features is not always the most efficient way to deliver a mobile service, so you must balance these expectations with the unique requirements of a mobile phone.

Sony Ericsson, for example, has ported many elements of its digital camera interface to its camera phones, but has also added a range of mobile-specific functionality. Users familiar with Sony’s digital imaging products will recognise the on-screen interface immediately and can then explore the new features enabled by wireless connectivity, such as sharing photos over Bluetooth or emailing them directly from the handset. Sony Ericsson calls this ‘QuickShare’.

Researching digital history must also take into account the user’s ‘media assets’. Most customers in developed markets have a range of photos, music, videos, emails, contacts and documents stored in a variety of formats and linked to numerous different web services.

Many users see these existing relationships as one of the most important factors influencing their mobile purchasing decisions. At its most basic, this is a question of: “Will this handset sync with my Flickr account?” or “Can I import my contacts from Outlook?” It becomes more complex as users start to question whether a handset will have the ability to support the evolution of such services in the future or if it will be compatible with the mobile services used by their friends and family.

Identify the aspirations which motivate them

Mobile technology is driven to varying degrees by aspiration and is not purely a reflection of their current lifestyle. The first voice services were sold on the basis of enabling users to do things they’d never been able to do before – like keeping in constant contact with the office or making calls from the beach. Adoption of new services will be closely linked to the mobile industry’s ability to understand and influence customer aspirations.

Users don’t buy technology unless they can see a clear benefit: will it make their lives easier, will it make them stand out in a crowd, will it reduce their expenditure?

All of these questions are deeply influenced by external factors, such as the users’ relationships with existing brands, their occupation and their social network.

Most users still associate aspirational expression with hardware design. It is the most visible and obvious way to communicate personality through a mobile device. A basic example would be the difference between the sleek, business-like and efficient handset design used by a customer who spends most of his time in the corporate environment and the vibrant colours and loud styling of a device used by a teenager to identify themselves among their classmates.

This isn’t limited to developed markets. Nokia conducted a study in India which found customers in that market were extremely sensitive to brand and sough handsets which reflected the perceived significance of their purchase. Even the least expensive handsets still represent a considerable investment in a low income enviroment such as India and the customers therefore wanted a brand associated with quality and status.

Recognising individuality is fundamental to understanding the way aspirations influence the customer experience. It is subtle process which the mobile industry has a history of ignoring in favour of brash, brand-driven marketing campaigns. The Ferrari handsets sold by Vodafone and Sharp are one example of mis-guided approach where a brand associated with the pinacle of automotive quality has been diluted and cheapened by its translation into the mobile environment.

The mobile industry has correctly identified that industries such as automotive, watch-making and jewellery represent valuable sources of aspirational insight, but it has been less successful in making effective use of this knowledge. In the Ferrari example, a greater aspirational value could have been derived from using some of the materials and production techniques employed by the Italian manufacturer rather than simply branding an existing device with the logo and colour scheme. A carbon fibre handset shell? A carry case stitched from upholstery leather?


  • Never under-estimate the complexity of understanding a user’s lifestyle. It’s the little things which mattter.
  • Don’t rely purely on external consultancies to help you understand your customers. Empathy should be built into your company DNA.
  • User perception of price and value is illogical and doesn’t always translate easily into your company cost-structure.
  • You aren’t just competing with other mobile companies. This is about overall ‘wallet share’.
  • A user’s ‘digital history’ significantly influences their purchasing decisions. Consider your mobile service in the context of similar digital experiences – does it work with them or against them?
  • User experience can be aspirational, but this is subtle and individual process.


Add yours
  1. 1
    Dr QM

    Hi there,

    I totally agree with the author.

    As a mobile app/data service developer, I have been following various people’s views on usability issues published by PMN lately and think all of them have given deeply thought insights.

    How many times have we seen apps running on mobiles are still using desktop approaches?

    I think Marek has set out a brilliant criteria:

    “Users don’t buy technology unless they can see a clear benefit: will it make their lives easier or more enjoyable, will it make them stand out in a crowd, will it reduce their expenditure??

    Thank you, Marek! I’ll be looking forward to see your following guides.

    Best regards,

    Dr QM

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