CUE: The contextual user environment

Mike Short, Vice President of Research & Development at O2 and Chairman of the Mobile Data Association, stresses the importance of understanding how the user’s physical environment influences their mobile technology needs.

User experience needs to take better account of context and the environment of the customer. MEX articles recently seem to overlook this backdrop – the contextual user environment (CUE) – and how mobile usage can be optimised for best effect. In this article I’ll look at some CUE situations for the car, shopping mall, street and bus , home and office to illustrate this further.


Car usage design criteria rightly stress safety first, leading to debates about compatible car kits, but rarely take a holistic user experience viewpoint, allowing for more complete integration with automotive design. The energy recharge , display, dialling and audio facilities could be better integrated for an enhanced CUE in the car, for both driver and passengers. Take car radio: this was once just for the after sale market and now ‘standard fit’ in new car models. How soon will it be before cellphones and GPS navigation systems become ‘standard fit ‘ and not just in high-end Jaguars and BMWs ?

The benefits arising may be more than making calls. Receiving messages and emails on the move, consistent and updated mapping, connected cars for traffic jam or car park availability alerts, passenger access from the car to the internet (no more noisy kids in the back !) , auto engine fault alerts to breakdown rescue services or garage mechanics . It may even allow for better toll road management, road yser pricing and congestion charging. If properly implemented this may even work across the whole of Europe.

Shopping mall

In this environment CUE represents more choice to communicate, but there are several ‘etiquette’ challenges . The shopper may appreciate special offer e-coupons or alerts, or opportunities for comparison shopping by scanning barcodes with their phone camera and linking to a relevant web-site. Near Field Communications
(NFC ) will all play a larger part in micro-payments, whether for parking, ticketing or travel .

Street and bus

In contrast, travelling on foot or by bus represents a quite different set of CUE issues, largely due to higher background noise and a different ‘hands free’ environment. Handset accessories with easy-to-use volume controls, perhaps with wire-free Bluetooth accessories, and music playback could all feature. NFC could clearly play a transport role or serve as a marketing link to outdoor billboards.

Home and office

Like the shopping mall these environments offer much more choice in communications, but the attributes here are far less about mobility and more about communications convenience. Accordingly, the user experience needs to be on CUE. Mobiles have a head start to receive calls. However, even making calls can be facilitated with ‘ease of use’ phone books. Search and discovery, and DQ services may be quite different in this CUE compared to the Shopping Mall.

In these envionments the device used may be shared more fully amongst the family or office team. So the prospects for selective call barring, call itemisation and accounting may all be more relevant.

Applications in the home or office may need to interwork with other appliances such as sensors for lighting and cameras or sensors for (remote) security controls. Wireless utility meters and M2M may be driven by environmental and pricing considerations, and other user convenience needs.


The user experience may have many common themes and design features in a single device. However, from a usage perspective the context or CUE must not be overlooked in the overall design process. Which company will win the top prize for Car CUE or Home CUE is yet to be seen.

Industrial design for devices has to reflect customer needs as well as those of mass-market manufacturers. These needs will have to include the user environment or CUE more than ever as this market continues to grow and evolve .

Mike Short is Vice President of Research & Development at O2 and Chairman of the Mobile Data Association.

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