Frustration over centralised control

I chaired an evening seminar for the NOC and yesterday. The London event was entitled: “Who will save the mobile industry from itself?” Mike Grenville at and Andrew Darling of the NOC had asked for my input because of the customer experience theme and it turned out to be an interesting debate.

Speakers included Gus Desbarats, chairman of industrial design consultancy Alloy, Suzanne Schultz, independent consultant and former head of content and applications at T-Mobile, and Mike Beeston, Managing Director of user experience designers Fjord.

The title of the session implied a couple of things: firstly, that the mobile industry is in trouble and needs saving and, secondly, that it is its own worst enemy. Both of these raise additional questions: who exactly are we trying to save – is it the operators, the handset manufacturers, the software companies? What are we trying to save them from – is lower growth and market maturity an inevitability?

The debate developed along several lines. Gus highlighted the disconnect between the way customers behave in the real world and the results which are typically generated from traditional research studies. Alloy’s approach is to let the customer, rather than the technology, inspire the design process. It uses small samples of real users and integrates them directly into the design process. See my previous article for more on this.

He showed the results of a product design exercise which focused on developing a handset for multimedia consumption. User research found each phone function – e.g. TV, music, web browsing, voice calling – required a very different set of controls and interface to work effectively. Alloy’s solution was to develop a handset which appeared similar to a normal clamshell, but used a high-resolution display and a second touchscreen in place of the normal hardware keypad to allow complete changes in the phone interface as it switched between various modes. A large ‘Mode’ button was one of the few hardware controls, enabling easy cycling between interfaces intended for photography, voice, messaging, TV etc.

Suzanne Schultz has a long history of working with web, media and telecom companies. She worked for search engine AltaVista and Vodafone’s joint venture with Vivendi – Vizzavi. Subsequently she was appointed head of content and applications at T-Mobile. She now spends her time as an independent consultant, helping media companies to launch their products in the mobile business.

Suzanne highlighted some of the frustrations of working within the operator community when she explained that in all her years of working at carrier companies, the first time she had ever sat in a user focus group was two days ago – and that was only because she insisted on it as an independent consultant. She explained how the operators’ relentless emphasis on maintaining controlling of everything which happened on their network was stifling creativity and preventing the growth of mobile data services.

Her view was that content aggregators have a major role to play in providing a better mobile content experience, as their business is built around understanding customer needs and packaging content which meets those requirements. Eventually, however, even aggregators will be cut out of the loop if users are given the tools and the freedom of access to take control of personalising their own experience.

Mike Beeston focused on the ways in which customers participate in different mediums and the need to recognise those differences when designing mobile services. He illustrated on a graph how activities such as TV and DVD watching required little participation, but delivered high satisfaction to the user. Mobile, by contrast, delivered little satisfaction until the user interface permitted high levels of participation – e.g. creating content, exchanging messages and sharing content. This becomes more valuable when the user is able to utilise the device as a gateway to the communities which define their identity, either online or in the physical world.

Mike’s company Fjord designed Nokia’s LifeBlog application, which captures the stream of content created on a mobile device and allows it to be viewed and shared in a historical timeline. This provides context for images and text messages, allowing people to look back at their activities.

It was a very lively debate, with a great deal of discussion between the audience and the panellists. I came away with several points:

1) There is a considerable frustration among application developers and premium content providers when trying to bring their services to market quickly and profitably.

2) Much of this frustration is caused by the politics and culture of fear which exists within the mobile value chain. Established companies are intent on maintaining the status quo rather than helping the industry respond more effectively to customers.

3) Mobile companies are always asking themselves ‘who owns the customer?’ whereas customers are asking the industry ‘ who understands us?’ – this is the source of the fundamental disconnection between the companies driving product development and the people they expect to sell to.

4) A potential explosion in mobile data usage is being constrained by the industry’s tendency towards centralised control and could be unleashed by providing developers and users with greater freedom to design their own personalised experiences.

The NOC and are running a series of these seminars – you can find further information here. Many of these issues raised in this article will also be key themes at the next PMN Mobile User Experience (MEX) conference in London on 31st May and 1st June 2006.

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