Interview: Cyrus Allen, Telstra

Cyrus Allen, General Manager for Customer Experience at Australian operator Telstra, talks to Marek Pawlowski about his views on mobility, user interface and customer satisfaction as part of PMN’s ongoing MEX interview series.

Marek Pawlowski: How did you become involved in the mobile business and what’s your role at the moment?

Cyrus Allen: I entered the mobile industry in the mid-90s in a product and brand management role for Ericsson mobiles in Australia. This was the formative stage of the industry during which the mobile market expanded into the non-business domain, resulting in rapid growth in both market penetration and volumes. In 2000 I moved to the UK in a global product & business management capacity for Ericsson’s satellite mobile phone business – an interesting but ultimately unsuccessful venture.

However, I joined the new Sony Ericsson joint venture in 2001 in one of the best roles possible – head of Global Content Alliances, responsible for building a new content model centred on the device, and working with key partners such as Sony Music, Sony Pictures, Turner Broadcasting & Disney. This was a fascinating time, with both the emergence of media-capable devices and an insatiable consumer appetite for new and interesting content.

After a number of years in the UK I returned to Australia, joining the market leading telco Telstra. My current role is a new one within the company – responsible for driving customer experience excellence through the design and development of products across the business. The role encompasses mobile UI, personalisation across devices, usability and user-centred design functions, with the aim of driving a one-click, one-touch experience across devices, products and segments.

What does the term ‘mobile user experience’ mean to you?

For me, talking about the user experience is one of the most important things we can do when planning and launching any kind of mobile application or service. Fortunately, I am not alone in this; there is an increasing focus today on the ‘user experience’.

I believe that we are seeing a rapid cognitive shift away from building and selling silo applications towards designing compelling end-to-end experiences. To me, the term means the end-to-end journey people go through to find out about, trial and ultimately use any of the multitude of services available today through your mobile device.

How important do you think it is to have direct exposure to end customers when developing new mobile services? Is this something you do when you’re building your own products?

I believe it is critical and it is absolutely a discipline we are building into Telstra’s development process. Like many telcos we have not necessarily always done things this way, however we have established new systems, processes and competencies to ensure that every product has a strong customer focus. This begins with customer research to understand specific usage goals of the target customer group and identify the core design imperatives that will ensure the success of the product, and includes usability testing to refine the product and ensure it still reflects the original design intentions.

Within Telstra we are pursuing this philosophy with a laser-like focus, one that places our customers at the heart of product ideas, design & development. A recent example is the launch of Telstra’s Next G™ network, for which considerable effort went into identifying the top mobile services for our target audience and then finding a way to make them all accessible within ‘one-click’ of the top screen. The new My Place menu, by clustering the top 9 services in one place, ensures a quicker experience than having to dig though menus or trawl the WAP portal. This is just one example of a better mobile user experience.

Who do you think has overall responsibility for user experience in the mobile telecoms industry – operators, handset manufacturers, application developers..?

The mobile industry is particularly complicated in this respect. Naturally, each player has a specific responsibility to ensure that the component they are accountable for provides the best possible user experience. The complex interdependencies between building and maintaining a network that can facilitate value-adding transactions, building devices that are simple to use and affordable, and the wide array of content and applications that customers use on these devices all work together in a seamless, intuitive fashion is no easy mix to manage.

Without doubt there are multiple conflicts in this ecosystem – ranging from where the customer should buy their content from to who really owns the interfaces through which this content is found. The reality is that carriers, phone vendors, application develops and media owners must work closely together on product design, and deliver the underlying business models through which customers will ultimately enjoy and pay for mobile content and services.

On this point, I would posit that over time customers will be ultimately loyal to the company who provides those relevant content and services that add value to their lives in the most intuitive, appropriate, seamless and affordable way. Handset vendor brand affiliation will be a shorter term relationship than the one where customers feel that they are delivered services that make a difference to their working and personal lives.

What was your first mobile handset and what do you use these days?

My first mobile experience was – and this is giving away my age a little – one of those monstrosities that proved more embarrassing than useful as people stopped to stare at the strange bloke with what looked like a fax stuck to his head – the old ‘ship to shore’ type mobile that was carried around in a shoulder bag. My first regular mobile was a Motorola analogue Star Tac – cool back then…but today I use a range of phones from different vendors given the work we do around mobile UI and usability.

I am currently using two devices – the Samsung A701, a great phone with a well designed software client that makes synching with Outlook a piece of cake. The other standout is the i-mate Jas Jam, which for a busy professional provides a great mix of phone-type portability with a great corporate email experience using the Good Technology client. Both of these devices run on Telstra’s new Next G™ network (W-CDMA 850) at blistering speeds!

Which services do you use most often on your mobile?

Stock tracker, TV guide, movie guide, ferry timetable and mobile TV when I have a few minutes to kill. This week I tried the Google maps applications which included satellite imagery – much like Google Earth – it was amazing to be able to view my house, the pool and the local ferry in life-like detail on a mobile phone!

Do you think the industry should be moving towards a business model which enables each user to feel as if their handset has been designed for them as an individual?

Yes, this is one of the key priorities of both handset manufacturers and mobile operators. I believe that a key driver in this direction will be the rise of increasingly rich and sophisticated content and services accessible through the phone. Customers may want control over specifically how these are accessed and used, meaning that we have some work to do around providing more flexible and individually personalisable interfaces.

There will be a certain creative tension between carriers and handset vendors over specifically how this is done, with a complex interplay of costs, time to market, technical capabilities and customer ownership ensuring that it will take both time and strong collaboration to achieve the best results for the customers.

What combination of handset design, mobile services and customer support would represent your ideal user experience?

I break this into three distinct, but highly inter-related components. Firstly, the phone must be what Telstra refers to as “walk out working” – that is, it works first time, as expected, without any manual intervention.

Secondly I, as the customer, intuitively understand everything I can do with the device and the network services that add value to my life.

Thirdly, the device and network services understand my life priorities and needs – in other words my experience is one of seamlessly available, contextually relevant, value adding interactions with people, events and information that make my life easier, more enjoyable and more fluid than if I was managing my life with a fixed phone, pen and paper.

What’s the most bizarre use of a mobile device you’ve discovered recently?

On one of our company team building off-sites we had a (broken) Blackberry throwing competition. If you haven’t tried it, the earlier Blackberries are about the best mobile phone to throw a long way – something to do with the curved back acting like an aerofoil – just get the camber the right way up and it goes a mile!


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