I noticed a few days ago that my Sony Ericsson W9ooi shares the same icons as my friend’s Nokia 6234. Both were supplied by Vodafone UK and adhere to the operator’s guidelines for user interface. This is something Vodafone and other operators have been driving for some time in an attempt to maintain a certain consistency of brand experience across their portfolio of devices.
It reminded me of debate we had at the first MEX conference in September 2005: does a good brand experience equate to a good user experience? The conclusion at MEX was a resounding ‘No!’ – in fact, promoting the operator’s branding objectives is often done at the expense of the user’s functional requirements.
My friend and I have very different usage patterns. He works from a desk for about 12 hours a day – usually with his mobile switched off – and relies on his office phone and PC email for communication. His needs rarely extend beyond making and receiving voice calls. I spend most of my day working in the mobile environment, using my mobile for everything from email to picture messaging to music. Why would we want the same interface for our devices?
The operator’s motivation is clear. Consistency costs less: one design template, lower support costs and a reliable brand image. The benefits to the user are less certain. Operators seem to be moving more aggressively than ever towards the goal of a single interface across almost all of their ‘consumer’ devices and, in doing so, risk negating any benefits they’ll derive from lowering development and support costs.
I remain a passionate advocate of giving users the freedom to define their own mobile experience. To do so effectively will require the development of a new breed of consumer-facing tools which allow customers to unleash their creativity and customise their handsets according to their requirements. In the broadest terms, this encompasses everything from the enthusiast who wants a customised RSS feed on the idle screen, to the most basic voice functionality of pre-programming a few emergency numbers (e.g. the Jitterbug service for seniors).
Consistency and standardisation are very necessary for the mobile industry, but these should be internal processes. Customers don’t want to be standardised. Certainly, they want the benefits of standardisation, but this is something which should be hidden from subscribers. In this sense, operators seem to be directing their efforts towards the wrong goal: rather than trying to define a uniform interface which can be replicated across devices, they should be working to develop standardised tools and platforms which allow users to take control of their own mobile experience.
Current efforts in this area are primarily browser-based. It is possible, for instance, to see your Google email, weather and newsfeeds customised on your mobile, but to reach this information you must first navigate through the operator-defined application menus. On my handset, this means 11 clicks and several sub-menus to reach the information I want (via the Opera web-browser and Google personalised home page). The benefit of having this information just about outweighs the hassle of reaching it, but I am constantly struck by a sense that I am working against whatever use-case the operator has imagined for me.
I would like to see the industry paying much closer attention to the potential of using standards-based browsers as the main handset interface. This would need to be combined with simple-to-use, cross-platform (i.e. accessible from both mobile and desktop) tools for customising the experience and a robust OTA delivery and caching mechanism. There is a great deal of work which needs to be done to improve the performance of these technologies and make them as repsonsive and reliable as proprietary interfaces, but the benefits could be significant. Given the power to express themselves as individuals, subscribers will use many more services.