Mobile user experience tales of 2012

Mobile user experience tales of 2012

By the fire, shot with Nokia 808 Pureview

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Strip away the hype and the last twelve months in mobile is a simple tale: bigger screens and faster processors.

It was a year in which ‘new’ products were characterised by incremental improvements. HTC, for instance, took this to an extreme by bumping the processor speed of its One X by 0.2 Ghz, just months after the original release, and calling it the ‘new’ One X Plus.

Apple added pixels to the screen of the iPhone and slimmed it down to just under eight millimetres thick. It remains the best overall user experience for the majority of consumers, but lacked an outstanding new feature. Similarly, the iPad Mini was just a well judged iteration of an existing formula.

User stories, not another 2012 review

However, this is not another annual recap of industry predictability. The last thing anyone’s inbox needs (mine included!) is another ‘2012 Industry Summary’ or dubious ‘2013 Predictions’.

Instead, I’d like to take you on a journey through some of the user stories which have informed our work over the last 12 months.

MEX is different. From the outset in 1995, I have focused the MEX initiative on helping digital industry see the world through the eyes of its customers. Interviewing, observing and understanding the lives of users is fascinating work and grounds everything we do at MEX, from the twice yearly MEX events to our consulting engagements.

Consequences of new digital touchpoints

Cast your mind back to January 2012. The UK is a place of wet, long, dark nights in the winter. Our user is a lady in her early 30s. An iPad has supplanted both her iPhone 3GS and Windows laptop as the centre of her digital world and is rarely out of reach.

It is used for emails, Facebook, Pinterest, Kindle e-books and watching TV shows downloaded from iTunes, either on the iPad itself, propped up on its Smart Cover, or pushed to the big screen via an Apple TV box.

The speed at which she abandoned existing digital products and migrated her usage to the iPad was striking. She is not alone: most new iPad users we met in 2012, across a range of ages and countries, abandoned established digital devices in favour of the iPad.

Some used their phones less frequently because they preferred the larger screen of the iPad, while others relegated their laptops for reasons of speed, portability and battery life.

The lesson here is not that the iPad itself is unassailably dominant but rather that the 6″ – 10″ slate form factor is becoming the most convenient touchpoint for the majority of casual, stationary use cases.

User attention is more engaged with these devices, sessions last longer, users feel comfortable conducting complex tasks and sharing the tablet with others. It is opening users to new digital services they wouldn’t otherwise try because a crucial threshold of speed, portability and ease of access has been crossed.

Not ‘social’, but less anti-social

The willingness to share tablets with others is considerably higher than phones or laptops, bringing new meaning to one of the most over-used terms of 2012: ‘social’. Here is a class of computing device which allows users to be less anti-social to those they are actually sitting with, whether in a meeting or on the sofa.

This behaviour raises the question: “How many users are you designing for?” For the first time on a mobile device, you can no longer assume a service will be used by a single user at any one time. The implications of these simultaneous multi-person user interfaces (SMUIs) are explored in MEX Pathway #3 and were a focus of the September 2012 MEX event in London.

Tipping the knowledge balance

Flash forward to March 2012, Spring time in Italy, and a TV presenter, 40, who spends his life on the road, is explaining how his iPhone makes him better informed than those operating the trains, planes and hotels he relies on.

He describes running late for a train connection and asking a member of staff which platform he needed, only to find the station attendant couldn’t answer the question without several minutes referring to his paper manual. Realising he had no time to lose, our user pulled out his iPhone and found the information for himself, just fast enough to catch the train.

It was one of many instances we encountered in our user research where mobile devices were shortcut tools relied upon to navigate the bureaucracy and inefficiency of daily life.

This behaviour has knock-on effects. Trust is being transferred from public infrastructure to mobile screens, making them the first port of call for day-to-day questions. Users no longer ask station attendants for train times, or even rely on local information boards – instead, they pull out their phones.

Similarly, consumers are using mobile devices and wireless networks to make better informed purchases. We observed users at several points on this curve, from those just starting to photograph products on their camera phones as a reminder to research them later, through to others who comparison shop directly inside retail stores by scanning barcodes.

The most interesting question here is what it means for organisations with unnecessarily bureaucratic services customers feel the need to subvert?

There is still no better way to build a relationship with customers than personal, face-to-face service. However, the longer staff languish with a lower standard of digital information tools than their customers, the more users will migrate their interactions to the digital domain. Once an interaction has become impersonal and digital it is much easier for it be transferred to another provider altogether.

Captured by the moment

Rural Britain, summer time. A group of teenage girls travels to and from school by train, a journey of half an hour. Their conversation is structured around taking photographs of each other with their phones, applying digital effects, viewing them on screen, laughing about what they see, deleting and starting again.

Photographers taking photographs of themselves being photographed: it is a confusing spiral. The photographs become the narrative of the group and the need to create those photograph guides the group’s activities.

Teenagers are not alone in this. Up to a certain threshold age – mid-30s – the concept of making a moment significant by capturing it in digital form has become common behaviour.

Indeed, a substantial minority of users now behave as if a moment only becomes significant once it has been captured. The desire to create such moments changes social situations, with people actively posing and pausing to allow manufactured situations to be preserved in digital.

The generation of children growing up today is photographed and videoed orders of magnitude more than any that have come before. Kids are aware of cameras at an earlier age and grow up in an environment where the watchful, but unnoticed, supervisory eye of parents has been replaced by the more obvious interruption of a digital camera lens.

Positive recording, not the quantified self

Autumn and the world descends on London for the Olympics. Despite the gutter press predicting transport chaos with unsavoury relish, visitors find an efficient system able to cope with demand and smoothed by an army of volunteer helpers.

A group of four American tourists travelling by train listens to one of their companions as she announces, with a certain pride: “We did eleven hours and thirty one minutes.” She is reading the stats of a wrist-mounted iPod Nano, connected to the Nike Plus sensor in her shoes, which has tracked their tour of London’s Olympic venues.

While she explains that is a personal best for her, one of her companions asks her how her battery fared (‘nearly dead’) while the other explains he uses his Android phone to track similar stats.

The prominent launches of Jawbone’s UP and Nike’s Fuel Band, as well as existing products like Fitbit and Nike Plus, have prompted commentary on the ‘quantified self’. The term, attendant with an air of science fiction, obfuscates the extent to which tracking exercise with digital tools is already a mainstream behaviour, exemplified in users such as our American tourist.

RunKeeper, Sports Tracker and Nike Plus already have millions of users who fall well outside the early adopter and technology enthusiast groups. Talk to them and you quickly find motivations vary, but there is a common thread: keeping score of positive actions in their lives, not actually ‘quantifying’ their health with any accuracy.

This is consistent with previous work on MEX Pathway #5, when we examined the user experience of mobile healthcare products, and MEX Pathway #14 on context. People use technology when it sends a positive signal about their health, not to gain a more accurate picture of their actual well being.

This behaviour is innate and unlikely to change, no matter how many options become available for measuring our health. Success will result from understanding user psychology and using the desire to record the good things we do in life to gently cajole us into confronting the bad ones.

Life translated

Barcelona is best known in the mobile industry as the home of the Mobile World Congress, the annual jamboree of business card swapping, bag theft and paying exorbitant prices for sub-standard food. It is also home to a large and growing population of Chinese residents.

While the second generation attend Spanish schools and speak the language fluently, the first generation – many of them business owners – still struggle to translate. These users, most of whom are in their 50s and 60s, have been provided by their children with Android mobile devices to help with translation.

Customers, both locals and tourists, are asked to type their requests into the device, which then translates it into Chinese.

Translation software on mobile devices has traditionally been marketed to the traveling executive, but here it is employed in the opposite way. These customers use it at home in their day-to-day business.

Unsustainable replacement

Back in the UK, it is a cold early winter day in Cambridge. A lady in her 40s takes her first generation iPad into the Apple Store and asks what kind of cases they have available. “I’m not sure we have cases for those anymore…” is the reply of the young male sales assistant, who wears a patronising smile.

The iPad 1 is less than two years old, yet already it has been superseded by the iPad 2, 3, 4 and Mini. An iPad 1 in use today does everything it did on the day of purchase – more, in fact, as it continues to receive access to new apps, yet the relentless product replacement cycle has created a climate in which devices less than two years old are considered outdated.

In other areas of life users have an increasing number of sustainable options: products made to last longer, which can be more easily repaired or upcycled. However, the technology industry, particularly mobile, is built around 18 – 24 month replacement cycles.

Marketing messages and sales channels, by necessity, are designed to convince customers to upgrade within this timeframe. They do so by promoting new features, but also by highlighting how outmoded their two year old, formerly cutting edge, products have become.

There are no companies today that will sell you a mobile device expressly designed to last for five or ten years, supported by a service centres, software upgrades and modular hardware. The very concept of a ten year replacement cycle seemed to strike fear into the hearts of those who broached the topic in MEX Pathway #7 on sustainability.

Instead, the industry adopts a form of condescension towards those – like our middle-aged lady in Cambridge – who want to buy an expensive, high quality product and use it for many years.

Think back to 2007, the year of the first iPhone and Nokia N95. Someone actively using a five year old phone today is considered eccentric and fringe by the industry’s product planners, part of a niche group they can afford to ignore. Yet both of those products are web-connected, able to capture and playback photos and videos, download apps and navigate you from place to place.

Cupboards around the world are filled with devices like these and, aside from sending them to landfill or recycling, it is fascinating to imagine how they might be upcycled. Those 5 megapixel cameras, colour screens and audio playback capabilities could be the foundation of a new generation of homemade, connected appliances.

A customer lost

Last, a personal tale. For Christmas 2011 I gave my partner an iPad 3G on my Vodafone account, complete with a 2 year data package. 3 days before Christmas this year, the screen failed. It would occasionally flicker on, but most of the time stayed blank, with the backlight illuminated.

The problem is not uncommon, a known fault with this model. I called Vodafone to arrange a repair. You can imagine my surprise, as a Vodafone customer of 15 years, with a device halfway through a two year contract, when they told me: we might be able to repair it, but it will cost you.

It turns out I purchased the device in the middle of December 2011 and, even though it was on a 2 year contract, and even though the device wasn’t actually activated until after Christmas Day 2011, Vodafone still considered it to be outside of its warranty period by a matter of days.

“It’s not up to us, I’m afraid,” was the message. “Apple products only have a one year warranty.” Vodafone, it transpires provide a two year warranty on every product they sell, apart from those manufactured by Apple.

I expressed my views in no uncertain terms, but the representative had a script and he was unable to deviate from it. The best he could offer was to ‘escalate’ the matter to a supervisor, for me to send in the device and, maybe, they might be able to do something about the repair cost.

He offered two options: send me a pre-paid envelope to return it (scheduled to arrive within 2 days) or take it to a Vodafone store which may or may not have the parts to repair it. My partner loves her iPad and, with some long flights looming in the next few days, neither of these options seemed palatable and both would apparently incur a cost to repair a faulty product.

A couple of days later she was passing Apple’s Regent Street branch and I suggested she take it in. There were no Genius Bar appointments available on their web-site for over a week, but she took a chance and walked in without a booking.

She emerged from the Apple Store with a new iPad, provided free of charge, beaming and more than ever a delighted Apple customer. As for Vodafone, we’re still waiting for a call back from whoever it was ‘escalated’ to and, 8 days later, the pre-paid returns envelope still hasn’t arrived.

Customer service is the primary differentiator for network operators, especially in a competitive market such as the UK where the same pricing, network coverage and device options can be found on all networks. Even the largest operators have given up their delusions of grandeur about differentiating by pretending to be media companies or device manufacturers.

In a climate such as this, how long will a company like Vodafone remain competitive when it creates poor experiences for long-term, high value customers? Put this issue in front of anyone with management responsibility at Vodafone and they would recognise the choice between the short-term, minor cost of repairing a faulty iPad and the long-term, major cost of losing a 15 year customer.

The problem, I suspect, is not an inability to recognise the madness of this warranty nonsense among Vodafone’s management, but rather that customer support is a process and cost management activity within operators, not a service for users. When your staff are prevented for thinking from themselves or recognising the nuances which define us a humans, your customer support function will inevitably create negative sentiment, rather than nurture customer relationships.

That was the crucial difference with Apple. The store assistant was aware of the warranty expiration and also that this was a device sold and supplied not by Apple, but by Vodafone. However, he was also empowered to look after an Apple user as best he could. The result was a real conversation, an understanding of the issue and the ability to turn a negative (my iPad broke) into a positive (you fixed it when no-one else would).

It was a personal example of why, despite the myriad factors in operators’ favour – knowledge of customer behaviour, retail presence and network integration opportunities – they have failed to elevate themselves beyond the status of utility providers.

My partner and I may well become Apple customers again in the future, but I am certain I will never again be a Vodafone customer.

MEX in 2013

Dawn over Blakeney Marsh, shot with Nokia 808 Pureview

These stories are just a handful extracted from the many hours of interviews, observations and research which goes towards grounding the MEX initiative in the reality of customers’ lives. They will shape our MEX events, publishing and consulting in 2013.

MEX thrives on the participation of a diverse community of user experience pioneers. If you’d like to get involved in 2013 as a sponsor, speaker or facilitator, participant or consultancy client, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

The next MEX event is on 26th – 27th March in London.

Happy New Year,

Marek Pawlowski
Founder, MEX

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