What would the startup community do to enhance mobile user experience?

As we get closer to the 2009 MEX Mobile User Experience Conference on 19th – 20th May I’ve been asking key stakeholders to share their views on the big mobile user experience issues facing the industry. This week it is the turn of small startups and individual innovators to tell us what’s on their minds.

Working in partnership with MobileMonday London, we asked this group of innovators to answer the following question:

What is the single most important thing you think the mobile industry should do to improve the user experience and why?

You can read all their answers below.

We received nearly 20 distinct responses and sparked a fascinating debate on the MobileMonday email discussion list. Please feel free to add your own comments to this article. You may also like to check out the article on last week’s outreach, which posed a similar question to the mobile design community.

Here’s what the startups had to say:

Chris Browne

Currently the mobile industry is fragmented and this hinders innovation, there is opportunity and the need to open up and consolidate. To reduce fragmentation in the market place and allow new services and innovation to thrive.

A possible example of this would be adopting of a unified web runtime standard and distribution model, which would allow easy development and deployment of new services. Another possible example would be the adoption of NFC or human body communication (which uses the user’s body’s natural electrical field to transmit data…so you can shake someone’s hand to swap business card data). For these technologies to really take off and be utilised it would require the manufacturers, operators and 3rd parties to work together to provide a solid offering that engages other industries such as Finance and Healthcare.

In short a consolidated industry would enhance the users; experience, their interaction with data and their environment.

Invisible tools would be formed that aid the user without intruding on their consciousness (as Mark Weiser would say).

I’m not deluded into thinking this is going to happen any time soon, but just a thought 🙂

Nils Kaiser

I’d like to add the following aspect to the previous answers: interoperability and customisation to achieve the vision of true personal information management.

Next generation mobile devices are becoming smarter and offer richer ways to interact: better UI, bigger display, keyboards and permanent connections. It puts mobile phones in a great position to become central personal information managers, supporting many aspects of life, e.g. planning work and leisure time, staying up-to-date on interests, managing personal knowledge and social activities.

However, while many platforms are partly implementing these ideas, they often create new information islands (yet another bookmark collection?) or overwhelm users with features they might not want to use (customisation has already become a critical factor for buying decisions, but sucess is likely to be where a good mix between customisation and good base packages is made – yet another address book with Facebook functionality?).

The key to solving both problems is:

1) Let users customise their systems so that their personal information is managed in their own natural way

2) Let users integrate their mobile phones within their existing personal information environment

Indeed, users have different tools and platforms for managing different type of information (email, twitter, onenote, evernote, wikis etc.) and just providing users the ‘ideal’ personal information platform won’t work. Customers don’t want to change their whole work habits just because they purchased a new device… It is the devices that need to adapt to the users changing way of managing their information.

Another mistake is that users will never solely use their phones to manage their information, while netbooks, notebooks, work and private PCs and other phones are part of a user’s personal information habits.

What it means for operators and devices providers is that future phone operating systems must allow for deep integration with services…just adding a new icon on your phone by installing a new application is not enough (iPhone?). Through customisation and deep integration, different personal information environments can be created for different needs, users or even companies and organisations!

Additionally, operators and device builders should also recognise that a single device is not enough, and that providing true interoperability between devices (through services?) is actually an opportunity to sell users multiple different devices.

Peter Giblin

I think all of the suggestions posted are potentially part of a future we are all aiming for. And there is no single thing that will change everthing. The mobile industry is a great example of an industry that can’t work without a large degree of collaboration and concerted effort on many fronts from many interested parties.

But I’d like to highlight the role of the consumer. I think too many of us don’t know the social context of people’s interactions with mobile and how that affects user experience. In order to deliver desired experiences we are missing a trick if we have not created a dialogue with users to understand what they want and how they want it.

Putting the user front-and-centre of our thinking (or the carriers thinking) can only help us all succeed. In user retention, usability improvements, marketing strategies and product development. It also leads to real data that can be measured and shared with the many interested parties (including those with marketing budgets!).

This leads to a further point: that of education, or the lack of it. Who is responsible for explaining to users what is available (devices, apps etc…) and how they can be used? Who is demonstrating to the timid and the uninformed what a world of possibility there is? Who is teaching everyone how to engage with mobile in a clear and simple way? Apple is the only company that really springs to mind. If the industry’s answer is ‘ask your kids’, then we have a problem.

These are issues for all of us to ponder. And, as usual, collaboration and coordination is probably what will lead to their solving.

David Mery

Improve software quality of phones *before* release.

This is the one improvement that would affect the UX of most users. Most (smart)phones are released when they’re still very buggy. Most users buy phones soon after they are released. Hence an awful lot of people are using very buggy phones. Over the past decade the reliability of phones on the whole has gone down. An underlying cause is that in the long mobile value chain, the eventual phone users often have very little impact if at all on a phone’s software development.

Gabriel Brown

Improving battery life would be the thing that would help me the most. Battery tech improves relatively slowly, so this probably means innovation around how connected apps work and interact with the network.

In a few years enhancements to 3G radio technology (e.g. Continuous Packet Connectivity) will come through. Meanwhile I feel there’s a lot app developers can do to help. Many connected apps seem poorly designed in this respect.

Simon Wilcox

Separate the transceiver from the phone UI capabilities so that I may have a mobile connection I share with phone/PDA, laptop and any other device about my person (pacemaker/health monitoring?). I shouldn’t need to buy the same thing over and over again.

Alex Kerr

I’d agree with that strongly, but I’d take a holistic view and tie it in with integration with the network to encompass the whole experience of owning a phone, by which I mean specifically ensuring software settings in relation to network usage are auto-set and pain free (i.e. an iPhone-type experience), and also NO bill shock in relation to using any mobile service ever, anywhere. i.e. everything just always works (at least as far as possible, in terms of phone and software network access and permissions settings) and the user doesn’t get a GBP 22,000 bill or something utterly insane like that.

Network people – if you refuse to charge sane prices (e.g. for data roaming), why can’t you just SMS a user (not like that costs you anything, does it?) and tell them a service will cost a vast amount before they incur the charge?

In short, things can be made vastly better for users, with a bit more care, attention and effort. There are a lot of easy wins here I feel.

Christophe Lassus

What: add geo-coordinates HTTP headers to all traffic going through operator gateways. Why: enable location based WAP services (even on handsets without GPS).

It’s a shame that the mobile internet does not allow location based services. The internet browser is the most widespread platform, easiest to develop to and adding the geo-coordinates through HTTP headers would be so easy to do for the telcos.

And for those who gonna say ‘what about privacy?’, it would be exactly the same as when you browse on the fixed internet; your location can be worked out from your IP address.

For those who’d say ‘HTTP coordinates wont work if you browse from wifi’, same answer: we can then use your IP address.

For those who’d say ‘I am a geek and on the fixed Internet I can masquerade my IP’: telcos can still set up an opt-out mechanism.

Gill Wildman

Design from the outside in, rather than the inside out.

Because to a user, the interface is the system.

Martin Rigby

It’s not as though there’s a dearth of talent or imagination in the mobile software development community – see how application development has flourished with the launch of the iPhone App Store. Rather, the problem is the seeming inability of the mobile operators to allow really open platforms that let developers build efficient, lightweight applications that are easily deployed to the majority of handsets.

I think that the operators must take the rap on this, since they really drive the feature sets that have been built into handsets using Symbian, especially, and other mainstream operating systems. It can’t be sensible to force users to engage with complex configuration and security features in order to use rich applications that need, for example, to access the handset’s file system.

This is the rationale behind my assertion that the single biggest thing that the industry can do to improve the user experience is to adopt well-documented open operating systems that support runtime code that can be and compiled in well-designed IDEs and which allow the creation of rich applications that can address all the features integral to phones in order to create applications that
‘surprise and delight’.

While Apple is the pioneer pointing the way to the future, it remains wedded to a proprietary view of the world. The challenge for the operators and other handset makers is to create a mobile application environment that is as accessible and open to innovation as the PC world has become for desktops.

Dominic Mason

Openly work together to challenge what has not worked in the past and define mobile handset usability design patterns, so everyone can move forwards together. Wheel reinvention does not equal revenue generation.

Tom Godber

Actually think about it :P. Why is self evident if you’ve used almost any phone since the advent of colour screens…

Giacomo Biggiero

What: Technology Standardisation. Why: To bring wider market reach to services and applications while allowing those services and products to evolve on a commonly defined foundation.

Nick Clarey

I’m totally with you on this one.

GSM needs to learn a valuable lesson from CDMA – APNs are a complete disaster zone. I’m not a standards guru so maybe this is already being addressed but right now this is the single largest cause of network connectivity problems for users and developers.

In CDMA networks when a device is provisioned it can get an IP address without any user interaction. There may be filtering or blocking done at other levels, for sure, but short of ripping the antenna off or sticking the phone in the microwave a user can’t interfere with IP connectivity.

When I put a SIM card into a device it should be able to get an IP connection and it should not require me as a user to do anything AT ALL. Surely this *cannot* be difficult to implement…

(You mentioned the iPhone – and it’s largely flawless – but the O2 PAYG APN settings have been automagically unset for me in the past which resulted in much headscratching and consternation…!)

Daniel Demmel

What: getting the internet (web) on mobile phones right, that simple. Why: right now it is synonymous with the iPhone, even though browsers on phones have been around for what seems like an eternity now (WAP on mobile dialup anyone?). Yet, most people are reluctant to even try emailing or browsing on their (feature) phones. This is despite the fact that I have the gut feeling (no statistics to cite) that these would be the most desired features right after voice call, address book and SMS, especially in 3rd world countries where mobile phones are the only devices most people can connect to the net with.

There are a few big reasons for this failure which should all be addressed:

1) Operators should be very clear on data terms and lower the prices. Not everyone wants unlimited data, but transparency and reasonable prices are essential. Why all the contract packages are muscling in only with literally thousands of minutes and texts and not a single word about data? Why is there an either/or choice of outrageous data costs for the casual user or flat rate unlimited plan for heavy users?

2) Data should work on any network without any configuration, full stop. I think it`s much more of a lack of standards issue than a technical impossibility. Why bother with manual APN settings (different even for contract and pay as you go, madness!) and fiddling on the internet for sending config SMSs yourself or talking to customer service, where for example it could always be internet.operator name.country domain, since the operator name and country are already available on network connection as easily as cell info, which a 10 years old Nokia without even WAP can readily display.

3) OEMs and operating system vendors should adopt a baseline standard for browsers: WebKit rendering engine. There is no added value for the user in having/using something proprietary and fragmentation is big enough already in the mobile space with all the different devices (can NetFront please disappear already?). Do differentiate in the user interface though, make browsers work like a charm even with indirect input method aka hard keys! Until the only single variable to worry about for web developers will be resolution, only a fraction of all websites will display nicely on the small screen.

Digressing a bit, but please also forget .mobi and watered down mobile versions of web-sites, there should be one web, if an online service wants to offer functionality cleverly optimised for mobile phones, release a widget or an app.

4) Make multimedia delivery in the browser possible. HTML 5 is not quite around yet, but in the meanwhile Flash should be there in all mobile browsers. And yes, I know that badly done stuff and banners are not what you would want on your phone to hog bandwidth and resources, just put a placeholder in the pages for every embedded Flash content and activate it when the user clicks, is there anything complicated in that? 🙂
Tom Hume A slight cop-out because I think it’s been discussed at MEXs past, but I’d say: tariffs.

Not knowing what they’re spending confuses users and incentivises them away from ever going online. If they don’t go online, they won’t buy content or access web services. Studies show that flat-rate data encourages use of mobile products, and that once users try it, it’s addictive (I think Tomi Ahonen showed something to this effect at Future of Mobile last year).

So, sort out tariffs so they’re simple and easily understood, and you’ll encourage experimentation and uptake of data services. You don’t need to launch new devices, even existing customers can use what they have now if there’s no fear of bill shock. You drive usage of radio networks whose cost has (for the most part) been sunk already. And you give your subscribers a taste of data usage; and we know that once they’ve tried it, they use it more and more…

David Stone

Essentially, while sympathic to the view, towards simplification of data rates, my point is that the fundamentials for mobiles and the consumer, still need to be addressed and better understood. What does this mean, and what needs to be done, and why?

Take up of mobile data and content still remains in it’s infancy, although the iPhone has pointed a light in the right direction. Ease of handset use is a significant factor to adoption up-take. But while screens have got bigger and ability to navigate portal features on the move has advanced, the consumer recogition of usability and rationale for the need to use has not.

This issue can be differentiated between post and pre-pay mobile users, although this is probably an over simplication. There is less incentive for mobile non-contact users to be big data consumers and new adopters of content due to cost sensitivity. Research that I have conducted, and work by Ofcom indicates, while younger mobile consumers, have greater computer literacy and inclination towards adoption, the main issue is ‘trust’, the ability to understand mobile in relation to new features and technologies. Consumers feel they must have new technology to ‘keep up’, but having got it they don’t understand it or relate the benefits and need of use.

Reassurance on a brand by brand basis is clearly insufficient to address this issue. The solution requires the industry to educate and explain the mobile and it’s capabilities to encourage confidence and trust in use. Equally if adoption of more sophisticated mobile features are to become mainstream, then it also behoves the industry to provide options to for consumers to discard older handsets.

What do you think? Please add your own ideas to the MEX blog.

It has never been more important for companies all throughout the mobile value chain to genuinely understand users and translate that knowledge into better, more profitable mobile products. That is what will be driving the agenda at the 2009 MEX Mobile User Experience Conference on 19th – 20th May, with 100 of the industry’s most creative thinkers gathering to develop a collaborative response to the 8 point MEX Manifesto over 2 days.

I hope you’ll join us by registering for the event. We have just 19 places remaining out of the 100 seats available. Register today to guarantee your place (passes are priced at GBP 1499).

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  1. 3
    Clive Jefferies

    Avoid feature creep – find out what the users actually want in phones rather than putting in as much functionality as possible. You will realise that users only want a subset of what you are giving them which would make the phone easier to use.

    Have only one way to do one thing. What is the point of having many routes to performing a function which can make hte interface more complex, confusing the user.

    Be consistent with the UI -amiliarity makes something easier to use.

    Make the instructions simple and clear. If the user is never told how to do something correctly, how are they supposed to learn how to do it. Users shouldnt have stumble upon functionality.

  2. 4
    Guilhem Ensuque

    My top-3 improvements areas would be:
    1- ease the flow between creative designers and mobile software developers
    2- remove hardware/software fragmentation barriers between devices/platfroms
    3- achieve great performance of visually-rich applications on mass-market devices

    My company is working on a development technology that addresses those points, and I’d love to hear the MEX blog reader views on mobile applications development…

    You can take a short survey here:

    All respondents will receive the results and will be eneterd into a USD250 prize draw

    Thx. And maybe see you at MEX.

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