Why mobile is about more than just phones

Marek Pawlowski, PMN
It’s that time of year when there are a huge number of predictions for the future floating around. Between them, the pundits have undoubtedly got it right – the difficulty is knowing which of all those ‘Top 5 Trends’ and ’10 Hot Predictions’ to believe. Rather than throwing my hat into such a crowded ring, I’d like to offer a few end of year thoughts on a subject which should be high on the strategic agenda in 2009 – the mobile user experience.

We’ve seen a surge in awareness around mobile user experience since we launched the first MEX Conference back in 2004. However, there’s still a tendency for the industry to assume the user experience starts and ends with the user interface: the menus and icons customers see on screen.

Mobile user experience is much bigger than that. It is a collective term for how customers feel about a product or service. It can be influenced by factors as diverse as the retail environment in which the product is purchased to the blog buzz surrounding a new service before it launches.

Achieving a great user experience, therefore, requires a particular approach rather than a specific set of technologies or advances in a single area like user interface. Companies which see the world through their customers’ eyes and respond by delivering experiences which meet their individual needs are the most likely to succeed in a period of slowing consumer spending.

I’d like to share an example with you to illustrate the depth and breadth of factors which can influence the user experience of a product and therefore determine its commercial success.

A few days ago I was excited to see an email entitled ‘UK Rail Agrees Mobile Ticketing Standard’ appear in my Inbox. I’ve long held the view the mobile phone is a natural substitute for paper tickets. Japan already has a successful NFC-based implementation and O2 recently conducted a successful trial using NFC-enabled Nokia handsets integrating the Oyster electronic travel ticket in London. 87 percent of people in the O2 trial said they would be tempted to buy a handset which integrated their travel ticket in the future.

However, despite these successes, the use of mobile phones for travel ticketing remains limited in the UK. One of the major difficulties is the structure of the transport network itself. Different parts of the network are owned by different operating companies, so while it has been possible to buy a mobile ticket in one part of the country from one operating company, you may find it is unrecognised when you arrive at your destination on another company’s section of the network.

Masabi, a British pioneer of mobile ticketing, has been working with the Rail Settlment Plan (the cross-industry body responsible for rail ticketing) to launch a standard which will work throughout the UK.

With the standard in place, customers who buy a mobile ticket from one of the operators who offer this service can now be confident it will be accepted on all parts of the transport network. The rail operators are particularly keen to ensure customers can use the service to buy day-to-day commuter tickets rather than just pre-booked reservations for long journeys, thereby helping to alleviate queues during peak periods.

Masabi has developed some nice interfaces, implemented 2D barcode technology and designed the system in such a way that the electronic tickets contain enough information so they can be validated by conductors on the trains without needing a connection back to a central server.

It all sounds like very clever stuff and I applaud the rail companies and Masabi for taking these steps.

However, it does not necessarily translate into a good customer experience. The point of this example is to illustrate how factors totally outside the traditional scope of the mobile industry can impact the mobile user experience.

For instance, most UK rail stations currently have electronically operated tickets barriers in place. It is impossible to enter or exit the platforms without swiping a valid ticket through the reader or showing your ticket to an actual human attendent.

These barriers are notoriously unreliable and there is rarely more than one human attendent on duty, even at the busiest stations, so you often find a situation where someone’s ticket isn’t read by the machine and a queue then forms behind them as they try to prove its validity to the station staff.

Without a significant upgrade, the current barriers are unable to process the proposed mobile barcode tickets, so imagine what’s going to happen when large numbers of customers need to queue, single-file, to show their mobile phone screen to the ticket inspector…no small amount of chaos I suspect!

The service also requires you to enter your credit card details when you first register. This places a major block on adoption by excluding younger customers who do not have access to a credit card and makes the service much less attractive to a key target audience – people who don’t have enough time to buy a traditional paper ticket.

So a major step has been taken towards adding a valuable new service to the mobile phone, but adoption is likely to remain slow until someone steps in and solves all those little problems which add up to a negative customer experience.

This scenario is repeated time and again in the mobile business. Innovative technology, well-meant partnerships and highly publicised standards can only take you so far. If the connection with consumer viewpoint isn’t there, the product is unlikely to succeed. In a complex value chain, who steps up to take responsibility for the user experience?

In 2009, it will be the companies willing to invest resources to make things right for the customer who enjoy the greatest success.

Here at PMN, we’ve spent the last few months since our most recent MEX conference listening to our customers and talking to many of you in the MEX community about your views. We’re getting ready to role out some exciting new things for you in 2009, including the new MEX Manifesto and our 5th anniversary MEX Conference & Mobile User Experience Awards on 19th and 20th May in London.

At a time when mobile user experience has never been of greater strategic significance, we’re looking forward to helping the industry improve its understanding of customer behaviour and translate that knowledge into better, more profitable products.

Best wishes for the holidays and see you in 2009!

Marek Pawlowski
PMN – Mobile Industry Intelligence
+44 7767 622957


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  1. 2
    Tim McQuillin

    I totally agree. There are even more simple examples of how user experience can be improved, but it’s not (at least in my market, Ukraine). By this I mean better coordination between the device maker, mobile operator, mobile content developers, and retailer. Over a year ago I wrote about this – the need to see from the customer experience from advertising to purchase process to product usage to customer care. I think the mobile operators, as still the primary owner of the customer relationship and profiteer from the result, should lead this charge but I don’t see it happening yet. Although the recent AT&T announcement about consolidation of smartphone OS platforms seems like there is at least some awareness of this responsibility somewhere.

  2. 3
    Paul Neervoort

    Apart from these problems I would imagine poor user having to fumble with his phone to get the ticket out on the screen exchanging physical fumbling with wallets and stubs into a virtual.

    There is in that sense much to learn from other smart payment systems like the octopus system in HK (read Daniel Szuc’s article at UPA).
    Smart solutions are sometimes remarkably simple.

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