Without the mobile user experience

When you spend your days consulting with companies about how they can improve their mobile user experiences or highlighting the frustrations faced by end users, it is easy to forget the positive benefits mobility brings to an astonishing number of people (some 3 billion at the last count).

Recently, a couple of things have prompted me to think about why we should celebrate the achievements of the mobile industry. The first was this article about North Korea awarding a license to Orascom to build the country’s first public network. Previously mobile phones had only been available to a select few government employees, putting North Korea at the very bottom of the world connectivity list.

In an age when even the poorest regions have access to wireless networks of some kind, it is difficlt to imagine an environment where no one can connect on the move.

I tried to think back over my activities for the last couple of weeks and how often I’d ‘touched’ a wireless network of some kind and what that interaction had enabled. Last night, for instance, a wireless network delivered some bad news about a family member to my bedside table just before I was going to sleep, enabling me initiate a voice call on that network to offer help to the person who’d sent the message.

Last week I was travelling abroad for several days and the wireless cloud which surrounds us all allowed me to stay in touch with my business, find local restaurant recommendations and pull down weather forecasts. It kept me entertained with videos and music while waiting for planes.

On a recent ski trip my phone took photographs, predicted snow conditions, kept me safe by recording my position on its GPS and enabled me to stay in touch with my friends when I was venturing in to the backcountry.

In developing countries around the world, economists have found a correlation between mobile penetration and economic development. Leonard Waverman of the London Business School discovered that GDP rises by 0.44% for every additional 10 mobile phones per 100 head of population. However, there was always a question mark over what came first: did economic development lead to greater use of mobile phones or did the phones spur economic development?

In our 2008 MEX manifesto, we highlight another study, this time by Robert Jensen at Harvard, who looked at fisherman in India to find an answer to this question. His acclaimed paper on the efficiency of markets found that the improvements in information flow facilitated by mobile phones helped to raise the fisherman’s profits by 8%, lower consumer prices by 4% and reduce the average ‘catch wastage’ from around 6.5% to almost zero.

This research was one of the factors which prompted the inclusion of Manifesto statement #5 in our 2008 MEX conference agenda ‘The developing world is the new frontier for mobile user experience‘. (If anyone has some views they’d like to share on this topic, please get in touch, it’s something that’s close to my heart and will be a key part of our 2008 conference.)

Looking at the bigger picture, I personally believe history will recognise the emergence of ubiquitous connectivity as the start of a new era every bit as significant as the agricultural and industrial revolutions which swept Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Connectivity changes several dynamics crucial to the development of civilisation: the speed at which information can be shared, the amount of information available to the average person and the speed with which decisions can be taken.

The result will be a surge in the sum total of human knowledge. When we come to plot this on a graph in several hundred years time, this age of discovery will be seen to start at the point when wireless networks proliferated.

That’s why the mobile user experience matters. Day-to-day we are all driven by profits and targets and schedules. It is easy to forget the bigger picture. But it’s there and it matters and it is significant enough to impact the course of human history.

But I digress…back to the reality of the mobile user experience today and the other occurence which prompted me to think about what life would be like without mobile connectivity.

Yesterday I debranded and re-flashed my Nokia N95. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these terms, it involved using a piece of software to change the ID code of my N95 and trick it into thinking it was a generic Nokia phone rather than one specifically tailored for my network operator (Three UK).

I was forced to do this because Three-specific N95s don’t allow you to download the latest system software from Nokia’s firmware update service. I spoke to an executive at Three about this a few weeks ago and they explained that Three had developed a specific set of software for the N95 and it would be too time consuming and expensive to do another Three-specific build incorporating the latest Nokia enhancements. In addition, they’d also just started shipping the N95 8 Gb, which included many of the fixes in the ROM update, so they prefered to incentivise people to upgrade to the new device.

Their reasoning, of course, was entirely logical if you’re looking at the mobile user experience from the company’s perspective, but did little to help me as an end user.

As a result, I used a variety of sketchy software tools and user guides downloaded from the web to ‘trick’ the system. It took about 30 mins, but at the end of the process, my N95 was upgraded to the latest software, complete with enhancements to battery life, better GPS performance, improved memory handling to allow me to run more applications simultaneously and significantly enhanced camera capabilities.

I had backed up my phone to my memory card before doing this and once the new system software was installed, I tried to restore my data. When I switched the phone back on, I was presented with a fatal error message, telling me the device couldn’t start and I should contact the retailer.

It was at this point it suddenly occured to me that I might be spending the next 24 hours without a phone and to consider what impact that would have on my life. It wasn’t a pleasant thought.

Unfortunately I had violated my warranty terms by de-branding the handset, so I couldn’t go back to the retailer (Three). A further web search uncovered an arcane series of keypresses I could use to hard reset the Nokia, erasing the memory restore I had performed and returning the phone to its blank state, but still with the new system software.

I then restored my vital data like Contacts and Calendar entries from my SyncML server and manually re-installed the applications I’d lost. I also had to manually restore things like Wi-Fi settings, bookmarks and themes.

It was an irritating process and my natural instinct as a customer is to lay the blame at the door of Three UK. As an industry analyst I’m fully aware of the complex blend of corporate strategy, industry politics and software design which caused these problems, but quite frankly I don’t care. As a customer, my view is that the operator felt it was more important to maintain its branding in the N95 software than to enable me to upgrade my device with the latest features and bug fixes. As such, I was required to go through a time consuming and difficult process to circumvent their restrictions.

The result: several hours wasted tinkering with my phone, a heart-stopping moment when I thought it was irretrievably damaged, the loss of some key data and – finally – a handset with the latest software, which is now totally debranded from my service provider. By putting restrictions in place, the operator achieved nothing but annoying a customer and creating a bad experience.

Is this a reasonable view? Probably not. Is the average mobile customer equipped to understand the reasons why some operators take this approach? Definitely not. Sometimes good mobile experiences start with understanding that customers are naturally unreasonable, inclined to behave in unexpected ways and quick to lay blame without stopping to think whether it is deserved.


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  1. 2
    Mike Grenville

    There was an interesting contrast in the article between considering the impact of mobile phone on the ‘poorest regions’ and the expectation by your operator that your high-end device was a throw away device and that to fix bugs the preffered route was to upgrade and dispose of what was a good working device. The throw away attitude of the mobile industry cannot continue for much longer before the resource boundaries are reached. It is time for the industry to start thinking about reduce, reuse, recyle…

  2. 3
    Roger TSAI

    I was thinking about an mobile app, using GPS, camera, and online database to help farmers in China taking care of their plants. And then I realize they probably cannot afford such a thing though it might be useful. Maybe the same situation applies to fishermen.

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