Mobile technology and Usability

Invention

Not so long ago the phone was an amazing invention which revolutionised communication between humans. It has now become a piece of technology which is deeply ingrained in modern life.

In less than twenty years, mobile phones have gone from being rare and expensive pieces of equipment used by businesses to a pervasive low-cost personal item. In many countries, mobile phones now outnumber land-line telephones, with most adults and many children now owning mobile phones. It is now not uncommon for young adults to simply own a mobile phone instead of a land-line in their home.

Is it any wonder that now we are being sold more and more complex handsets which are sold to enhance our lives and enable us to be in contact and available 24 hours a day 7 days a week 365 days a year. The advent of this technology has opened the door to a stream of news handsets and gadgets which blur the lines of computer and phone. There are now Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) which are the essential business tool, and enable access to email and calendars and in many cases enables users to make phone calls as well.

Each new handset provides new exciting designs with MP3 players, cameras and other interactive goodies all of which fit into a pocket sized package which with each evolution becomes lighter and thinner.

The young and those who are enthralled by the new evolving technology snap up these mobile devices and parade them to friends and acquaintances; unfortunately with the focus on the technology and gadget factor rather than the usability.

With all the focus on the technology and the desire to squeeze more and more exciting software on to mobile phones, the key function of the phone as a communication device seems to have been overlooked in some cases. The user experience for many mobile phone users is being overshadowed by progressive technology and the need to be bigger and brighter than the competitor.

The simple task of physical interaction

A simple task for many mobile phone users can be made complicated and frustrating by the simple aspect of the keypad being too small for their fingers. After experiencing many usability sessions where users were expected to enter a phone number or the more progressive task of sending a text message it was clear that for many this was extremely problematic.

Providing a clear navigation structure within a mobile phone menu is only one aspect over the overall usability of a mobile device. If a user cannot physically interact with the keypad then they are not going to be able to get to the menu to use the wonderfully user friendly menu structure. Usability is not just about the software within a mobile device it is also about the physical construction and interactivity of that device.

Enabling users to complete the tasks they want to do is one step towards a great user experience. If a mobile phone users just wants to make a phone call then provide the device which helps them achieve that goal.

If the usability of a handset is poor it can have many consequences for the user, the phone producer and the service provider. Often users do not differentiate between the service provider and the phone user interface which has consequences for both as poor usability can be seen in sales numbers, customer support and usage1.

Achieving the goal

There are many mobile phone users who have had the same phone for years just because they know how it works, it fits their needs and enables them to feel in control of achieving their goal. Once a user feels they are no longer in control of their task and that they are not able to complete their goal, frustration and irritation then creeps in. Observation of mobile phone usability evaluations highlights that the frustration felt by users is not always targeted towards the device or product; often it is directed back at themselves.

Many usability analysts will have experienced users blaming themselves for their incompetence when trying to complete a task using mobile device. This is not uncommon and many who have new mobile devices will often blame themselves for not reading the 300 page manual which came with it if they experience a problem.

There should be a more global focus on mobile devices usability which not only evaluates the software inside the device but also the shell which encapsulates this amazing technology and functionality and its use in the social world.

Is designing a mobile phone for a target audience such a strange idea?

Studies have been carried out to attempt to inform the design of mobile phones. One such study focused on the ethnographic study of teenage mobile phone users to inform the design of third generation mobile phones2.  This study paid attention to the ways in which the target audience used the current generation of mobile phones and their views on other communication systems to produce a concept prototype device. It highlighted that there is potential for future technology solutions to be compatible with and useful in people’s everyday lives.

Conclusion

It is easy to overlook the problems and issues when using mobile technology and just accept that technology is changing and improving everyday. However, it is worth noting that there are those users who are happy with their technology in it’s current state.

Why not design a mobile phone or device which enables the users to decide what they want to do. If a user wants text messaging and the ability to make phone calls with out the trappings of a calendar, MP3 player and camera can they do it?

Can mobile devices be designed to enable users with larger fingers and hands to use them comfortably without being worried that they may phone the incorrect person by pressing two buttons at once, or become frustrated that they cannot have the latest device because it is too small.

Identifying user requirements and understanding the user is a major part of usability especially in website design.  Shouldn’t this understanding and reasoning be used to drive the development in other areas, such as the development of mobile devices rather than just the technology and services that they support?

One suggestion could be to encourage users to be more proactive and ask questions when purchasing a phone. So instead of technology driving the design users are.

So the next time you find yourself in a mobile phone shop think about asking to test the phone, send yourself a text message, play with the features and ask questions about the functionality. The more you know, the more an informed decision you can make to whether the phone is the right one for you.

References

[1]The Three Facets of Usability In Mobile Handsets, Pekka Ketola & Mika Röykkee.

[2] Mobile Phones for the Next Generation: Device Design for Teenagers. Sara Berg, Alex. S. Taylor, Richard Harper. Presented at CHI 2003