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The Changing Mobile User Experience
The Changing Mobile User Experience

Phones are getting more complicated, but using them should remain as simple as ever ­ not an easy combination.

Mobile phones are now visual devices, not just voice devices. They are driven by the advent of color screens and the possibility of always-on communications based on either 1xRTT or GPRS. They are moving from being speech-based to more sophisticated personal devices, where being a great phone is only part of the story. At the same time, sections of the economy are moving on from delivering services to the next stage of development ­ the experience economy ­ where people are happy to pay for an experience.

Phone manufacturers and mobile network operators have to focus not only on delivering the product functionality and services that the user requires, but on the way the different functions work together to create an overall user experience. There are a number of inherent conflicts within this movement.

Handset manufacturing is a product-based business built on volume. Manufacturers need to mass produce phones to keep the costs down, and thus capture market share. While doing this, they also seek to differentiate their phones not only on cost and functionality, but also on ease of use. Indeed Nokia has been so successful with this strategy that they are now number 1 in the global market by some margin, with a share of 35%, well ahead of Motorola at 16%.

On the other hand, the mobile network operators are looking to develop and differentiate their services in a whole range of ways, and this includes how they are presented on the handset. Verizon is rapidly increasing the penetration of data services with its "get it NOW" campaign where data downloads increased 120% from Q4 2002 to Q1 2003, and in Europe, Vodafone has sold over 1 million handsets based on its Vodafone Live! offering. In spite of these initial successes, the takeup of new services remains relatively slow and, in many cases, the limitation is the mobile phone itself.

This conflict and lack of attention to the users' experience lead to very confused situations. For example, many operators are heavily promoting picture messaging, but when you use it on a phone, it can be called multimedia, MMS, or some other similarly cryptic name. This leads to confusion, which in turn slows the uptake of the new services.

To educate us about the benefits of the different services, the new service offerings have to be backed by strongly branded, massive marketing campaigns. The operators need to carry the brand onto the delivery device ­ the handset. This is where the conflict starts, because the manufacturers do not want to have to produce special versions for all but the largest operators, and then, only when there is a guarantee of large volumes.

In fact, to ensure that you have enough choice, the operators want the branded experience to be available across a wide range of phones from different manufacturers. This further compounds the problem of small volumes, where each operator wants their own special versions of different phones, and makes the handset manufacturers even less likely to meet their requirements.

To overcome this impasse operators are starting to work with handset manufacturers to introduce independent user interface applications that can run on a range of handsets from different manufacturers. These applications can be used to take over a variable amount of the user interface on the phone. They have access not only to the phone functionality and applications, but also to other network services, and can deliver the required behavior in the phone.

To be an effective user interface, the application must communicate with many different parts of the phone operating system, applications, and network services, both to determine status and for control. Examples of the type of functions which must be accessed could include signal strength and battery status, incoming SMS messages and phone calls, keypad keystrokes, and many others. This requires very tight integration with the phone firmware, and has to take into account the different approaches of different manufacturers to the design of their phones.

Once the technology is running on a handset, it's possible to open up new and interesting ways of working. One of the simplest and most visible differences that's possible using this technology is to change the look and feel of the mobile phone screen. This is the first step in meeting the operator's requirement for a branded user experience. The look of the wallpaper, icons, and screen graphics can be changed to match the operator's brand. This starts to deliver some of the benefits, but only scratches the surface of what is possible.

Everyone is an individual, and the market for ringtones shows that we will spend money to personalize our phones. Once the new user interface technology is embedded in the phone, it's possible to go far beyond simple ringtones and wallpaper. Much like the operator brand, you could have a look and feel for your favorite band, character, or team.

For the operators, this opens up new possible revenue streams for the sale and downloading of these new user interfaces. For the development community it also opens up a potential market for developing exciting branded user interfaces. In many cases these personalized looks and feels will sit alongside both the operator's branded user interface and the handset user interface. This will result in a zonal user interface with different zones for different activities.

The user interface technology can go far beyond this change to the look and feel. With a user interface communicating with the different applications in the phone and network-based ser-vices, a range of new possibilities opens up. In the first stage, operators are looking to exploit their existing investment in mobile portals and data services. Uptake has so far been very slow because of the complexity of accessing the services. Studies show that for each additional click needed to reach a service, 50% of the customers drop away. So with the user interface application on the phone, the next step after the branding is to move the storefront for a range of services onto the phone ­ building an operator service store.

Figure 1

Building an Operator Service Store
The operator service store can be used to give fast connection to existing operator services, with attractive presentation and direct connectivity. The first stage in many current implementations is to move the operator's mobile portal onto the handset. Users can navigate on the phone, and then when they have found an item of interest, click on the icon and connect to the portal directly through a browser. This makes navigation faster, and gives much more immediate access to the existing range of services on the portal, helping operators to capitalize on their existing investments and drive more data traffic.

Figure 2

While simple browser access to existing pages is often the first step, the operator service store can be used to connect to premium services, including ringtones, game downloads, video, and premium SMS. Embedding the necessary codes in the interface simplifies the access to premium services for the user too, increasing uptake and creating a much richer user experience.

In constructing an operator service store on the handset, operators are borrowing from the retail industry, and can begin to apply some of the lessons from there. Product placement will become more and more important, and promotions and special offers will be used to drive sales. As with current retail practice we will see a wide range of store layouts and branding to appeal to different market segments.

Delivery is another aspect of the overall user experience that can be improved. Many of the mobile services either take place in a browser or by sending an SMS. These are both highly robust, but provide a very limited experience. For example a sports fan will often get a latest score delivered by SMS, resulting in a beep beep as the incoming message arrives in the inbox. Once read, the message will have to be filed or deleted along with all the other messages received. How much better would it be to receive the information in the context of the ream and other results, possibly with links to news pages, images, or even video of the event?

With control over the user interface, information from subscribed services, such as news headlines or league tables, can be pushed to the background over the always-on connection, and then presented directly to you on the phone. These push services create a totally different user experience from the current approach of having to click through a hierarchy of menus in the hope that there might be something interesting at the end. With the information immediately available and integrated into the user interface, the phone can become a resource as well as a communication device.

Here again there are possibilities for personalization. The user interface to a particular band or team could have a mixture of live information with direct connection to the portal site for that band or team. With access so much more immediate and direct the whole user experience is improved.

Implementing a user interface application on the handset opens the way to a much better user experience, without the need for manufacturers to customize each phone for a number of different operators. But the range of user interfaces required will need a large number of skilled developers to create them. Therefore there should be a separation between the underlying architecture of the user interface, which is needed to work with the phone and manage the flow of the interface, and the presentation layer of that interface. The presentation can then use existing technologies such as XML to open up user experience development to the wide range of developers.

While users can be offered premium services through dialing numbers or coded text messages, presenting a menu is always going to provide a better user experience, and a better experience means greater take-up. Only by controlling the user interface can a network operator be sure that their customers are offered their services first, and with most ease of use, to be confident about rapid return on investment.

About Stephen Ives
Stephen Ives is founder and CEO of Trigenix (formerly 3G LAB), and brings
considerable experience of rapidly growing technology firms. Stephen is a
nonexecutive board member of two ventures where he remains a major
shareholder: Teamstudio Inc and Aspective Ltd. During a summer sabbatical in
2000, Stephen raised over $100,000 for UNICEF by cycling 7,000 miles from
San Francisco to Istanbul, crossing two deserts, four mountain ranges, and
ten countries.

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