Monthly Archives: March 2008

Will 2008 be the year mobile internet comes of age?

There is a great deal of speculation currently that 2008 with be the year mobile finally comes of age. Much of this discussion is as a result of the increasing interest in mobile advertising and 3’s announcement that Skype will be available over their network. Given all the hype I thought it time I got off the fence and made my own prediction.
What are the factors that will drive adoption?” Certainly, advertising money tends to follow audiences and I agree that evolution of user behaviour will be a primary factor in the adoption of mobile for internet access. But user behaviour is driven by a number of drivers and we can end up in a bit of a chicken vs. egg dilemma. The economics of the way mobile internet is purchased drive behaviour in the same way they do in interactive TV, but also technology limitations through the vast plethora of mobile devices removes behavioural consistency. The way mobile applications are developed is also fundamentally different to the way websites are developed and this also has a big impact on adoption. Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

The economics of mobile operate in a fundamentally different way to internet. Mobile operators act as both the provider of the access pipe and also of the content in a way that Internet ISP’s do not. This walled garden effect means that although the operators gain a large share of the market, the total available is rather small. Further, as I mentioned above, like iDTV, there is enormous uncertainty about tariffs for data downloads. We have conducted a variety of iDTV and mobile research and the same situations come up time and again. Users simply don’t know what the cost of pressing the “Red” button is and they are equally uncertain about the cost of going online on their mobile. We can now get fixed price, or even free, Internet access and as the large players connect with each other (like Sky who now own iDTV, Internet and Mobile businesses) we should find mobile internet access increasingly being bundled in. Until this happens with mobile access take up will be limited.

Technology development has been considered a barrier to adoption. For some time conventional wisdom said that nobody will watch TV on a tiny mobile screen. Well as the picture below shows, in Asia this myth has already been proved wrong and frequently commuters can be seen waiting on the platform, watching TV on a 2” screen.

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So if screen size isn’t the problem what is? In many ways it is the problem that Microsoft fixed in desktop computing. By creating MS Windows and achieving massive adoption the majority of low tech had a singular view on how they should interface with their technology. If you own three different mobile phones you can experience three entirely different operating systems and the situation is worsened because the mobile operators are providing not only the operating system but also a good deal of the applications. Open standards and adoption of conventions would put fewer burdens on the user and open up a greater degree of functionality and content.

The launch of Apple’s iphone is a step change in the way mobile technology is interfaced with by a user. The development was run with the user in mind and real investment went in to developing a new paradigm for user interaction. The same cannot be said for the way mobile internet applications are developed. A good deal of these are developed with little or no user exposure in the development process and as a result exhibit very poor usability. The economics of development don’t allow for user involvement either. I met a company recently that produces a number of mobile sites. Their core business is not development but it has become an essential add-on to their business. Every site is developed in central Europe and the cost is less than £20k. Most web developments spend multiples more than this on user research alone.

So can user behaviour force the change? I recently became the proud owner of a Blackberry – the first time I have owned one. It has mobile internet on a screen that is suitable even for someone with a few grey hairs like me. I use a web based conference call booking system and was on the train recently when I had to move the conference call. I visited the website via my Blackberry, logged in to the site but could not change the time. The functionality that worked through my PC’s web browser would not work on mobile.

For sure it was getting a new device that changed my behaviour. It made me try something new to see if it would work. It helped that my company was paying the bill and it was work activity as I had no realisation of the cost. The interface rendered relatively well on my mobile device and actually the user experience – up to the point when I could go no further – was very similar to that on my PC. But the site wasn’t ready for me and clearly had not been designed with mobile in mind. Until all these aspects come together it is hard to see mobile internet adoption sky rocketing.

So I think 2008 will be a significant year but not the year for mobile. According to Bill Gates “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.” I think this will prove true of mobile internet use and in many ways already has. The UK’s 3G licence auction was in 2000 and values were driven up by anticipated change in the way technology would be used. Of course we all know that the networks made huge write downs on their balance sheets as the actual value of the network assets they had acquired became understood. Using Gates prediction 2010 will be the year mobile really takes off but I am prepared to give or take a year across a decade and look to 2009 for major adoption to occur.

Out of our [Digital] minds

I had the privilege of attending a talk by Sir Ken Robinson in January where he discussed the ideas iterated in his book “Out of our minds” about how creativity is stifled by the environment we grow up in. These ideas got me thinking about the ‘born digital generation’ and whether we could find the creativity intrinsic to digital sector today educated out of us as we develop rules and ideas about right and wrong.

To illustrate his point Sir Ken described a set of statistics about how creativity was educated out of children. 98% of children aged 2 and 3 could be considered genius level in creativity terms but by the time these children are teenagers that percentage has dropped to low teens. He explained that we are taught to think in a certain way and another great example he used concerned our senses. He asked the audience how many senses we had and got the traditional answer of 5 plus one special sense (sight, smell, touch, taste, sound and intuition). He went on to explain that this definition or our senses has only been around for a couple of hundred years and over time everyone has come to believe it as true. What about your sense of temperature or space he asked. What indeed.

Right now the digital evolution is in full swing. But we are no longer pioneers without boundaries, trying to find out what works and what doesn’t. We have already created rules and lessons that we will pass on to others and that have become the conventional wisdom of digital. In usability the 3 click rule is regularly spouted at me and perhaps with good reason as in many contexts more than 3 clicks creates a poor experience. But it is not right for everyone and every context and so in some cases the experience is diminished. So how do we stop ourselves from learning the rules and wisdom that will suppress our creativity and more importantly do we want to?

There is a certain comfort in arriving at a website and finding a nice neat inverted ‘L’ navigation system so why change? Take a look at a couple of websites revealed by Josh Spear (www.joshspear.com) creative genius and all round good guy. In many ways neither is what I would prefer to use but it is impossible not to admire the creativity and engagement factor. The first is Section Seven’s web site http://www.sectionseven.com/. It takes a while to load so be patient but once in the navigation pulls you in. The second is by a Japanese building design firm http://www.sekisuiheim.com/desio-ae/ and gives you the ability to pick up a character and drop them in to the design. Both provide a unique experience and take risks; and both were designed some time ago.

I am firmly in the ‘we must challenge conventional wisdom’ camp. If you believe, as I do, that what offers competitive advantage is becoming harder and harder to define you may too have come to the conclusion that differentiation will ultimately come down to emotional and experiential components. We have to be different therefore and we also have to take time and put effort in to creating an experience commensurate with our brand which is also meaningful at an emotional level to our customers.

Having to be creative and being able to are poles apart. Taking design risks with multi-million pound budgets has never been a recipe for guaranteed promotion and it is the perceived risk that creates the boundary. A good proportion of budget holders want safe investments; websites, iDTV and mobile applications that perform, not that go against conventional wisdom. Relying on proven techniques therefore is comforting and creativity is contained within the graphic design. However it is possible to be creative with the experience design by using research to minimise the risk.

Already new technological developments that enable multivariate testing have provided a means by which literally thousands (even millions) of options can be researched to find the optimum combination. The approach is somewhat restricted to design elements rather than full scale navigation models but the metaphor can be stretched. It has provided an economical model for being creative with content elements without the associated project risk that makes people nervous.

As research methods continue to develop in sophistication they will increasingly provide answers that reduce the risk associated with trying out new ideas. Maybe this is one way that we can avoid the learning and conventional wisdom that restricts creativity and actually create experiences that are truly differentiating. Maybe we will even come to think of the digital experience as a new sense.

Winners and Losers in a troubled economy

I recently wrote the following piece for my friend Richard Sedley’s book “Winners and Losers in a Troubled Economy”. You read more about the project at Richard’s blog.

Winners cover

Survival: your customers have got to want you too

There are many strategies that get discussed when recession looms with maximising revenue and minimising cost high on anyone’s list. My preferred strategy is to use the opportunity to get as close to your customers as it is possible to; and to love them in unmistakable ways. I have many reasons for favouring this approach and not least because it is hard for anyone (that may hold a budget in or outside my organisation) to argue against investing time and money in “shoring up” client relationships. But chief among them is that I believe customers have got to want you to survive the recession and they are more likely to do so if they like, or even better, love your brand and all that it represents.

The arrival of the internet itself has been akin to a recession for many organisations with market changing dynamics being caused by dot com start ups. In my opinion many more of them are better equipped to survive and grow this time round than they were back in the 90’s. The digital media properties they have created have the ability to connect them with their customers in more meaningful ways than ever before if they can learn how to.

Let us assume that getting the key processes in your digital property to work (i.e. be usable) is a table stake. This isn’t the case everywhere but it should be, given that the supply chain inefficiencies that hid usability issues in the past have almost been eradicated. This won’t make anyone love you but it will stop them disliking you. If you have not yet fixed the basic usability of your property spend whatever budget you have to do so or your survival cannot be guaranteed.

What you are left with are the small differences. The ones that shout out “we thought about you and we made it work like this, feel like that, make your life better in this way”. These come from more creative experience design, facilitated by greater knowledge of the customer through increased research.

Recession often sees research budgets cut but I don’t think this will happen to digital research budgets. Unlike the offline world the research carried out online has a direct and measurable impact on bottom line and can get you closer to your clients and allow you to create an experience they will love you for. The next step is to make sure that the experience you deliver is consistent across all your touch points online and off. But that I fear is for another recession.

Practical tip

Don’t try to be all things to all men/women. I meet countless organisations that literally have no idea who their target audience is. They are trying to create a digital experience that appeals to everyone and in the process are delighting absolutely no one. If there is one piece of advice that I can offer it is to identify who your target clients are, to research with them, and to create great experiences that they value in meaningful ways.