Wireless Wonders

No news, just comment about mobile phones and services, from a veteran practitioner...3G, GPRS, WAP, Bluetooth, WiFi, etc...

Friday, November 24, 2006

Things to do with kids, Play Dough and Blackberry...

Turn it into a Strawberry (we couldn't resist).
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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Mobile fiddling...(idea #107)

I think it was Jakob Nielsen who first identified (in one of the earliest WAP usability field trials) that a great "use" for mobile phones (actually for WAP) was killing time. It is hard not to notice that anywhere you go where there are people sitting waiting, they are usually fiddling with their mobile phone. Of course, some of this "fiddling" is actually doing stuff, like sending messages, cleaning up the folders, and so on. Other times it's adjusting anything that can be adjusted - ring tones, wallpapers, themes etc.

I've done it many times myself - take out my phone, even though I have no new messages or calls or any other change brought to my attention, and just start fiddling with it. Some people just like touching their phone, spinning it round and so on - that's supposedly why Motorola made the PEBL - something with a satisfying touch, just like a real pebble.

However, on close inspection (i.e peeking) at what some people do with their phones, the fiddling is a kind of mindless playing around - poking, changing, reverting back, going up and down menus, swapping settings back and forth, and so on - plain fiddling about. We like to tell kids not to fiddle with things - the remote control, the car controls, the radio, the computer. We often then go and do it ourselves (which doesn't mean the kids can too!) It seems we are born to fiddle. No doubt, psychologists, mobile ergonomists (human factors?) and other ologists know what this is all about and I'm slow to catch up, but I think they may have missed something.

I wonder, have we fully embraced this fiddling-thingy within mobile design, or are we treating it as an exception? In other words, do we think that only idle hands (and fingers) want to fiddle, so give them a game like Snake, or a news feed to the home page, and endless other variants of "time killer" apps (including Nielsen's "nothing better to do" WAP browsing, which it still as tedious as it ever was). Or, should we literally make it easier and give more options for simply fiddling around with the phone (the UI is the app)? I think that a UI designed for fiddling would be a different one that a UI designed for task-driven interaction. We could have two UIs. A playing around one (in pink - the new black) and a doing-stuff one (in the usual doing-stuff palette). Of course, that probably breaks all the UI and usability "rules", which is why it's probably an idea worth exploring.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

The dialler application

In my book and some workshops, I give an anatomy of a mobile phone. A bit of modem here, an operating system there, a sprinkle of APIs, MIDP sauce and so on. I include a "dialler application", which is not often found on the average handset block diagram. It's the thingy that takes numbers from the user and passes them to the "call processor" software wotsit, which in turn invokes a protocol stack to go send a "set-up call" message to the switch in the mobile network. Incrediblty boring, mundane and obvious. So obvious, that it doesn't often get a mention in the block diagram/handset overview in many (most) treatments of the subject. Is this perhaps why it is so lacking in innovation? After all, it's a dialler - it takes numbers and green-button pushes and does its stuff. Why tinker with this?

Telco marketers have come up with grand gestures of customer satisfaction like the theme of "connecting people" (it has its variants). However, about the only parameter they fiddle around with is the billing arrangement - call home all weekend for free and so on. When I dial a number, why can't I get useful info about the number I'm dialling? For example, the rating of this plumber on plumber-pages-dot-com [don't look - I made that up], or the time zone of the person I'm calling (good for all those Indian/US/Euro projects)?

It's framing again (or paradigms). My daughter asked me today "what's 'old school' mean?" - to which I should have replied green push buttons on phones. Functional thinking is good for programmers, but no good for business people (or "engineers" - who don't make engines anymore, although that word still gets used everywhere, e.g. "speech engine"). What business are operators in? Of course, it's the switching business right? A number here connected to a number there, start the stop watch, stop it and add the number to a bill (I have a great slide that sums up a mobile network like this). OK, by the same functional logic, Google is in the same business. A browser here connected ("switched") to a website there courtesy of the "URL look-up table" (i.e. switch). That's why they charge us for minutes of usage right? No.

I'm reminded of a Parker pens story. It was told to me by my tutor at University. Anyway, I hope the story is true as I've re-told it so many times it feels like a legend. Parker, who make pens and ink, were faltering as a business. This was pre-McKinsey days, but nonetheless they hired a "management consultant" to tell them what to do. (I am not skeptical - I would love to make loads of money doing this.) After a presumably lengthy consultation period with high numbers of noughts on the bill, he merely asked the management board - "what business are you in?" Frustrated by the obviousness of the answer, they replied "pens". He said "no, you're not". They said, "OK, ink?" - "Nope." On it went through a list of functional answers until they gave up in frustration. "The answer" he said, "is that you're in the gift business".

That's an old story and it has now been replaced. In the post-writing age (emails, keyboards, pdas etc.) luxury pens as gifts isn't such a great idea. According to the latest market study for Parker (which I found on Google, so it must be true) they are now in the "accessory" business - things we might want to own ourselves, just like expensive wines have become desirable. What business are operators in now?

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