The long-predicted convergence of technologies is finally happening. At a mind-boggling pace, traditionally separated industries, channels, media, global regions, and even social groups are converging by means of digital information technology . The mobile telecommunications industry is converging with the entertainment and media industry. Consumer electronics is converging with both the PC industry and telecommunications industry. Knowledge work and social structures are globalizing because high-speed connections expedite the "convergence" of physical spaces into virtual spaces.
In this highly volatile market, the growing consensus is that competitive advantage can only be achieved by truly focusing on user goals and needs and by truly understanding the online user experience and organizing business strategy and operation around this understanding.
Companies increasingly have to deliver holistic customer experiences where the brand is core and products and services are merely a part of an entire network of rapidly changing customer touch points and devices .
The key factors for successful experience design lie in the early phases of the development process. The approach in these early phases should be defined by context-rich and holistic research and design methods that "...rely on observation, generative research, and participatory design" .
An essential driver within this holistic approach is a good understanding of the overall context of use. Customer experiences are determined by interactions with the whole brand, not just with a particular product or service. A company can differentiate itself at every point at which it comes in contact with its customers, and in the upcoming digital society this network of touch points and devices will only expand.
Case: Leveraging the Context of Use in Mobile Internet. The mobile telecommunications industry is still betting high on what is believed to be the second wave into the mass consumer market: the mobile Internet. Whether this second wave will be as successful as the first, which led to the mass adoption of the mobile phone for voice communication, is currently the subject of heavy debate amongst large groups of people inside and outside the industry. One side of the debate points at the demise of WAP technology and the poor uptake of services based on its faster successor GPRS, while the other side points at the huge success of SMS and the promise of high-speed data transfer via UMTS.
After careful analysis from a user's perspective, the success and poor uptake of SMS and mobile Internet, respectively, can be explained by looking at the balance between the value to the user these services offer versus the "basic" usability. Apparently SMS offers people so much value in terms of social interaction and communication that the user is willing to invest time in a poor user interface. At this moment mobile Internet is obviously at the wrong side of the balance: poor value on top of poor usability. Success in the mobile industry is more a matter of addressing "killer values" than pushing "killer applications."
Because of the inherent usability constraints of mobile devices, the strategy for designing successful services for the mobile Internet seems to be clear and simple: 1. Develop services that offer a high enough value to the user to overcome the usability constraints; 2. At the same time, try to minimize usability problems within the device constraints.
At a recent seminar the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, made a plea for simpler mobile Internet pages that can be viewed properly on handsets in order to tap the mass market that exists for the mobile Internet .
The need for simpler mobile pages refers to the second point in the design strategy above. However, the mass market can be tapped even more by designing services that offer true value to the user. This value can be delivered by leveraging the mobile context of use in the innovation process, especially in the early conceptual-design phases.
A well-known saying in The Netherlands goes like this: "Every disadvantage has its advantage." At first sight the mobile environment offers only disadvantages: small screens, limited input possibilities, limited browsers, poor data-transfer performance, and distracting environments of use. However, mobile technology also has some potentially unique and distinct advantages in the fact that a lot of information about the context of use is available without requiring user input. Context information elements that could be detected are the user's identity, the user's location, the local time, and the device being used. By utilizing these elements in a creative way, new innovative services can be developed that can support users' accomplishing their goals in a more effective way :
Identity. Can be detected by using the user's unique phone number or the phone's IMEI number. This makes it possible to offer highly customized services, based on user preferences.
Location. Still not widely supported by operators yet, but given the essence of the mobile context of use, location-based services can potentially offer tremendous value to users. For example, locating the nearest taxi stand without having to browse a mobile site and punch in a postal code (which the user does not know anyway).
Time. Sparingly used in currently available services, for example in weather and traffic information services. Creatively linked to the other properties like identity and location, services can become much more relevant for the individual user and thus more valuable. Consider a service that alerts a customer, just before leaving work for home, about an upcoming traffic jam on his/her route and immediately suggests alternatives. The service can be delivered through both mobile phone and car navigation system.
Device. Eventually a service will need to "push" information to the user's device. As the range of different devices is growing rapidly, the service will need to detect what type of device is used in order to provide an optimized user experience.
Especially in the early conceptual phases of the design process, it can be very inspiring and useful to match a specific context of use to user goals and generate service ideas and concepts on the basis of this. Table 1 shows an example of this approach to discover potential service ideas for "mobile movie information" . For each of the possibilities of identity, location, and time, an example is given. A possible next step would be to flesh out the examples further using another design method like personas and scenarios.
As demonstrated, this approach enables designers to quickly generate a large set of possible service and design concepts. The context property "device" will have to be taken into account as soon as the high-level concepts are more detailed. For low-end phones, for example, the service might send an SMS to the user containing which movies are playing at the nearest cinema. For high-end phones the service might deliver the same information together with movie trailers to a resident Java application.
Also, after the initial idea generation, of course, the current systems and technical constraints and possibilities need to be taken into account. Many ideas might be unrealistic at the moment, but this should not interfere with the initial idea generation, especially because survival in the highly dynamic telecommunications industry depends on a continuous look at the future.
The Next Level: The User's Ecosystem of Connected Terminals. In the previous section the focus was mainly on the context of use of a single device. However, the trend of convergence is rapidly changing the digital-services industry. Different industry players are increasingly offering services through different channelsWeb, mobile Internet, Bluetooth, TV-cableand different devices: PC, mobile phone and consumer electronics. In this highly competitive market, a lot of overlap is occurring which is not beneficial to the clarity and usability of digital services as a whole. Consider mail/messaging services. People can use PC-based email, Web-based email and even email through mobile Internet portals. Furthermore, there is phone-based SMS, PC-based messaging/SMS and SMS offered through many third-party Web portals. And very soon, all of this will probably also be offered through different connected consumer-electronics devices like TVs, game consoles, and music players. To add to the poor overall usability, the services for smaller devices are usually only copied from the larger counterparts and minimally adapted for smaller screens.
In this emerging setting, the competitive edge will eventually also have to come from offering more value by taking the overall context of use into account. Even though the industry likes to talk about digital or virtual services, people with their evolutionary history of handling artifacts will probably view the digital services network as what I call an "ecosystem of connected terminals," where the interaction with each terminal is dependant on the context of use (see Figure 1).
Multichannel services in this ecosystem should try to take advantage of the specific context of use of each channel in such a way that the different channels reinforce each other. These services can offer a much higher value when they take into account that user tasks, and more important, user mindsets, differ according to the context of use.
As an example, Table 2 lists a few context-dependent characteristics and describes how a hypothetical multichannel Movie Information service takes these into account.
Conclusions. User-focus increasingly will be a key success factor for business in the emerging digitally networked society. Increasingly it will become a strategic tool for gaining competitive advantage based on differentiation.
Next to a true focus on user goals and needs, leveraging the overall context of use as part of the innovation process is crucial for increasing service value and decreasing usability problems. Understanding this context of use is especially relevant for the upcoming multichannel services industry that will deliver through mobile, desktop and consumer-electronics devices within an "ecosystem" of connected terminals.
Boyd de Groot
About the Author
Boyd de Groot is a senior design consultant at Satama Interactive, a digital services design agency in The Netherlands and Finland. He works as lead designer with a focus on User Experience Design and his main project responsibilities lie in translating a client's business and brand strategies into design concepts and planning. Boyd has a background in industrial design and design management and is an active member of ACM SIGCHI and DMI (Design Management Institute).
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