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VIII.6 Nov./Dec. 2001
Page: 11
Digital Citation

Research alerts

Marisa Campbell

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Designers and strategists in the telecoms business have idealized a mobile worker who is always "connected" and available for communication at any time. This aspiration has both driven and been driven by the design of communications software, hardware, systems architectures and network protocols. What is missing is a true understanding of the nature of mobile work; indeed, recent problems associated with the use of WAP may be explained by the designers' lack of understanding of the needs of mobile users. We do not criticize the utility of these devices, for they clearly offer the mobile worker increased informational access and flexibility. Rather, on the basis of understanding what mobile workers do, we question the commonly held assumption about the need for access "anytime, anywhere." Key to this is the identification of four key factors in mobile work: the role of pre-planning, working in "dead time," accessing remote resources, and monitoring the activities of remote colleagues. Mobile technologies are intended to give back control to the mobile worker over when and where they can work. However, mobility, in itself, may not be what motivates much of what mobile workers do. Rather, their activities and problems may be better explained in terms of the limited resources they have to accomplish their work, as well as the ways in which these resources change depending on the context of their work.

Figure. Flexibility of resource access

Figure. The defeated road warrior

Mobile work is not just about the primary purpose of the trip but also the activities that occur in "dead time." Mobile workers are away from their desks, but that does not mean that their everyday work disappears—they are often fighting a growing pile of accumulating paperwork and need to deal with it before it becomes unmanageable. Thus they may collect paperwork that they think they may need, and attempt to keep in contact with their office to ensure that what they are working on is still relevant. Where they do not have the necessary resources present, they may contact remote co-workers to access remote information and devices. Talk is central to this, and the telephone is the key technology used—it has no software to load, does not need to penetrate firewalls, has single-handed operation, requires minimal cognitive resources and can be integrated with social chit-chat. Clearly, information "access" is not simply about having the capability to pull an appropriate document across a network. From the perspective of the mobile worker, access needs to be extended to include how information is used and whether it can be easily read or interacted with. Current data enabled devices appear to provide poor facilities for this.

Simple data-enabled mobile devices and miniaturized desktop technologies will not by themselves create more effective mobile workers. Unlike the futuristic expectations of a "road warrior" carrying a range of technologies around with them, we see a leaner individual, more adaptable to the changing circumstances that they encounter, and using their skills at manipulating the environment and collaborating with others to carry out their work. This is a very different vision of mobile technology to that advertised of "always on" connectivity.

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Mark Perry
Dept. of Information Systems & Computing, Brunel University, UK

Kenton O'Hara
The Appliance Studio, Bristol, UK

Abigail Sellen
Hewlett-Packard Laboratories, Bristol, UK

Barry Brown
Department of Computer Science, Glasgow University, Scotland

Richard Harper
Digital Worlds Research Centre, Surrey University, UK

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UF1Figure. Flexibility of resource access

UF2Figure. The defeated road warrior

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©2001 ACM  1072-5220/01/1100  $5.00

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