Usability: it ain't easy

26 Apr 2006

With more advanced services rolling out across the planet, ease-of-use is becoming crucial to their success, but today's user interfaces aren't quite cutting it. Solving that will be a complex task, but the place to start is the users - not just by asking them what they want in future, but what they're doing with their handsets now

As the mobile industry moves toward more advanced non-voice services, from MMS and instant messaging to mobile TV and video calls, the underlying mantra for manufacturers, operators and apps developers alike has been a strikingly contradictory one: offer simple, easy-to-use services using mind-bogglingly complex technology. That means shielding the user from all that state-of-the-art wizardry behind the scenes, and making any new service appear as though it's so simple even your Luddite great-uncle could figure it out - ideally without once having to consult a manual.

It sounds obvious, of course - after all, new services aren't much use if no one knows how to use them. Recent metrics, however, suggest that many advanced mobile services are falling short of that goal. A November 2005 study of 6,800 consumers in Europe and Asia from mobile device management company SmartTrust declared that users trying to keep up with the latest features and services were suffering from 'mobile service fatigue.' Report author and SmartTrust comms manager Tim De Luca-Smith said that poor handset configuration and network settings were contributing heavily to slow take-up of services like MMS. While ease-of-use wasn't the sole factor found - concerns over reliability and pricing were also inhibiting use - 72% of consumers who reported problems when using MMS said they'd use the service if the usability issues were resolved. Consequently, De Luca-Smith said, there is 'a real need to make such services more intuitive.'

This is becoming especially true in emerging markets, which are already recognized as the next significant growth segment for mobile, but not at the expense of added functionality.

'Why should this only be for high-end markets‾' says John Hoffman, CEO of integrated messaging start-up fastmobile. 'Emerging markets could arguably benefit more from simplifying services than more developed markets. Many new customers are using a mobile phone for the first time, so you want to make it as simple to use as possible to help them understand and drive services.'

Either way, usability translates into real money, according to a report released last month by VisionGain, which says that a 'robust and customizable' user interface (UI) that is coherent, logical and doesn't require manuals or training for the user to figure out is one of the key elements that will drive worldwide data ARPU from $5 last year to $22 by 2011.

'The wireless industry must offer compelling UI propositions to subscribers so that the latent demand of data services can be converted into full demand,' says VisionGain telecoms analyst and lead report author Prachi Nema. 'Our research suggests that the user experience with data services can be enhanced through an intuitive UI.'

However, he adds, fragmentation of technologies, platforms and devices makes delivering a consistent and intuitive UI to subscribers 'a challenging task for network operators.'

Indeed, it's a challenge for everyone - which in a way is part of the problem. Everyone - handset makers, apps developers and operators - has their own ideas on how to make services easier to use, and it won't be one technological solution that saves the day but dozens, possibly hundreds.

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