Listening to Users, Part II: Interaction
By Steve Wallage, Mon Apr 19 09:45:00 GMT 2004

In the second of four interviews about how the mobile industry should meet users’ needs, Jane Vincent of the University of Surrey talks about the emotional connection users have to their mobile phones.

Jane Vincent is a research fellow at the Digital World Research Centre at the University of Surrey. She has an interesting background of commercial and academic work, with over 20 years’ experience in the UK mobile industry working with BT and mmO2 specializing in business transformation, product marketing and strategy development. Jane’s academic interests now are in the user behaviors associated with mobile communications, in particular, emotion and mobile phones, on which she has published several papers.

TheFeature: Can you explain your research on user explorers?

Vincent: I have found that mobile users like to try out and explore new services. This sounds like great news for 3G, but there is one major caveat: there is a reluctance to discard old ways of doing things. At all times, users will be only willing to move to new devices that provide practical improvements to their current set up. Not everyone is going to be wowed by technical innovation, more likely by real improvements in their day-to-day mobile experience. Whereas in Europe and Asia this loyalty and emotional attachment is usually to their current mobile, in the US it is more likely to be a laptop.

TheFeature: And emotional attachment?

Vincent: This can be illustrated by the warm feeling of always having the mobile on and therefore being connected to friends and family. Being alone today means not connected, rather than physically alone. Physical barriers are less important than communication barriers.

The push-to-talk technology fits well into this scenario, as another form of communication. It reinforces that friends and family, and business colleagues, are there and connected if you need them. The emotional attachment of the mobile device and all that it engenders makes it far more attractive than instant messaging on the PC. Users often feel compelled to use the mobile at all times, especially to connect with friends and family. A good example is the number of people who, when their car breaks down, will make a personal call before ringing the breakdown company.

TheFeature: What are the implications for vendors?

Vincent: There are clear advantages for marketing handsets based on this emotional attachment, although there are limits to this approach as consumers do not want to be reminded of how dependent they may be on their mobile devices. Research has shown, for example, that traveling parents use the mobile to tell stories to their kids, reinforcing the handset as a key emotional bond.

TheFeature: And the downside?

Vincent: From the mobile industry perspective, the emotional attachment can come at a price -- users are very particular as to how their mobile device is used by others. A great example is users who regularly text prior to making a call to make sure the other person was available.

This issue is particularly important in areas such as video calling. Users want to be in control and to decide whether they can be seen or not. They may want to be presented in a different light, hence the demand for avatars. The important thing for the mobile operators is to ensure maximum flexibility for users as different segments will have very different views on permissions. The user interface also needs to make this as simple as possible.

TheFeature: Is this bad news for mobile marketing?

Vincent: On a more positive note for marketers, users are often very savvy when it comes to tariffs and overall costs. There would be more acceptance for mobile marketing if it was considered a fair price to pay for a cheaper service. Equally, other users could be prepared to pay a premium price to ensure they did not get any mobile spam. But mobile spam is considered far more intrusive and unwelcome than e-mail or junk mail.

TheFeature: What other opportunities and challenges do you see for the mobile industry?

Vincent: Mobile devices do not enable more social relations, but more intensive relations with existing social contacts. The good news is that there is a lot of opportunity to extend person-to-person offerings and develop richer personal communication. Another opportunity is to develop packages and offerings that recognize the fact that users can be thought of as groups rather than individuals. Already, individuals spend time and energy getting round this – for example, by choosing different tariff packages to minimize the cost for the group.

The bad news is that there is resistance to impersonal forms of mobile communication. An interesting potential challenge is how willing business users are to accept that their treasured mobile device will become more of a productivity tool -- a potential roadblock for the mobile enterprise.