Listening to Users, Part III: Industry Mistakes
By Steve Wallage, Tue May 04 09:15:00 GMT 2004

In the third of four interviews about how the mobile industry should meet users' needs, Richard Harper of the Appliance Studio talks about how operators underestimate the sociological aspects of mobile technology.

Richard Harper is a busy man. He holds a full-time job as Director of User Understanding at the Appliance Studio, which designs and enhances products and services in the digital world. He is also a professor of socio-digital systems at the Digital World Research Center at the University of Surrey, where he was previously director. He is also a prodigious author, having written over 100 articles and papers.

He was previously at Xerox's European Research Centre (EuroPARC) in Cambridge, England, looking at the ways in which digital technologies change organizational life. He has lectured at the universities of Cambridge and Nottingham. And, to cap it all, he also holds two patents.

Harper thinks the mobile industry has been built on three ideas; it has to migrate users from fixed telephony, you can work anywhere with a mobile, and the key to future riches is infotainment. The only problem is that he thinks all three are untrue!

TheFeature: Surely fixed-line voice is the big target market for mobile operators?

Harper: The mobile industry cannot succeed by taking voice minutes away from the fixed operators – it must be a richer medium. Text is a retrograde step, and only works as a cheap form of messaging. Richness means different ways of communicating.

Take the example of text messaging: usage has evolved so people text to say when and why they are ringing. Why not evolve it further so that the caller can override permissions and control the opening of the conversation through, for example, superseding other calls or controlling the icons and ringtone. A great example is the 'Howler' in the Harry Potter books where the called party would be in no doubt they should answer the phone quickly!

TheFeature: Sounds great but surely there are at least two major obstacles -- the operators and the called party giving up control of the call?

Harper: The operators need to let in innovation as the Web has done. If it causes viruses, then that is one of the inevitable consequences of such openness. On the social niceties, all the academic research suggests users can quickly adapt, and users who abused the system would be quickly frozen out.

TheFeature: In what other ways do you see fixed and mobile as different?

Harper: Another illustration of the differences between fixed and mobile is that while voice calls are one-offs or a replication of face-to-face meetings, mobile communications can be more akin to a gift. They are treasured by users, and texts and images are looked at again and again. This reinforces the idea of the mobile as an intimate device. Take MMS – research suggests users are sending images, not to say where they are, but to record a diary of their activities or create something as a visual gift.

TheFeature: Hasn't the mobile empowered a teleworking generation?

Harper: All the research suggests that the two are not linked – if people work outside an office, its nothing to do with technology. In fact, some UK research suggests there were more people working at home in 1949 than there are today. People need to work in groups, not alone, though there are of course exceptions to this.

My research on the 'ecology of the office' found many of the benefits of the office environment came from such things as overheard conversations and chance meetings, so never feel embarrassed if that’s how you spent 30 minutes this morning! I also found that that all the things stored in the office could not be easily replicated by technology.

Interestingly, Wi-Fi may make far more difference to the working environment than cellular. This can enable people to work in different ways within the office, say, sit with different people when working on different jobs.

TheFeature: A lot of operators have positioned their value-added strategies around the idea of infotainment – why are you so negative on this?

Harper: Look at Japan, where mobile users take still images from their favorite soaps – then use them as a screensaver or to show others. Mobile content is not a substitute for other forms of entertainment, more an augmentation or add-on. It needs to take advantage of the fact that the mobile is such an intimate and personal device. Put another way, people text friends and e-mail colleagues. The mobile can become a type of intimate computer where images or short videos are stored and created.

TheFeature: In conclusion, what are the main lessons for the industry?

Harper: Operators should start thinking about mobile communications from the sociological perspective, forget the technology legacy, and look to see how conversations can be broadened. The intimacy of the mobile and the idea of the 'gift' give a lot of ideas around future applications and content. It also shows that users may be prepared to pay premium prices for things that are really important to them.