Getting To Know You
By Carlo Longino, Tue Apr 01 13:30:00 GMT 2003

Application developers and carriers should think about more than just technology when planning new services.

It seems that with every new crack at delivering that elusive "killer application" comes a promise from application developers or mobile carriers that the latest candidate will change users' lives. But as mobile technology becomes more ingrained and mobile culture develops, are they putting the cart before the horse?

The reality isn't that consumers necessarily change their lives to fit technology; it's more so that they adapt technology to fit their lives. So what can developers and carriers do to fit this outlook into their development strategies?

A New Tether

Many early mobile users were seduced by the idea of a constant connection to the world - that no matter where they were or what they were doing, their mobile phone kept them tethered to whatever may be going on in their work or personal lives. This attitude still manifests itself today in the most common cell phone call of all - "Where are you? What are you doing?" To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never before has so much been said about so little.

But before long, SMS became the favored mode of communication for this type of conversation. After all, it's cheaper, and in many ways more convenient and less intrusive than a phone call. Mobile users, especially young ones, embraced SMS not because it's a life-changing technology, but because they could mold it to fit their needs by crafting a language that let them communicate cheaply, simply, and directly.

But with MMS, carriers are hoping to change some behavior. They're betting that instead of just telling someone what you're doing, you'll want to show them with a picture or let them listen with a sound clip. And of course, they'll charge you a premium for it. But at the end of the day, how do you send somebody a picture that says "What are you doing?" and why would you when it costs much more? So unless people can adapt MMS to fit their needs and wants (as they did with SMS), it may be a non-starter for person-to-person communication.

That's not to say it's doomed to failure, but it must have some flexibility to be used in ways that its creators may not have envisioned - after all, remember SMS was originally intended just for service messages like voice mail notification.

Giving It Emotion

So what can be done to approach development from the other end, seeking not to change behavior, but to fill in the spaces around users' desires? The UMTS Forum, an industry group, commissioned a research study on the emotional value of mobile phones and services in an effort to help its member plan their 3G offerings.

Their researchers revealed several insights into how people view and use their mobiles, but their most interesting points revolve around the emotional attachment people have to their phones and the information they contain and deliver. They suggest that person-to-person communication over a mobile phone is valued much more than person-to-machine communication (like WAP surfing) - casting a bit of a pall over all these 3G data services carriers had in mind.

But this merely serves as a reminder that they must shape services and consumer expectations with these values in mind. "It is clear from our results that providers must balance their enthusiasm for 3G services with a new understanding of how the market might react to them," says Jane Vincent, a research fellow at the Digital World Research Center, which conducted the study. "A good way to do this is to persuade people to experience the new services by understanding and leveraging their needs and desires. Ignore the overwhelming desire for social connectivity in favor of an anonymous world of data and megabit and new products and services are unlikely to survive beyond launch."

One US-based company, Context-Based Research, takes a novel approach to studying the mobile market, by using anthropologists and enthnographers to observe how a "wireless lifestyle" is emerging around the world, as opposed to having analysts predict what people will be using in 5 years.

Their recent study, "The Mobiles: Social Evolution in a Wireless Society," is a follow-up to a wireless study they did two years ago, and documents how wireless technology in making inroads to mainstream society around the world.

"Two years ago we saw that people were romancing wireless technology, making a fetish of it," says Dr. Robbie Blinkoff, the firm's principal anthropologist. "After this study, it's clear that people are readily adapting the technology to their lives. A class we call 'the mobiles' already exists. And the behaviors we observed illustrate a complete societal shift to a mobile way of life. It varies by geography, generation, gender and type of work, but a 'mobilevolution' is afoot."

Their research documents how people first saw their mobile phones as a gadget or a toy, but have since become more attached to the functions and information they provide. It also identifies that this evolving mobile lifestyle complements modern society as it becomes an increasingly nomadic experience. They say that wireless technology adoption has followed a path that begins with a heightened awareness of the technology and is carried through as it is integrated into routine behavior.

Make Me Understand

What this research suggests is that people aren't looking for mobile data services to change their lives; they're interested in services that enhance them. They want - and will pay for - services and applications that fit in with their behavior and values, not ones that force a change of habits.

The upshot of this for developers and carriers is that planning their services needs to be a sociological exercise as well as a technical and financial one. It means they need to have a well-developed understanding of how and why people use their devices, and how these transactions serve to affect a positive emotional response.

So perhaps getting to know your customers is valuable after all.

Carlo Longino is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous experience includes work for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, and Hoover's Online.