Getting mobile right isn’t going to be easy

Many of you probably saw the same email I received yesterday about a whitepaper produced by Tealeaf and semphonic, discussing the virtues of both engaging with and measuring the behavior of mobile web users.

I find myself reflecting on this piece with mixed emotions.  Lines like, “the recent entrance of Apple … into the mobile arena,” sting a little bit, since the entrance of Apple into the mobile arena was the entrance of the viable mobile arena itself (in the US), and it really wasn’t “recent”, in industry years (the Internet ages like a dog).  On the other hand, this piece is a good reminder of the importance of publishing to mobile users, identifying their unique situation vs. traditional web users, and of course, measuring their behavior to inform the optimization of the mobile site’s performance.

In making its case for the mobile web’s importance to businesses, the whitepaper references an October 2008 study by IBM, a piece I didn’t find particularly compelling.  For example, the study cites that 50% of people would either substantially or completely replace their desktop PC with a mobile device.  It goes on to say that by 2011, 39% of respondents expected to increase their mobile device use by 40%.  To me, these figures seem a little arbitrary – how would your mom respond to the question, “Do you intend to increase your usage of mobile Internet by 2011? If so, by what percentage?”

Mine would probably say, “2011? Sure!  I’ll be using it all the time while my new space car is on autopilot!”

It’s important to remember that there are huge differences between the standard and mobile versions of the web, particularly as it pertains to how and when people use each.  I don’t think we’re going to hear, “Honey, get the kids and gather around my Treo.  I want to show everyone the Wilsons’ pictures from their trip to Hawaii.”

It seems to me that Apple got it dead right in their assessment of the mobile market.  In their own documentation to developers, Apple explains that users aren’t using a mobile device like they would use a desktop PC:

Almost by definition, users use iPhone while they are mobile. Whether they’re in a car or a train, sitting in a cafe or on a park bench, taking a walk, shopping, or waiting for an appointment, users use iPhone in environments that are likely to be filled with distractions. This does not mean that your iPhone solution can’t or shouldn’t perform important tasks that require users to concentrate. But it does mean that you must be prepared for the probability that users will not be giving their undivided attention to your content, at least not for long.

Above all, therefore, your iPhone content must be quick and extremely easy to use. You need to grab the user’s attention immediately and help them access the most valuable parts of your content quickly.

But a comScore study quoted in the whitepaper argues the opposite:

Consumption is quickly evolving from brief transactions, such as checking the weather or flight status, to time intensive interaction with mobile Web sites – even without an iPhone.

This conclusion is based on the fact that mobile usage has increased 127% YoY – page views from the 3,500 Windows Mobile, Symbian, and PalmOS devices comScore has in their panel, notably devoid of iPhones.  This growth is also a little misleading: the interaction is not getting more sophisticated: it’s getting simpler.  Users are spending more time on sites like Craigslist, where one search can render multiple results that a user can quickly duck into and out of.  Users are not entering into more complex browsing habits like multi-page drilldowns and shopping carts.  The interactions are still light and quick; there are just more of them.

This isn’t surprising, and is probably a result of the proliferation of instant-on data (as opposed to the days of GPRS having to connect), the improvement of device interfaces, and the fact that the average male spends 40 minutes a day in the bathroom*, likely busying themselves with their eBay auctions and Super Monkey Ball (* UK Daily Mirror).

It’s probably true that saying we need to develop product for the present, not the future, is a little shortsighted.  But if you’re trying to anticipate and develop for a demand that will exist 12 or 18 months into the future, I can virtually guarantee you that you’re going to miss the entire dartboard.

Toward the end, the whitepaper moves on to discuss the virtues of a customer experience management platform, notably Tealeaf’s.  Unfortunately, the piece does so by undermining the virtues of a traditional web analytics system, which arguably is more important in the infant phases of a mobile web site.  Not to say that a CEM isn’t important, but it’s not going to help answer any questions like, “Is our mobile site successful?” and justifying the value of a CEM at the expense of a more traditional analytics solution is unfortunate.  Truly, a CEM builds on a foundation of understanding brought about through other tools.  With a CEM alone, businesses may not have enough context to get the best information the tool has to offer.

Have a look at the whitepaper and let me know what you think, too.

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  1. Adam Green

    Globally, there are 2x more mobile phones than PCs. And it is easy to see as you look around that Mobile is a way of life, a behavior, a mindset.

    Users think differently about Mobile than they do everything else.

    Almost everything we engage in has some sort of mobile component: voting for American Idol or Teen Choice Awards, communicating with a colleague across the table in another one of the “boss’ staff meetings”, checking the status of your flight (or checking in for that matter), listening to music, using Google Maps to get directions, checking the weather, taking pictures, playing video games, watching clips on YouTube…ok, you get what I am saying.

    Mobile phones are the most highly penetrated technology both domestically and abroad. The activities we engage in from our devices will continue to expand and evolve – so the idea that the usability/experience needs to be simple is spot on. It’s the behaviors that will become more complex.

    Posted January 15, 2009 at 1:44 pm | Permalink