Changing Our Perspective on Mobile Design
There’s no doubt that the mobile experience has the potential to be far more than just the desktop Web reformatted for a tiny screen and accessible on the go. But looking at many of the products that major wireless carriers in the United States are touting, you wouldn’t think so.
Much of the mobile industry is focusing on porting already existing digital content and services to the mobile environment, with a heavy emphasis on entertainment—for example, accessing Fantasy Football stats or viewing abbreviated video clips of network television’s latest and greatest shows. While it might be fun and convenient to check your favorite player’s stats while waiting in line or during a particularly boring business meeting, the experience is, at best, a pleasant distraction. There’s nothing wrong with these products—people will always enjoy entertaining content—but they do not take advantage of the power of the mobile Web as a medium.
The true power of the mobile Web lies not merely in providing remote access to data, but in letting users view contextual information relating to location and interact with that information. The mobile Web is poised to become the delivery mechanism for a new generation of location-aware applications.
Envisioning a User-Centered Virtual Geography
In a May 2005 article, “The Geospatial Web: A Call to Action,” Mike Liebhold, author and researcher at Institute for the Future, explains:
“...we can see the beginning shapes of a true geospatial Web, inhabited by spatially tagged hypermedia as well as digital map geodata. Google Maps is just one more layer among all the invisible cartographic attributes and user annotations on every centimeter of a place and attached to every physical thing, visible and useful, in context, on low-cost, easy-to-use mobile devices.”
When it comes to mobile user experience, location data is becoming the unique connector between the digital world and the physical one. Unchained from the desktop user experience, users can freely interact with their own and others’ virtual data in real spaces.
Where Are You Now?
For users, the most important location is where they are now—making the dimension of location perhaps the most important design element to consider when creating new mobile user experiences. Location-based services have been percolating for years, but as Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, and other geospatial technologies become cheaper and more readily available, such services are working their way toward mainstream adoption. Location data has two intrinsic dimensions: absolute location and relative location.
Identifying a user’s or an object’s absolute location—the physical presence of a person or object—is a key capability of location-based mobile services. It follows, then, that the most popular and advanced consumer-oriented, location-based services are mapping systems. Personal navigation systems for drivers—for example, TomTom—provide interactive maps and turn-by-turn audio directions for users to follow. Verizon Wireless offers a similar service, the VZ Navigator, which is available to drivers via their mobile phones. Similarly, many tracking services use absolute location data to monitor packages in transit or find stolen or missing possessions—like cars, laptops, and even pets.
However, products can use this type of location data for more than just navigation and tracking. Mobile product innovator Apple showed in its Calamari iPhone ad how a person hungry for calamari can easily find a nearby seafood restaurant, demonstrating that contextual data delivery based on absolute location provides a compellingly simple and desirable user experience. For the iPhone user, the difference between this experience and, say, looking up the restaurant via a wired connection in a hotel room is immediacy, spontaneity, and specificity—all of which increase the value of the interaction.