Mobile Usability for Teens Who Are Going Mobile

December 3, 2007

Want to know the future of mobile device use? Talk to your tweener or teenager.

Mobile device use is reaching down into younger demographics. A July 2006 study by iGR showed that, among 15–17-year-old teens, most had been using a cell phone for two years or more. In the 12–14-year-old bracket, 50–70% of these young people already own and use mobile phones, and the mobile phone market is beginning to reach down to kids who are ten or younger.

Young people experience increasing connectedness and identification with mobile devices. For tweens and teens, mobile phones are more a lifestyle statement than simply a communications tool. Their phones are highly customized with media, ringtones, and photos. Most kids wouldn’t dream of leaving their homes without them. Two-thirds of the tweeners the study polled said they keep their phones on while they sleep—to ensure they don’t miss out on anything. According to a study by Wired magazine, youths who are immersed in the mobile world see communication via a phone as equivalent to face-to-face contact—going one step further in the realm of electronic versus human connections.

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Kids are using their phones in more different ways than adults do. Mark Donovan, a senior analyst with the Seattle-based research firm M:Metrics says, “For just about every category of mobile media activity, if you look at the 13–17-year-old bracket, they’re doing more things with their phones than the average phone user.” Multi-tasking is omnipresent, with more than half of the kids the study polled saying they’ve sent text messages from movie theaters, while 28% have sent messages from the dinner table. There is no Off button for the youth culture.

Pre-teen cell phone adoption foreshadows important trends in future mobile device use. In his research paper “Pre-teen Cell Phone Adoption: Consequences for Later Patterns of Phone Usage and Involvement,” Hans Geser distilled three major trends in the adoption of mobile devices by youths:

  • Young adopters continue their elevated levels of inbound and outbound mobile-device usage into adulthood, as well as their increased passive availability for phone contact during nights.
  • Young adopters have wider networks of active phone partners, even seven or eight years after first usage.
  • People who had mobile devices early in life view them as greatly increasing their level of social engagement, thus making them an essential part of their lifestyle.

Don’t Miss Out on Observing the Future

Since tweens and teens are harbingers for the future of mobile device use, you should include them as participants when doing user research or usability studies for mobile devices or applications. Consider doing contextual user research before entering the design phase, then conducting mobile usability studies in the field once your team has created a working prototype. Viewing device and application use in the field greatly enhances your understanding of the utility and potential adoption of the device or application you’re evaluating. Think of a guerilla mobile device usability study as a way of observing participants within their social environments, fulfilling the usability study guideline “Watch, don’t ask” in the extreme.

What We Learned from Teens During Our Field Studies

How do kids really use their devices?

  • A healthy minority of kids in our study had more than one mobile device. If they’re having a poor experience using one device, they might try using the other—meaning you might need to develop your application for multiple platforms.
  • While some teens said they liked particular features of an application, being out in the field provided more insights about the uptake from “like” to adoption.
  • Kids blur boundaries between mobile and the Web and are experimental—so you might find them trying to use your application in ways you hadn’t previously considered.

How much influence do kids’ peers have in their device and application use?

  • Teens are greatly influenced by their peers. In isolation, teens might profess one opinion, but when with friends, might express entirely different opinions based on their peers’ reactions.
  • When with peers, teens’ use of their mobile devices can change dramatically from the ways they use them when they are alone.
  • In some demographic groups, mobile device use is a shared activity—offering up more learning opportunities.
  • Kids in different socioeconomic groups sometimes use their mobile devices differently among their peers.

How Field Studies Differ from Traditional Usability Studies

Working in a mobile environment makes doing a usability study more challenging:

  • Following a specific task order, or workflow, can be more of a challenge—making it harder to build quantitative results.
  • Achieving full completion of tasks might not be possible, because participants’ physical surroundings or social situations can distract them or hinder their focus.
  • Managing time effectively can be difficult—so it might be hard to get the full range of tasks completed.
  • Controlling the participants’ environment and minimizing distractions are constant challenges.
  • Recording scenarios and capturing the moment is more challenging.
  • Getting participants to think aloud can require more prompting.

Though not being in control of the study environment can also afford insights:

  • You learn more about the usability of an application or device in its natural realm.
  • You gain knowledge of participants’ relationship to a device or application in their daily lives, beyond the scope of a traditional usability study.
  • You gain insight into how other people’s responses can influence device or application use.
  • You can do research that extends beyond the scope of a single participant.

Here are some things we learned at Molecular from our post-study evaluations after doing mobile usability studies with teens:

  • Make sure the tasks you ask participants to complete make sense to them or that you involve them in the task-selection process.
  • If you’re doing one-on-one sessions, make them as informal as possible.
  • Do group sessions, with 2–3 kids. Their conversations with their peers usually reveal more than what they’ll tell you directly.
  • During debriefing sessions, probe to make sure participants haven’t hidden their true opinions, because they want to please you or don’t want to be wrong.

In Conclusion

Teens are in a phase of their lives when they are constantly interacting socially—whether they are in school, at home, or with friends. The way they integrate mobile devices into their lives is a vital part of their social lives. While getting outside the lab and into this social world might not be your primary focus when doing usability studies, doing field studies should be part of your overall mobile usability toolkit. In short, get out of the box, get into the teens’ world, and you will discover a rich trove of useful information that can help you create great products young people want. 

Design Researcher at Foundation Medicine

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Hilary CoolidgeWhile at Molecular, Hilary has worked on projects for companies in the financial services, consumer products, Web services, and consulting industries. She was responsible for planning and conducting a usability study for a mobile Web site, produced site maps and annotated wireframes for a Web site redesign for a top-10 consulting company, and created a new home page for a well-known job search company, including new branding and campaign messaging. Other companies she has worked with include Coca-Cola, Boost, BCG, IBM,, and Houghton Mifflin. Hilary enjoys bringing her business knowledge and experience to the experience design field.  Read More

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