“Designing products with mobile users at the core” - Martin Belam at Mobile Media Strategies 2012

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 25 September 2012

This is a version of the talk I gave today at Mobile Media Strategies 2012

For nearly all of my adult digital life, people have been telling me that next year is going to be the big breakthrough year for the mobile web. I got so excited about this one year that I even taught myself WML - a mark-up language somewhere between HTML and 1960s computer punch-cards.

And what did I do with my exciting WML skills?

Well, I made my own personalised BBC mobile homepage. I wrote a little computer script that took the RSS feeds of some BBC Sport sections I was interested in, and then published the headlines and links out as a separate WML page. At a glance I could get the main headlines, and follow the fortunes of Leeds United and Leyton Orient.

Why do that? Well, because data cost money, and it simply took an age to download and navigate my way through the BBC’s real mobile site on my puny Sony Ericsson T-610. My little script illustrates all of the usual tropes about mobile usage. I was in a hurry. I was on a bus. I only wanted to scan headlines and snack on information.

This was in 2004, when I worked at the BBC, and for a while whilst the BBC was re-designing their mobile homepage “the Belam version” of allowing people to mix‘n’match their own headline sections, was one of several options explored.

That year the Olympics were in Athens, and it was going to be another year until London was awarded the right to host the 2012 Games. And I do think, after all of these years, that we have finally reached a significant tipping point with mobile. After the Olympics, new media chief for London 2012 Alex Balfour published a slidedeck analysing usage of london2012.com during the event. One very telling statistic was that 60% of visits to the site during the course of the Olympics were from a mobile device. Given that the number of mobile visitors was in the order of 20 million per day, they can’t all have been people milling around the Olympic Park.

Yet in his report Alex admitted that when they were putting their “Games-time” plan for the site together, around 18 months before the opening ceremony, mobile had not been a major consideration. I’m not hugely surprised. Alex has worked in digital for a long time too, and I daresay he has seen as many false dawn promises of a mobile take-over as I have.

The shift to mobile presents a fundamental challenge to designers though - and an even more profound one to many media businesses. Let’s be honest, there are plenty of media companies out there who have struggled to adapt in the fifteen years they’ve had to deal with the desktop web, who are now being asked to take another step in the transformation of the way they deliver their content.

Know the devices

One of the first challenges to designers is to make sure that they get to know the devices they are working with. Few enough are familiar with all the different quirks of the major browser players on the desktop, and now they have a whole load of new form factors to contend with. Whilst I was at the Guardian I had the good fortune to work on several mobile projects with excellent mobile designers and user experience specialists like Andy Brockie, Akemi Takagi, John-Henry Barac and Karen Loasby. I took part in projects that were being delivered on the iOS, Android and Windows Phone platforms.

Even though I wasn’t doing the design or UX work myself, I made it my business to make sure that I was familiar with the phones - borrowing Android and Windows Phone devices from the company library, and keeping them around me all day, using them as part of my routine. If you don’t use the device or the platform, how can you judge whether something is well designed for it?

As a designer it is also vital to understand the rules of an interface before you try and make exceptions to them. Windows Phone had a particular challenge for the Guardian, as the interaction guideline Microsoft specify suggest that applications should only utilise the hardware “Back” button, and there should be no “back” or “home” options on the screen. That doesn’t work for a news site with index pages and keywords and author pages, where you can very rapidly find yourself 14 levels deep in nested information. In that circumstance insisting that the user needed to press the back button 13 times to get to the news headlines again simply doesn’t work. But you need to know the guidelines in order to know when you need to break them.

Design based on real behaviours

To build great digital products for mobile users, you have to really understand how people are going to use them. I once heard a great story from the people at CogApp, who, when they were designing an app to accompany an exhibition in a gallery, replicated the gallery experience in their office by hanging pictures and information signs on the wall. Those doing the user testing sessions were given small books to hold, to simulate a tablet or mobile device, and inside the books were representations of different states of the proposed app design. They used these props like a “choose your own adventure” book to convey the sense that the user was moving through a real app.

Another excellent insight into mobile usage came in a presentation given to the UPA conference in Atlanta last year. Amy Buckner and Pamela Walshe talked about the American bank Wells Fargo, who had developed a specific diary study to capture mobile usage of their banking services. Users were prompted to take a picture of where they were every time they used mobile banking. What the team noticed from the photos more than anything was that a large number of them featured a desktop computer only a couple of feet away from the participant. Previously they’d thought of the mobile service as an “add-on” to the website, but the photographs taught them that people were using it out of convenience, not because they were being forced to because they were away from their main computer.

Solving problems for the user, not the publisher

Look at the apps that you use on your phone the most. The chances are that most of them accomplish one task, and accomplish it very well, with the minimum of fuss, flourish or set up time. Which is why it worries me that publishers often insist on producing complex multi-function apps that often seem to focus on “here is the breadth of what we publish” rather than giving users a core focus to understand. A “prettier version” of the website is not a compelling enough user proposition.

I think this can be especially true as media companies develop “second screen” applications to accompany television programmes. All too often the design of these seems to be based on cramming together everything a publisher might have related to an event in one place, rather than trying to address what people are using their second screen for. A live blog telling someone that team A have just scored a goal, or that contestant B has just started singing “My way” isn’t a second screen experience for someone watching a show. It is someone being paid money to type out what the user just saw with their own eyes.

All too often it feels like these kinds of products are designed to solve a problem for the publisher, not for the user. The most useful app during the Olympics wasn’t one that gave you the medal table or results - they were constantly on screen and available in abundance on the London 2012 and BBC websites. What would have been great was an app that told you “The most exciting thing going on now is...” and directed you to that crucial Judo semi-final whilst quickly explaining what an ippon is, or telling you that there was time to watch the conclusive moments of Team GB in the hockey on channel 457 before the next heat of the swimming starts.

I’ve been working on second screen designs for one news group where the focus isn’t on provided commentary on what has just happened, but in adding to the shared experience of watching something together. I think media companies are unlikely to wean the audience of their regular diet of Facebook, Twitter, BBM and SMS for chatting during shows, but that they can provide a focal point to the conversation, and a way for audiences to join in together in aspects of the show.

The design challenge of 4G

The promise of 4G is that of ever more fully-featured mobile services, enabled by more bandwidth. I saw that one of the “use cases” in the press packs for release was that a HD film could be downloaded to a device in the space of a couple of minutes, rather than the twelve-or-so minutes it currently takes. Human beings are so insufferably impatient.

4G is another disruptive challenge to media companies though. Once we’ve gone through the upgrade cycle of handsets and tariffs and contracts which will take a couple of years to shake out, we’ll be in yet another new media landscape. Think back for a second to the late 1970s, when we only had three national television broadcasters. In the space of less than forty years we will have moved to an era where there will be more people at any single major sporting event with the means to take pictures and instantly upload them, or broadcast streaming video, than there are sports journalists in the whole of the UK.

And they will be able to publish faster than us, with our clunky old enterprise-scale content management systems that require VPN access and round-the-clock technical support, or cumbersome broadcast chains. From a standing start I guarantee I can already publish video, pictures and text to the web via the Tumblr app on my phone faster than any UK journalist can get a story live on their news website. Perhaps the most astounding thing during Euro2012 wasn’t England picking John Terry, but seeing my old colleague and friend Jem Stone tweeting that he knew about one of the goals scored in the final via Stan Collymore on Twitter faster than the BBC could screen it live in HD.

But speed isn’t everything.

For news organisations and media companies to retain trust they need to be fast and accurate.

And not all of your users will be on the fastest connections all of the time. 4G roll-out in the UK will take time, and if it is anything like 3G roll-out will still leave gaps in coverage.

The BBC’s experiments with responsive design for their news sites involved not only looking at the size of screen the user has, but also the bandwidth capabilities of the connection they are on - using that to make judgements about the size of images and the inclusion of video content. Guardian journalists were rightly proud of their influential live blog coverage of the Arab Spring, but when However, I look at the feature phones being held aloft in Tahrir Square, I wonder how many of them could actually download it.

And mobile brings yet more intermediaries - why follow the fortunes of Team GB by using a newspaper app where you have to navigate from the front page to the Olympics section to the Team GB tab or section, when you could just tap and open the Team GB app?

You need to know

My key message for people designing mobile services at the moment is that you need to know. The mobile market is mature enough that you don’t need to guess anymore. There is plenty of research out there, and plenty of tools to do your own research.

Know your audience

Understand your audience needs, and try and solve their problems, not your problems. Find a service you can provide beyond merely repackaging your published content. Understand how people behave when they use mobile devices - it won’t be how you think.

Know your target device

Work with the capabilities of your target device wherever possible. A great UX isn’t one where people notice your amazing new interaction design on their phone - a great UX is where your app or service fits seamlessly into their life and the way they use their device.

Know your product proposition

When designing for mobile I always try and get down to the very simplest expression of the proposition possible. What are the minimum number of objects that the user can manipulate, the minimum number of options and set-up questions and barriers to entry. Doing one thing really well in an app is better than doing several things half-heartedly.

This essay incorporates elements of previous blog posts on currybetdotnet and articles for the Guardian, including “New digital divides”, “Better contextual mobile testing, and barriers to adopting usability”, “The second screen experience: mobiles, tablets and TVs”, “Mobile powers Olympic content revolution” and “Digital news is heading for a mobile future

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