Friday, December 15, 2006

Usability Challenges in Mobile Devices

I admit that I haven't been on the forefront of mobile technology. My current use of mobile technology consists of my laptop with a wireless card, a PDA that I use to track my tasks and appointment calendar and a cell phone.

I got my first cell phone in 2000. Before then I really didn't need one, but I bumped into a friend who was promoting them at a local trade show and he sold me on a phone that was web enabled. I was intrigued by it. I heard about web enabled phones but never thought much about them.

After receiving the phone I tried the web features on for size. The first thing I did was check a sports score. OK - that was fun. I shut the phone off and went about my business. The next time I tried to access some information from my phone, the web features didn't work. The connection was slow and I just gave up. I simply had a poor experience and never tried again.

What would have happened if my mobile computing experience, circa 2000, would have been better and met with my expectations? I probably would be doing all kinds of neat things with mobile computing like texting, sending and receiving e-mail or accessing directions to a restaurant with my phone. Hey, maybe I would have Blackberry Thumb by now.

Mind you, the mobile computing experiences available on a number of devices today provide a far richer user experience than the text driven one I had six years ago. To combat poor user experiences like the one I had, I think usability and user-centered design (the user experience) need to be the focal point of mobile computing. Designers have tried, but some are looking at it through the lens of a tick-client or desktop application. Some UI and usability principles are common, but in reality they are not the same simply because of the nature of mobile computing devices. They're very portable and can be used almost anywhere and when they are used can change from moment to moment.

Despite the fact that technology and the bandwidth behind it has enabled us to provide a richer user experience, it still doesn't change the fact that simplicity and speed of access to things like information, entertainment and commerce services will change people's perceptions (like mine) of mobile computing devices.

Much of this is rooted in a key fundamental principle of user-centered design which is context. Context is the when, where and how of user-centered design. Richard F. Cecil, at UXMatters wrote an article on the very subject of usability in mobile computing. I encourage you to read the article to gain further insight into designing the mobile user experience. In the years ahead what some of us think as novelty will become more and more prevalent in our daily lives.

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