Mobile Nation: People and their devices

Based on the conference of the same name at the Ontario College of Art and Design in March 2007, the new anthology Mobile Nation from OCAD and Riverside Architectural Press explores the social nature of mobile technology and designing for mobile experiences with essays from 49 scholars and experts in various fields.

One interesting quality of the anthology is the spectrum of voices featured, said Philip Beesley, who co-edited the collection with Martha Ladley. “You can look at this book as an academic, as a politician, but I would have to think that a popular reader would take a lot of interest in this as a snapshot of what’s coming,” he said.

Q: How are the needs, desires and behaviours of mobile users changing?

Beesley: It’s interesting to think about how dependent we have become mobile phones…and the way they behave is very striking, to be able to anticipate your thoughts by projecting patterns…I think we can see that the behaviour is increasingly close to the way we think…the physical nature of these is increasingly close to our bodies and that means they are really potent because they are increasingly becoming a part of us.

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Ladly: Our behaviours are increasingly being taken into account in the design of mobile services and the services offered, but also mobile devices are having an effect on our behaviour as well, so there’s a real conversation going back and forth between opportunities and sociability.

Beesley: We are certainly getting past the limits of streaming, of networking speed, of depth of information, and that means the scale of what we access is really only limited by your imagination, as opposed to a hardware link. That means these dis-alarmingly small devices are becoming increasingly powerful.

Q: What comes first – the needs and wants of users or the technology itself?

Beesley: In traditional design, the technology comes first, but increasingly (in) mobile design the experience of the user comes absolutely first. In fact, the practice itself is changing and we are now calling the design “experience design,” which means we are designing for the experience of the user, first of all, and then we choose the technologies and the particular way of delivering it.

Ladly: We are actively designing experiences…not just user integrated testing, but user integrated design, so the people who are going to be using the devices or experiences that we are designing are involved in the design stage from the ground up.

Beesley: Experience design, thinking about the self, is becoming such a fine-tuned practice today that we have some new terminology, such as empathy-based design, that is really trying to identify with other people and projecting how people will act. There is increasingly a control of emotion as well.

Q: What are the main struggles in mobile design today?

Ladly: The main struggle that we’re having is how to figure out how to hack into these devices so we can get them to do things we want them to do that they aren’t necessarily designed to do. [For example, using Bluetooth proximity to conduct jams in public spaces.] We need to say to ourselves what would we like to do with these things if we could do anything with them…that sort of blue sky thinking and designing is where we need to stay. What I’d like to see is a lot more interest and support from people who are providing services who might be able to give us the opportunity to tailor-make interesting and personalized services.

There is great deal of interest in taking traditional forms of media and transferring them to mobile devices…But we also have to think about the context in which the mobile devices are being used and the audience who are using them. It’s not just a matter of taking something from one media and shrinking it down and putting it on a mobile phone. We need people who are going to be thinking quite strategically about what it means to be mobile with the device and what sort of information, what level of information, how deep that information…we need to think very carefully about designing for the mobile medium.

Q: What can we expect from mobile technology in the future?

Beesley: The ability of a device to know where it is and to know what angle it is and to know whether it’s moving or not. Those kind of sensors means that using those devices can be really incredibly physical…that is going to become an increasingly developed ability which means where you are and what you are doing really becomes involved.

Ladly: Accelerometers in every phone that people don’t really use points to new ideas. How to get phones to also NOT work when you don’t need them to or not want them to work is another thing we need to think about, for instance in cars.

Beesley: As the reality of paper and cost and the ecological footprint of paper really starts to hit home, digital reading is going to come on very fast. There is a very significant new economy coming in reading and the exchange of information using devices…paging through and pushing through using your hands and eyes.

Ladly: Attention to the biggest demographic, and that’s women, because there’s more of us. Recent research points to the fact that women are using their mobile devices for more minutes, for more time, than men are. Often times it’s with each other, but also with their children. What hasn’t happened so far is the form factor of a mobile device hasn’t been thought of from the point of view of what does a women want.

Beesley: The power of mobile devices to operate your environment…operating your house from your cell phone…that’s increasingly becoming a reality.

Ladly: We are thinking not just of younger people, but also older people who have certain needs and uses for their phones that is particular to that demographic… people who are older are finding that this is one device that can give you scaffolding for your memory.

Beesley: The kind of connection that we now see just one-to-one and little bits of conferencing happening is increasingly going to become something where crowds can be in touch in really fluid ways and have a tangible experience…complex nets of people being in touch so it’s not just a one-on-one thing.

Ladly: It’s essentially a remote device that has all sorts of power and capabilities. I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what we can do with them.

Q: How does Canada compare to other countries in terms of mobile technology innovation?

Ladly: We were right up at the front with the development of mobile technologies and the development of mobile networks and we’ve fallen to about seventh in the world now and there is a reason for that … because we have such great and installed networks for the Internet, we relied on the Internet a lot more than say, countries like India or China or any of the European nations did, where they were growing really fast in innovation into mobile technology…We have to correct that. We can by looking at some of the regulations that govern the way phones are used and calls are used by making it less expen

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