Location and Presence in Mobile Data Services

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“Mobile technology is expanding our design toolkit beyond the desktop, and those who embrace this technology to enhance the core functions of their products will offer their users a superior experience.”The emergence of a handful of popular mobile data services has changed the way we interact with our phones. Now, several technologies on the immediate horizon are about to change the way we (and our phones) interact with the world. Imagine…

  • You’re about to call your friend, but when you highlight her name in your address book, you see that she’s driving in the city. Since it’s just a social call, you decide to leave her a voicemail instead.
  • Your phone rings while you’re in a crowded movie theater. You automatically know the call is urgent; otherwise, your phone would have automatically silenced itself.
  • You’re wandering through the Paul Klee exhibit at the MOMA, enjoying the audio tour—and enjoying the fact that you didn’t need to borrow a special audio player; a hidden transmitter next to each painting delivers the content to your phone.
  • You’re out and about, and your phone beeps to tell you there’s an open house nearby that meets the requirements you specified through an online real estate service. You don’t have time to tour the house, but you do have time to drive by. You stop in front of the For Sale sign, which contains a transmitter that delivers detailed information about the house to your phone.

All of these scenarios are made possible by location-awareness and presence—two concepts now making their way into mobile devices and promising to enhance everything from social networking to marketing and advertising. Location-awareness enables a device (and the person carrying it) to be geographically located, while presence allows a user to know the status of another user.

Gartner predicts that the number of American businesses and consumers using location-aware computing will skyrocket from 150,000 in 2002 to 42 million in 2005. One reason for such lofty expectations is a 1996 FCC mandate requiring that by December 2005 all mobile carriers be able to locate any subscriber making an emergency 911 call to within an accuracy of 50 to 100 meters.

Even if these projections are overly optimistic, location-awareness and presence will surely change the way people use networked services. We, as designers, need to start thinking about the ways that mobility and location-awareness could enhance each service and application we design. Mobile technology is expanding our design toolkit beyond the desktop, and those who embrace this technology to enhance the core functions of their products will offer their users a superior experience. It’s time to take the Internet out of the office and into the streets.

A Brief History of Mobile Data Services
A mobile data service is any service on a mobile device other than voice calling. It’s worthwhile to present a brief history of mobile data as a backdrop to our discussion of location and presence because of the role these concepts will surely play in the mobile data services of the future. It’s also helpful to provide a sense of the overall market for mobile data.

The first mobile data service of any significance was SMS (Short Message Service) which was originally developed by carriers as a way to send up to 160 bytes of data (including emergency alerts, special promotions, and even software upgrades) from a central point directly to their customers’ handsets. Carriers soon recognized the potential of SMS as an alternative mobile-to-mobile communication protocol, and they began to aggressively market the service toward business professionals–but it didn’t sell.

As it happened, however, limitations in their billing systems made it impossible for carriers to charge their prepaid customers—mostly teenagers and young people—for text messages. As soon as these users discovered they could send text messages for free, the volume of text messages increased quickly enough to threaten the network’s capacity to handle them. (Interestingly, for the youth segment, the usability barriers inherent in mobile message composition became a selling point, since these difficulties meant that the adults in their lives were largely unable and unwilling to use the service.)

If the popularity of prepaid plans—especially among youth—was the key driver for the success of SMS in Europe, then the lack of carrier interoperability was the key roadblock in the United States. US carriers have since resolved this issue, and the text messaging gap has closed quite a bit. The latest statistics show that US mobile users sent 2 billion text messages in April of this year, surpassing the UK for the first time.

After SMS text messaging came a series of SMS-based services, including ringtones, subscription-based information alerts, and SMS-based m-commerce (for example, purchasing items from a vending machine by sending text messages to a special number).

Shortly thereafter, WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) came along, with lots of hype and high expectations, but it was terribly slow and difficult to use. Most users were unwilling to wait several minutes to access a few lines of text displayed on a monochrome screen. In attempting to adapt desktop applications for wireless, carriers and content providers failed to offer any compelling services at all. WAP soon earned the nickname, “Wait And Pay.”

Mobile email and instant messaging had more success, since it was fairly easy to view mobility as an enhancement to these services. Also, the time-based content and flat structure of these services happened to work well on WAP. Mobile instant messaging introduced the concept of mobile presence and pioneered the connection between the desktop and the mobile in a single, continuous user experience. Users who are signed in to a mobile messenger client can communicate just like their buddies on a PC; the core messaging functionality is basically the same on any device.

Other mobile data services of note include mobile games and picture messaging (also known as multimedia messaging or MMS). These have become highly successful, vindicating carriers and analysts who have stood firmly by their belief in the future of mobile data—WAP notwithstanding.

The bottom line is that with an industry as young as mobile data, we can’t always predict what will fly and what will flop. What little data there is suggests that communication-based services are generally more successful than content-based ones.

One thing we know for sure is that users will continually surprise us by reinventing what vendors and designers produce, and it is this unpredictability that makes the mobile design space so exciting. The ubiquity of mobile devices and the willingness of early adopters to experiment means that any flexibility added by designers will be noticed by users.

The Introduction of Location and Presence
Presence management will change the way we use all person-to-person communication media and will affect almost every network service. Knowing a friend’s location and status in advance eliminates the need for a voice call when the only reason for calling is to find out that very information. Additionally, knowing a friend’s mood and activity helps determine which method of communication, if any, is most appropriate. For example, if I’m calling a friend just to chat, it would be useful to know she isn’t busy or in a bad mood. On the other hand, if I’m calling an associate with an urgent business question, I’d like to be able to convey this urgency, to encourage him to answer. More information about all parties in a communication is certain to enhance the communication itself.

Instant messaging introduced us to this concept of “pushed” presence—that is, the ability to see (without specifically requesting) the status of one’s friends. Since its introduction, presence data has become more accurate and more specific. In the beginning, we could merely see whether our buddies were online, offline or away. Later, we could see whether they were active or idle, and for how long. Then came a whole bunch of user-set choices (for example, out to lunch, in a meeting). Now we get real-time feedback, telling us for example when a user is typing. The introduction of location-awareness enables even richer presence data.

When designing presence into applications, designers need to understand the two basic types of presence: system-generated status and user-set status. “Online” and “idle” are examples of system-generated status. Location is another. “Busy,” “bored,” and “invisible” are examples of user-set status. System-generated status is important because it ‘s accurate, reliable, and objective, but it risks revealing things the user does not want to reveal. Therefore, the system, should give the user the ability to suspend, change, or override system-generated status unless there’s a compelling reason not to do so.

In general, systems should not use presence data to set limits that second-guess the user. Rather, systems should use the data to enable the user to make informed choices. For example, even if a user has set her status to “EXTREMELY BUSY,” the system should not prevent someone from calling her.

Designing for presence in general makes for an interesting discussion, but presence has especially profound implications for the design of mobile data services.

The Location Detection Infrastructure
A mix of technologies will make up the location and tracking infrastructure of the future:

  • Cellular triangulation — A mobile phone communicates with the closest cell (cellular antenna or tower). In an urban environment, one’s phone likely to be within range of several other cells as well. Using triangulation, these cells can locate a device indoors or outdoors to within about 120 meters. The precision decreases in rural areas, where a device is often within range of just a single cell. However, in a setting like this, a cell can be modified to detect the angle of transmission-reception in order to locate a device to within a mile or so.
  • Global Positioning System (GPS) — A few manufacturers have begun to sell mobile phones with built-in GPS, which uses a satellite grid to locate a device outdoors to within 3-15 meters.
  • WiFi (Wireless Fidelity) Networks — Several companies have begun to test prototypes of mobile phones outfitted with WiFi (the technology used in home wireless networks), which could be used to locate people indoors or outdoors to within 1-20 meters.
  • Ultrawideband — A few researchers and small companies (as well as the US military) are looking at ultrawideband as a promising location detection technology. It’s extremely accurate (to within centimeters) and requires very little power, but the technology is not very far along in development.

A Design Philosophy for Mobile Data
When thinking about designing the user experience for the next generation of mobile services, it is extremely important to recognize that WAP failed because it attempted to cram desktop computing into tiny devices. So first and foremost, designers need to move away from the WAP legacy and start thinking about mobile devices not as limited desktop PCs, but as versatile, connected, multi-modal devices.

Rather than thinking about the differences between a PC and a mobile phone, think about the difference between someone with a mobile phone and someone without one. Imagine yourself standing on a corner in a bustling neighborhood, and think about what a mobile phone adds to your capabilities (also, imagine standing there and trying to operate a desktop computer, or even a laptop).

Interpolation: On Terminology
As user experience designers, let’s use the term “mobile device” instead of “wireless device” or “mobile phone.”

“Mobile” speaks to the very nature of the device and its advantages over other devices, whereas “wireless” binds it to its relationship with other, older technologies. Mobile tells me what a device is, while wireless tells me what it is not.

“Device” doesn’t denote a particular technology or use, whereas “phone” carries with it many decades of expectations.

That said, “mobile phone” just sounds better in certain contexts, and we shouldn’t expect the mass market to use our preferred designer terminology.

The Multi-Modal User Experience (or, The UX Designer’s Toolkit)
In their latest generation, many mobile devices combine:

  • An audio interface (microphone and speaker)
  • A graphical interface (screen)
  • A physical/tactile interface (keypad)
  • Signal reception and location-detection (cellular, GPS, WiFi, etc.)
  • Connectivity (cellular, Bluetooth, IP)
  • Memory for storage of contacts, messages, photos, etc.
  • A camera
  • A variety of built-in applications (such as a contacts list, calendar, calculator)

This makes for an amazingly rich user experience designer’s toolkit. Right now, as user experience designers, we’re still largely at the mercy of the device manufacturers, but before long we’ll be able to define how these various interfaces and components can be leveraged and combined in a given application.

The Multi-Client User Experience
Beyond this designer’s toolkit, consider the fact that many services will have a user experience that is not confined to a single device. PCs will always have their strengths–a large display, a full QWERTY keyboard and mouse, a fast processor, lots of storage–but we must also recognize the strengths of mobile devices. The most obvious strengths are that they’re mobile and connected. They’re also locatable, and above all, they are designed for communication.

From a user experience design perspective, it’s exciting to think about how a user’s interaction with a particular service can be initiated from one client to another. With PCs, the user typically initiates the interaction and the PC demands her full, undivided attention throughout the process. With mobile devices, however, the application itself often initiates the interaction (for example, by ringing or beeping). This, combined with location-awareness and presence, gives user experience designers an extremely powerful opportunity to deliver the information and functionality best suited to the immediate situation.

The best services will leverage the advantages of each client.

A popular Japanese “item hunt” game called Mogi provides a good illustration of the potential for multi-client location-aware services. In the game, players organized into teams acquire currency by collecting items around the city of Tokyo – the actual city, not a virtual reality simulation of the city. Players using mobile phones are able to see a limited “radar” view of their immediate surroundings. They can see nearby players, and they can collect nearby items. Players using PCs get a macro view of the game. Using various full-city map views and a powerful interface, they can direct the efforts of their team. So mobile players can see less at one time, but they can move about the city, collecting items and engaging each other. PC players, on the other hand, can see much more, but they’re bound to one location, and they can’t collect anything.

Mogi is a good model because it effectively breaks large tasks into parts and assigns these parts to users with the most appropriate devices, leveraging the strengths of each device in a way consistent with how we generally use the devices. The game could easily be re-skinned as a system to dispatch taxis, monitor a truck fleet, manage emergency services or provide commuters with a view of public transit.

The upshot of all this is that it illustrates how designers will need to think about which components in the designer’s toolkit would best enhance the service they’re designing, and which aspects of the user experience are right for which type of client. With such a rich toolkit, mobile applications should offer users as many communication channels, device modes and client interfaces as possible. Applications should also provide enough information to enable users to make highly informed choices and reach their communication goals effectively.

The true promise of presence is that it will enable users to pay less attention to the system and give user experience designers more opportunities to design the interfaces out of the process. Presence will also enable designers to tailor the user experience more than ever before. It’s exciting to imagine a generation of services in which the user experience moves from a computer screen to phone speaker and back, based on the user’s location, situation, and step in a process, and it’s exciting to imagine being able to design for such immediacy and relevance.

Jonathan Grubb designs mobile software applications in hopes of making phones a little more fun and useful. He is currently designing Yahoo!’s new line of downloadable Java applications, which aim to extend Yahoo!’s services beyond the desktop. He was previously with Vodafone in the Bay Area and in Düsseldorf, Germany, where he designed mobile sites and applications for consumer audiences in the U.S., Western Europe, Australia, Africa, and Greece. He is also an artist, showing regularly in San Francisco galleries.

Shawn Smith is a Senior Information Architect at Avenue A | Razorfish. Previously, he managed a User Experience design team at Vodafone, where he was part of the team that created the first prototypes for Vodafone’s mobile data services portal (Vodafone Live!). He also co-managed the development of Vodafone’s first set of mobile interaction design guidelines for developers. Fun fact: He is Shawn Smith VII in the Internet Movie Database.


  1. hi,
    after reading your interesting article the term “cognitive friction” inevitably came to my mind.alan cooper labels cognitive friction approximately like: compared to the simplicity of a given task, it is quite difficult to achieve your goal.

    i have yet to come across a mobile phone which is easy to operate. i wouldn’t say i am using more than 30-40% of what my mobile is able to do. it is already allmost impossible to finde a mobile without a build in camera or bluetooth protocol (at least in germany).

    so i think one should first start to facilitate all the tasks mobiles can do already before building new features and apps on that loose ground.


  2. re: “i have yet to come across a mobile phone which is easy to operate.”

    I agree that most mobile apps and services are hard to use and not very useful.

    The good features of mobile phones are so transparent that we don’t think of them as features at all. Most phones have an auto-synching clock, so the time is always correct. All phones have caller ID. Dialing a phone number and pressing send always places a voice call. These core functions are so simple that almost anyone can figure them out.

    Any useful service that can create such a transparent interface will have some success.

    I wonder what other services we could create that have the simple interface and universal appeal of caller ID…

  3. There is one fact in your article which I would like to stress: Mobile devices are not the competition of PCs. This idea has to settle in the heads of developers, decision maker, technology strategists.

    Mobile devices are going to make communicational processes easier accessible, if fitted to the “use case” of being “mobile”.

    There is (and for a long time there will not be) any possibility or need to bring full-grown applications onto the mobile screen.

    But if you manage to tear down your applications into small considerable chunks for people connecting to it via mobile, it’ll work perfectly.

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