Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Social Web Browsing on your mobile?

The word social usually involves doing things together with others – browsing usually means casually looking at something. Combined the words suggest casually looking at something together with others – or simply being able to share what you are doing. So what does social web browsing on mobile phones mean?

No doubt Social Web Browsing is being used as a marketing term to differentiate between phone browsers, another attribute to swing the buyer or drive curiosity towards downloading a new browser to the phone. The attribute described is ability to ‘share’ a web site with a friend. This sharing is implemented one of more of these ways:

  • Create a tweet on your Twitter with the site address (URL) and accompanying text – look at this cools site etc.
  • Write about site and share address on your Facebook Wall
  • Send an SMS to you friends with the site address and comments
  • Send an email to your friends with the site address and comments
  • Send a browser message to your friend with site address and comments

All these ‘Social’ ways have in common that friends can open the web site on their mobiles and if they like what they see, they can add it to their bookmarks or even download an app to their phone. They all allow casually looking at something and sharing it with your friends.

At mJetz we take this concept a bit further. Not only have we implemented browser to browser messaging allowing you to send and share and receive messages and sites within your mJetz browsers, but we have also implemented 'one click' addition to your favorites making it very easy to incorporate your friend’s suggestions – mobile sites, web sites, RSS feeds or mJetz apps - with your personal favorites. And with mJetz unique navigation and personalization, you will easily find these without searching through bookmarks or flipping through pages of icons. That is the mJetz way, the mobileWeb easier to use.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mobile Universal Search

When the word universal is thrown around it usually suggests high hopes and intentions of finally having something that works everywhere and does everything - a panacea of sorts. The quest for Universal Search on mobile phones fits this description. After all, don’t we want exactly the results we are thinking about presented on our phone screens - in a way that is easy to use and navigate. Yes, use and navigate, because there are always a number of results associated with each search even if we are only interested in one specific result. It is finding and making that specific result available that is the crux of the matter.

All searches start with some type of search intent, often derived from a texted term or spoken word. This term/word can be augmented by knowledge of interests, demographics and maybe location information, time of day, weather or time of year. A good search function will blend these together in a meaningful way and deliver a search query to – well a search engine that magically delivers results back. But what do these results look like?

  • A list of mobile web sites?
  • A list of videos?
  • A list of mobile applications?
  • A list of web sites?
  • A list of sound bites?
  • A list of music?
  • A list of RSS feeds (yes, that highly usable format on mobiles)

- Or, maybe a very long list of all of the above in which the result the user is really looking for is well hidden. What is clear is that major mobile companies are hiring people and pouring resources into finding out how to improve mobile search and delivering results with a better user experience.

At mJetz we believe the problem has two parts:

  1. Generating search results from multiple sources
  2. Delivering these results in a way that makes it easier for the user to find the specific results they are looking for.
Based on this we augment the user’s queries and deliver several types of results from multiple sources. These include:

  • Apps
  • RSS (yes, that highly usable format)
  • Mobile web (from multiple search engines)
  • Real web (where results are categorized for ease of use)

But the real value of mJetz is to deliver the results in a way that makes it easy for the user to navigate and select what they want. mJetz fluid and expanding navigation takes care of that. Pictures are worth more than a thousand word so here is a look at mJetz search results for 'Universal Search'

But the real value of mJetz is to deliver the results in a way that makes it easy for the user to navigate and select what they want. mJetz fluid and expanding navigation takes care of that. Pictures are worth more than a thousand word so here is a look at mJetz search results for 'Universal Search'

And each result category opened up with mJetz easy to navigate fluid user interface:

Universal Search Applications

Universal Search RSS results

Universal Search Mobile Web results - notice choise of search engines

Universal Search Web results - notice categorization

As you can see, Mobile Universal Search is here today with mJetz

Monday, November 15, 2010

Flat, Folder or Something Better

Judging from the popularity of the iPhone and Android user interfaces (UIs) it looks like users prefer pages and pages of icons (flat) compared to more traditional UIs where each icon opens a folder. Is this really the case or are we just looking at a current fad where the newness of quickly swiping between pages seems cooler that ‘the old fashioned’ tapping to open a folder?

A recent blog ‘Another Look at Mobile User Interfaces’ from Mobility Nigeria argues that the popularity of flat UIs is simply a bias and hides the fact that flat UIs are harder to use when icon-pages reach beyond – say three. After all, the extra tap to open a folder is just replaced by the extra swipe(s) to find the page where the desired application icon is located. Folders even have organizational advantage by being aptly named or easy to recognize icons.

What neither flat nor folder UIs have is a sense of location and direction or simple and clear organization – it is easy to get lost or forget where you are, forget how to get from here to there. It is also difficult to organize/personalize app locations and folders so that you can find what you are looking for. So is there something better?

The mJetz mobile web app replaces folder or flat with fluid navigation where apps, sites and folders are placed on an open UI that expands in front of your eyes as you navigate towards the right or up/down. Folders automatically open up and show their content when you get close to them and apps/sites become clickable when they come into focus. New apps or sites are quickly added as favorites with clear names or icons and can be organized Ifrom the phone or web) into personal folders and placed where you want them in the UI. With mJetz you always know where you are and your favorite apps are always easy to find and use.

So as the fad of flat fades - it is time to replace it with fluid!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Mobile Advertising – Offering the Right Ad

Some blogs back we covered the subject of getting the right ad to the mobile user and concluded that things will get better if ad query requests are tagged better and mobile ad networks improve as far as inventory and fill rates. The big if is that the right ads have to be there in the first place. In order for this to happen, advertisers need no only to offer the right ads but have the tools so that they can do it. Sounds obvious, but we are not quite there yet.

Mobile advertising has the potential to deliver more relevant ads than most other media. After all, a lot is known about the mobile user, their location and even in what application and where within each application the ad will be placed. The only thing missing is that this information is made available to the advertiser in real time. Why real time? It is all about context matching. In mobile, the context is continually changing not just based on the user moving around but also as the user switches between mobile web sites and applications.

Microsoft, as it is launching Windows Phone 7, is addressing this opportunity by rolling out the first bid based ad exchange. This finally moves mobile advertising to a stage where ad buyers are fully informed about the context in which the ad is shown. It also brings real-time bidding to mobile following the industry trend in web advertising. Several ad networks are on board the Microsoft effort and there is little doubt that real time bidding will migrate to the mass market of mobile advertising. At mJetz we are ready to integrate these capabilities when they are available. By using our superior context generated keyword approach we will be Offering the Right Ad to our users.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Save us from our mobile User Interface and User Experience!

Innovations in mobile user interfaces/user experiences (UI/UE) happen at a slow and somewhat unsteady pace. The iPhone UI with it’s effortless finger-navigation and screen expansion was certainly innovative. But other parts of the mobile phone UI/UE seem to be nearly immune from innovation. A good example of this is the icon matrix home page that has been with us for ten years. The iPhone simply added pages and pages of icons – which was duly copied by all other smart phone UIs. Another example is the phone browser that seems to be immune to innovation and has gone through little change since WAP days. The rendering is better and we can now zoom in and out on some browsers but cumbersome bookmarks and tabs remain. The iPhone again addressed the bookmark problem by turning bookmarks into apps and placing them on the icon matrix home page – thereby making the home page unwieldy and creating a different discovery probblem. This funny ad spoofs the typical user experience on current phones and poses the question as to whether things will remain the same.

From Microsoft 7 Mobile’s perspective the answer is of course no, but rather than describing the ins and outs of this new and slightly different user experience, let us take a look at some of the new underlying innovation that they bring to the table as they try to create a Glance and Go instead of a Stop and Stare user experience:

• Simple minimalistic design – fewer Tiles (icons)
• Active Application Tiles - glance to see changes
• Application Hubs – related apps in one hub for an integrated experience
• Hubs for integrated core services - social networking, messaging
• Personalize look and feel - your tiles - your way
• Dedicated Universal Search button (apps, sites, feeds)

While some things remain the same (like a home page with pages of icons/tiles) there is enough innovation to save us from our current User Interface and create an improved User Experience. At mJetz we already incorporate these concepts and will bring it to all phones - we even replace the static home page with an expanding user experience. More about this in a later blog!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mobile Advertising – Getting the Right Ad!

At a Mobile Monday last week in Boston, representatives from the advertising industry discussed what brands are doing in mobile today. The panel discussion was sobering. Despite a lot of hype, mobile advertising has yet to become an established part of the media marketing mix. In mobile there is still a void in ‘standardized’ reporting that big advertisers and media buyers want to see. This contrasts to web advertising where the types of measurement and response systems advertisers are used to have been implemented. Advertisers want to know who will be seeing their ads and what the associated response metrics are. Is this so hard to satisfy?

Right now the answer seems to be yes. The current state of most mobile ad networks is that an advertiser is able to create ads without supplying targeting keyword tags beyond the most rudimentary of subject, language and country – even those are not enforced or available much of the time. This lack of keyword tags means that ad queries, even if they have keywords closely associated with the type of user (age, sex, interest) and context (time, place), are either not served ads at all or are served generic ads that only meet one or two keywords. The result is irrelevant ads or no ads.

The good news is that things will change for the better as mobile advertising is just where web advertising was 10-15 years ago. This was the era before industry accepted keyword target matching mechanisms and reporting systems appeared. Today, the web advertiser is able to effectively target the audience they want and directly track results. So how long do we have to wait?

At mJetz we have the ability to generate very sophisticated keywords directly associated with the user and the context of the ad. In order to make sure that the right ad is served, we are building logic that allows us to select ad networks in real time based on the relevance of the ads that they serve. This logic will monitor which ads are being served thereby continually improving the quality and relevance of the ads the user sees. We are also able to measure the direct results of ads based on user type, context and placement within the mJetz application. Together with the ongoing improvement of ad networks, ad application logic will over time ensure that the right ad gets delivered to the user.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mobile Advertising – What about placement?

In traditional media, advertisement placement is everything – whether time slot in a TV show, where in a magazine/newspaper or the type and circulation/viewership of the media itself. And like no other variable, placement drives pricing. So what about mobile ad placement? Does it even exist?

Most mobile ads today are delivered based on the keywords the ad requests contain. These keywords have some (nearly) static parameters like phone type and IP address (country/region/operator) and variable parameters associated with the application or mobile media where the ad will be shown. Location stands out in a category of itself as it does provide information about exactly where the viewer is when the ad is shown, the place of the placement so to speak. As for placement on the phone screen the main distinction is banner ads versus ads placed within a mobile application or web page. As mobile web pages are smaller versions of web pages the placement is more limited but can be at the top or further down the page and even in follow up ‘click through’ pages. While this leaves plenty of placement options within applications and web pages, the placement opportunities at the highest level of the mobile web user interface, the front page so to speak, is relatively limited.

As long as we have static matrix like user interfaces to our apps and web on the phone, ad placement at the highest level will continue to be limited. But when we move to more open-ended navigational user interfaces, like mJetz, targeted ad placements amongst app and web icons suddenly become possible. These ads can be closely associated with where the ad is placed. If it is next to movie app it will be different than if it is next to shopping or news app and ads can also be placed dynamically next to where they make sense or where they have high visibility. In fact, mJetz is able to combine both static, variable, personal and placement data in its keywords and thus place highly relevant and high value ads throughout the mobile web user experience, both at the top level and within apps and sites. In this world mobile ad placement can provide the user with relevant ads at the right place and the advertiser has access to keywords so that they can create and serve these ads. These ads will become more valuable to bothe the user and the advertiser – a true win-win!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mobile Advertising - Nuisance or Value?

In the mobile application business, advertising is discussed as a way to make money for publishers of mobile content and applications. In many ways it is treated the same way as advertising on television, in newspapers or magazines – a nuisance there for the sole purpose of paying for the content and ‘fund’ the business. But is this really the case?

It is clear that much of today’s mobile ads qualify as nuisance, especially the lower end ads served by ad networks. Ring-tone and wallpaper download sites and generic messages about education, dating or religion feel a bit passé. But mobile ads can be something very different – information closely related to the application itself, when and where the user is and even information about the user. Such ads have the potential to be more relevant to what the user is interested in and thus provide real value.

This is of course called contextual ads and versions of these have been around for some time. Location context is what set this in motion followed by relevance to the application ads are placed in. If the user is willing to share personal information, contextual can be expanded to age, sex and interests. If the results are very relevant ads, chances are, users will share their personal information as long as it is not used for other purposes. At mJetz, to our surprise 70% of registrants voluntarily provide this optional information. But in order for contextual to work, there are two conditions that have to be met in order to improve the value of mobile ads?

  • Mobile apps have to deliver better contextual keywords that are focused on getting ads with as much relevance and value as possible, not just click-troughs.
  • Mobile ad networks have to improve so that they only serve ads directly related to the contextual keywords associated with the mobile app. No match – no ad!

Right now we are in a transition period where ad networks serving the premium phone app market are better at this than the mass market networks. Despite this, there are plenty of nuisance ads slipping though. Until both conditions are improved further, we nearly need a filter function that screens out nuisance ads from the mobile user experience. It is better to have no ads, than ads that are a nuisance and reduce the total user experience. When only relevant and valuable ads are shown, the user experience will improve – as will click though rates.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How many Mobile apps do you have on your phone?

The ME Mobile Entertainment guide reported last week that the average SmartPhone user has 27 App installed on their phone - (see article). This is based on Nielsen’s latest Apps playbook report on an August survey of 4,000 US mobile subscribers. The good news is that this number is up from 22 the year before – an increase of 25%. The bad news is that during the same time, the number of available applications have skyrocketed. Depending on phone type, there are over 200,000 iPhone apps and over 40,000 Android apps advertised. It seems like out of this overwhelming supply, only a miniscule number actually end up on actual phones. Even if you take the number of Smart Phones (50 million) into account – the total number of installed apps remains relatively low with the average app only installed on 26,000 phones – [26 apps/phone * 50 million phones / 50,000 average available apps]. Since big apps like Facebook, Weather Channel, Google Maps and Pandor have huge penetration, the actual average app seems to be installed on 10,000 phones or less. The notion of ‘the long tail’ was popular some years back – this is really a long long tail! What is going on?

It seems like the average user downloads a relatively limited set of apps on their phones and only gradually add more, in this case on average five more/year. The current average of 27 easily encompasses the 18 categories (games, weather, maps/search, social networking etc.) described in the study + a couple of more. This represents one dominant app in each category and a couple of new interesting ones as they come along. It also no doubt represents special unique interests, niche apps that appeal to a specific individual. Using these 27 apps on a regular basis involves quite a bit of time and there is most likely natural limit to how many apps people will ever have on their phones. But our guess is also that today’s phone user interfaces have a lot to do with how many apps people have and use. Why is that?

27 icons fill between two and three pages on today’s smart-phone matrix User Interfaces. Adding more apps means more pages and sooner or later the flipping of pages to find the app you are looking for is simply a bad User Experience. Most UIs are also disorganized with icons placed in random order and while it is possible to change placements, this is not necessarily intuitive, again a bad User Experience. Between these inherent limitations of the UIs and the fact that 20-30 apps cover the 18 categories users are looking for, it is unlikely that we will see a dramatic increase, like a doubling, of the number of Apps the average users have. In order to move this number up substantially, we need a much better User Experience in the form of a new User Interface!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Mobile Simple Syndication - Mobile Friendly RSS

In an earlier blog we discussed the advantages of RSS feeds as a way to convey a lot of information, like news headlines, to a mobile phone. They work well when we want to quickly glance at news, sports or blog headlines and read a short summary or see a picture. But there the mobile friendliness often ends. When we click for the full story we are taken to a full website. If we are talking about a blog, that is fine as we get the text we are looking for. But news or other media sites often take us to full websites filled with tabs, columns, ads and combinations of flash and java-script. Even browsers on today’s high end smart phones have problems finding the relevant story among these full web pages of information. There is a problem with RSS usability depth on mobile phones.

This is understandable as RSS feeds were developed to deliver Real Simple Syndication feeds from regular web sites that take us to these sites when we click on the feed. Will this mobile usability depth problem be solved when all phones can handle regular web pages? Most likely not as web browsers and web pages keep improving as fast or faster than mobile phone browsers. Unless we believe that PC and Internet innovation will come to a sudden stop so that the mobile phone world can catch up, mobile phones will be a couple of steps behind the innovation curve. Does this mean that RSS feeds will always have limited usability depth on mobile phones? Not necessarily.

If we develop a standard for Mobile Simple Syndication - MSS where we are taken to a mobile friendly sites instead of a full web site the problem is solved. If implemented, MSS will revolutionize how we deliver mobile web information to the phone and make it usable on all phones!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Do some phones make you "click happy"?

Mobile Ad firm Chitika published some research last week under the controversial headline ‘Android Users 80% More Valuable Than iPhone Users’. While the headline was obviously designed to grab attention, the underlying research showed that click-through rates on mobile ads on Android was twice the rate of iPhone. Following the publication, several blogs discussed these results arguing for or against such a conclusion. One comment was that Android users are newer and therefore “click-happy”. Others said that the results were a fluke and would even out over time. The article clearly states that as Android market share grows these numbers may change noting that it will be interesting to see how or by how much.

The Chitika analysis describes something that is well known in the print and TV advertising industries, different target groups are more or less receptive to specific ads and to ads in general. By showing that this is also true with mobile ads they start a discussion about effectiveness of mobile ads in general, in this case based on phone OS, which will hopefully lead to a discussion about effective ways of presenting mobile ads on mobile phones in particular. There are a couple of areas that are bound to have huge impact on the effectiveness, as measured in click-through rates, of mobile phone ads; relevancy and placement. Let us start with relevancy!

Contextual advertising is one of the buzz-words of mobile advertising and it is assumed, correctly, that the more relevant and ad is based on the context in which it is being displayed, the more interesting it will be to the user resulting in higher click rates. One of the great drivers for this is of course location information that today is available on nearly all high end smart phones. But equally important is information about the user gained from user registration information or usage patterns showing history and trends of interests.

All this contextual information comes together as keywords contained in the ad query sent from the phone or application to the ad network. It is up to the ad network to deliver an ad that is highly relevant to the user at the time it is displayed. If this relevancy is very high, we can expect click through rates to reflect this. High relevancy leads to high "click happiness". The same can be expected from great placement, but more about this in a later blog.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bookmarks, Tabs or Spatial Layout? – How to Find What You Want on your Mobile!

It is interesting to see how old usage descriptions get adapted to new uses but keep their limitations in the new use. Bookmarks and tabs as applied to mobile user interfaces are a cases of point.

Every reader of books uses a bookmark to find where they stopped reading the last time. In cookbooks we place bookmarks at our favorite recipes so that we can easily find them. In web browsers, book-marks have come to mean the list of favorites that point to web sites we like to find. This use of bookmarks works when we have a couple or maybe 10-20 items we want to mark for later easy access. It fails when we have 30-40 and becomes unusable when we have 100.

We are used to tabs from filing cabinets or binders where they are used to group information so that we can easily find it. Each tab can contain several pieces of information, say folders, organized is some type of fashion, alphabetically or other. In web-browsers, tabs are used to keep multiple web sites open and easily accessible at the same time. This use works for 5-10 tabs but fails if we have 20-40.

Folders come to the rescue when we try to organize more material and are used to group bookmarks in lists or tabs. However, once we pass 50, these approaches to organizing our mobile phone reach their limit and become cumbersome. It is time consuming and difficult to find what you want. What can be done?

On approach is to let spatial organization help. Our minds are good at remembering spatial information and if we can organize our sites and apps spatially instead of with lists of bookmarks and tabs, we can easily find what we want. All cell phones even have a special button for spatial (up/down, left/right) navigation - the directional button. The only thing missing is a better spatial placement beyond today’s pages of icons, drop-down menus of bookmarks or lines of tabs. Is there such a way? Yes, but more about that in a later blog!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Do we need an App for every Mobile Web Site?

A recent blog posed the interesting question of whether we need an app for every mobile web site out there. The obvious answer is of course no, but judging from what is going on in the world of Apps right now it looks like the answer is yes. After all, what other way do you have to get your mobile web site onto the icon deck of the iPhone, Android, Blackberry or Symbian smart phones? You simply have to turn it into a colorful icon and submit it to your App store of choice – or all of them for that matter. This ‘battle for icon space’ has created an interesting world of bookmarks posing as apps with colorful icons. I for one am interested to find out how many of the purported 250,000 iPhone apps are simply bookmarks with an icon.

Is there anything wrong with this trend? Well, it kind of defeats the purpose of the 'available anywhere to anyone' mobile web and the tools we have for explore, search and browse for mobile web sites and content we are interested in. If this trend continues we will need an app browser to explore, search and browse the mobile app space. And we will need separate ones for iPhone, Android, Blackberry and Symbian. The problem with this scenario is that it replaces the open world of the mobile web with proprietary silos of apps.

What is really needed is a user interface that merges the icon space of today’s phone deck app launchers with the capabilities of the web browser/search function. A user interface where a web site or result can be turned into an icon and placed on the phone app deck. A good name for such a user interface is a mobile web/app launcher that creates a user experience where apps and sites are treated the same. Do mobile web/app launchers exist? Yes, but more about that in a later blog.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Do App icons have to be square?

To be square means being conventional and boring and there is something slightly boring about today’s mobile phone user interfaces. What was clearly influenced by the icon usage on personal computers became the norm for mobile phones and most application interfaces on today’s phones are matrixes of square icons - or more often pages and pages of square icons! As screen resolutions are getting better, the squares have become more colorful and even ‘3D’ and some nearly sparkle – which all makes for a nice visual effect. Critics call this eye candy, but it works as long as you have a relatively limited set of applications. By using colors, symbols and characters it is certainly possible to create a thousand different icons that our eyes can easily distinguish between. But beyond that – now that we are in the 200,000 range it becomes more difficult.

One solution is to make the icons active so that a descriptor window pops up when we navigate past the icon. This eliminates any constraints as far as describing and branding the application – but without that ‘pop up window’ – it is difficult to quickly glance at icons and remember what they do. What can be done?

Sometimes the answer is simpler than the question appears. If we give up the square 1:1 ratio icons and replace them with rectangular 3:1 icons we can suddenly start to put text in the icons or mix logos with text. As our human mind is used to reading text the ability to clearly read, say 2 lines of 15 characters each, removes all limitations on icon recognition and makes the user experience much better. So instead of recognizing and remembering a square icon, why not just read the text in a rectangular one! Do such mobile application interfaces exist? Yes, but more about this in a later blog!

App icons do not have to be square – bring out exciting rectangles!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Good Mobile Search - Content or Look & Feel?

There is a lot going on in mobile search right now and the notion of mobile friendly results is coming to the forefront. So what exactly are mobile friendly results? Dumb question? Well it depends on the answer.

Most people can agree that mobile friendly results are results that work well on a mobile device, whether a mobile browser, feed reader or media player. They also should correspond to the capabilities of each phone. So if you have a large screen, high resolution is important and if you have a touch screen the results should be touch-friendly. As touch screens are the latest and greatest, there are even companies specializing in providing a search portal with touch friendly results.

Are we moving to a world with search portals for every phone category? Hopefully not, as the look, feel and usability of search results is of less concern than actually getting search results that corresponds to what the user is looking for, content rather than look and feel, one could say. As lengthy search queries are tedious to enter on a phone, we want relevant results from simple search terms. Let us use the search term fun as an example. Are we looking for jokes, games, amusement parks, movies or something fun to do close to where we are? Good mobile search results should give you results in a way so that you can quickly get to which one of these you are actually looking for. And they should do that without having to use a different portal or app for each result type. Is this possible? Yes, but more about this in a later blog.

In the meantime, try entering fun on your phone search and see how quickly you get to what you have in mind!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Mobile Web’s Ugly Duckling - RSS

When something that seems to be ideal for mobile phone use is relegated to a separate position and treated as an anomaly, the HC Andersen story of the Ugly Duckling comes to mind. How else can one explain the treatment that RSS feeds receive from mobile browsers and apps where they are lumped into separate RSS tabs or applications? When it comes to the mobile web, RSS feeds are clearly not treated as equals of web sites or apps. Now why is that? Before we answer this question, let us take a look at Real Simple Syndication feeds.

In their most commonly used form, they are feeds of headlines and updates from news media, magazines, web sites and blogs, but they are also summaries of news, events, store offerings, magazine articles and even twitter feeds. If well written they are like headlines and the first paragraph in a good newspaper article or catalog entry, designed to want you to read the whole article or buy a product. Granted, everything does not lend itself to RSS summaries, but when it does, RSS headlines and summaries are probably the best way of quickly cover large amounts of information in a small space. And the good news is that there are hundreds of thousands of them.

Needless to say, this format is ideal for mobile phones where limited screen size and usage patterns make condensed info a plus. But how do you find them and how do you add them to your mobile apps? Here the bad news starts as RSS feeds have somehow taken on a separate ugly duckling status! Many phones and phone browsers support RSS feeds, but then often as a separate 'RSS reader' in a tab, app or function recognized by the orange RSS button. In order to read an RSS feeds you need to open a special RSS reader and then painstakingly find and add the RSS feeds you want to follow to your RSS reader. So what in many ways is the ideal information presentation format for mobile phones, has instead become a difficult to use special application.

What is needed is a user experience where an RSS feed is treated like any other application with its own app icon, ease of discovery and simple user interface. Given that many news and web sites have multiple RSS feeds, it would not hurt if the RSS app was able to simultaneously display say the news and sports feed from one publication under a common app name! RSS feeds can then become the information swan they really are instead of an ugly duckling!

Are there such user experiences for mobile phones? The answer is YES, but more about this in a later blog.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Not so fast – Browser Web Rendering and Search are Different

We are so used to the PC-based web that we sometimes fail to recognize that what we have on the phone is something very different. A good way to look at this is to separate web rendering from search. Let us start with rendering!

Does the site look good on the phone and is it usable? Two very different questions that are not necessarily related as looking good have to do with design, colors, eye candy, pictures etc. Usability means that the mobile phone user can quickly find what they look for and use site related menus, entry-fields and links. It also means that there is some immediacy between hitting enter and getting results back! By this standard, most real web sites fail miserably when presented on a phone browser. Mobile web sites do much better although their usability differs between phones. However, recent attempts to ‘standardize’ browser rendering with ‘web-kit’ based solutions is certainly a step in the right direction as it makes it much easier for web site developers to develop sites that look good and are usable on a number of phones and phone platforms from different manufacturers!

But what good are good looking usable sites if you can’t find them? As most of us do not walk around with memorized URLs in our head, we depend on having a search function that is usable. So are today’s phone search any good? Well, not really. As a start, search results that generate long lists of web sites without regard to whether they are usable or not do not constitute a good user experience. Nor do lists of general results that are not what we are looking for. We also do not want to have to type in several words just to get back results that are too narrow. And what about the search engines that supposedly give us mobile friendly results, how do we incorporate them in our search. Finally, once we have found what interest us and the site looks really usable, we want to add it to our favorites so we can refer to the site often. Bookmarks? Tabs? Well a lot of questions but no clear emerging solutions for search that really works on a mobile.

So while rendering seems to be heading in the right direction mobile search still leaves a lot to be desired. More on that in a later blog!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Apps & Sites - Widgets & Feeds ....

One of the favors bestowed by the iPhone was a common name for the icons on the user interface – they are all called apps which is short and simple. There is no distinction between a web site bookmark in the form of a colorful square and the colorful square that opens an application running on the iPhone processor utilizing all its impressive computing and rendering capabilities. This brings great simplicity to the user who does not have to worry what hides behind the colorful square! For them it is all the same whether it is a cell phone application, a bookmark or a widget – a third category!

Hmm, so how many categories can hide behind a colorful square? Well, there are of course ‘phone functions’ like placing calls, messaging etc. But if we stick with applications or web applications, there seems to be at least two more in use, the browser and the feed (or RSS) reader. I am sure the reader can come up with more but let us stick with these five:

  • phone application
  • web bookmark
  • widget
  • browser
  • feed reader
The definitional differences between them are relatively clear although browser and feed reader are descriptions of functions rather than just apps. They both come from the personal computer world and have been shrunk to the mobile phone world. As on the PC, browser has become somewhat synonymous with search and web rendering combined into one app. As for feed reader – it is just an app designed for a specific purpose, to display RSS feeds.

Does the everyday user care about these distinctions? Most likely not and if one or more can be combined so that we have fewer categories, we would have fewer functions, less confusion and a better user experience. More on that in a later blog!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Finding what you want quickly!

If you are like most people, patience is not in great supply when you use the mobile web on the phone. NOW is the word that comes to mind and most of the time the user knows what they want because they have used an app or visited a site before. On most phones this leaves the user searching for an app logo or opening their browser to find a bookmark! Neither of these is particularly quick when you have more than 12 apps of 5 bookmarks not to mention that you also have to remember whether it is an app or a bookmark.

It seems like phone user interfaces are not designed to handle a lot of mobile web sites and applications individually or at the same time and are certainly not designed to quickly get you to what you want. So there is both a need and opportunity for innovation in a couple of areas:

  • A user interface that accommodates 50-100 apps and bookmarks and at the same time make them easy to find and use
  • A user interface that combines app icons and bookmarks eliminating the need for a separate browser app.
  • As we are all different, we also want a user interface that we can personalize and organize the way we want. My mobileWeb comes to mind!
There is obviously plenty of innovation around both phone user interfaces and app/browser interfaces. However, it tends to be focused on specific phones (do high end smart phones sound familiar) or specific apps (Layar anyone). If you use an older phone or want a better experience for all your apps, you are out of luck!

Well, not necessarily – there are companies bringing out enhanced user interface shells and application launchers that innovate in the areas described. To date many are focused of high end smart phones but there are one or two exceptions. More about these in a later blog!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why we don't use mobile apps or web more?

There are many reasons given for this disappointing statistics but most of these can be narrowed down to three words - BAD USER EXPERIENCE. Let us give some examples from the app (application) and (web) browser world:

The iPhone has a beautiful user interface and each application can utilize the full graphics that the iPhone can deliver. No doubt, each of the 250,000 advertised iPhone apps used these capabilities to the fullest. But if you think about how each user gets their favorite apps to their phone and how they find them among the pages and pages of icons (16 icons/page) it is easy to understand that the average user continues to use their 4 or 5 favorite apps over and over again. Apple just introduced the old folder concept to make it somewhat easier to organize the apps, but for a user to find which one of the 250,000 apps they would like to add and then find it on their phone is not easy. And you are still restricted to iPhone apps, or Android apps, or Blackberry apps or Symbian apps or Java apps – never the five shall meet! Overall, not a great user experience across phones in the app world.

The mobile web browser has a different problem. There are millions of web sites out there in addition to mobile web sites and RSS feeds. Most of these sites do not show well on ordinary phones. This is something the ongoing phone browser wars intend to address although from the press it seams to be more about flash support! Organizing web sites on your phone falls back on old concepts like bookmarks and tabs. Discovery of new web content uses search engines that give their results in long lists of web page addresses. For the thumb-proficient there is always the good old entering of a full web address. In some cases, results are mobile friendly based on auto-detection of browser type, but in other cases you get what you get! But at least web sites work on most phones but you are limited to the 4 to 5 you have bookmarked. Overall, not a great user experience across phones in the browser world.

This brings us to the old term usability! It seems like neither apps or browsers are solving the usability problem in a satisfactory way! More about this in future blogs after discussing some definitional issues and also the ugly duckling of the web that is really usable on the mobile!