Research and Advances
Computing Applications Designing for the mobile device: experiences, challenges, and methods

Mobile Research Strategies For a Global Market

Tracing the evolution of field methods during the proliferation of wireless device usage.
  1. Introduction
  2. International Research
  3. Circle of Friends Study
  4. Conclusion
  5. References
  6. Author
  7. Footnotes
  8. Figures

The user-centered design focus at Microsoft has evolved in parallel with emerging mobile technologies. We started with a Contextual Inquiry (CI) initiative in 1997 to gather mobile communication and information requirements in the Northwest U.S. Later, as users adopted wireless data services—Short Message Service (SMS), Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), mobile instant messenger, and email clients—the focus turned to more specific usage issues in key international markets. This article presents an overview of the evolution of the qualitative field research methods that have been used to respond to increasingly global research requirements.1

In 1997, in my role as a Microsoft usability engineer, I conducted a field study to gather user requirements for Windows Mobile-based devices. This exploratory study was conducted at a time when mobile phones were used by U.S. residents primarily for voice communication. The participants were busy mobile professionals, commuters, and parents. I applied CI observation and data modeling techniques including flow models, sequence models, and affinity diagrams. Beyer and Holtzblatt [1] describe the CI observation method as an apprenticeship model in which the researcher assumes the role of an apprentice, learning how activities are performed from an expert. The observer enters the context in which work or activities take place to gather definitive data representing ongoing experience.

I trained a multidisciplinary site visit team including people from design, program management, and marketing. We observed each participant for two to four hours. In addition, we contracted with an ethnographer to conduct longer observations of six to eight hours. We instructed the participants to handle phone calls and messages just as they would if we were not present and to show us what they take with them and how they get organized before they leave their home or office.

Each site visit was unique. I traveled with regional sales people, rode home from work with commuters, and traveled with busy parents as they shuttled children and ran errands. The ethnographer traveled with sales representatives, a county building inspector, a large animal veterinarian, and a wildlife biologist. In one case, a sales representative described how he conducted business calls anywhere, even on the golf course. In order to gather data, our designer and ethnographer played 18 holes of golf while observing the sales representative’s mobile communications activity (the ethnographer won the game).

The site visit team analyzed data using site summaries, flow models, and sequence models. We also created two affinity diagrams: one representing mobile professionals and one representing mobile “personals.” An affinity diagram is developed by sorting individual data points into meaningful clusters. A hierarchy emerges inductively from the bottom up, from specific data points to high-level meaning [1]. We developed an internal Web site to share key findings, site summaries, and affinity diagrams with product teams, designers, and management. We stored the data points and headings of each affinity diagram in a database and developed an Active Server Page to render the affinity hierarchy, as shown in Figure 1.

The participants’ transition into mobile space emerged as a critical focus in the study. We observed strategies for planning schedules and routes. We noted the artifacts that people carried and how they used tools in mobile environments. We found that all of the participants carried paper schedules or to-do lists, maps, and directions in their vehicles, and they prepared these items for easy access. We also discovered that each person had a staging area—a location or container in the home or office—where they would place items to take along when they went out.

Most of the participants received voice mail in two or more inboxes for home, work, and mobile phones. All of these people considered it important to control who they talked to, while being available to a select group of people. They had developed an asynchronous voice communication practice in which they exchanged voice messages with certain people rather than engaging in direct conversation. We found that people preferred asynchronous messaging for several reasons, especially when they were mobile. People would exchange a series of questions and answers via voice mail to avoid being waylaid by a real-time conversation, and to avoid being caught off-guard by questions. Due to this call-screening practice, these busy people spent considerable time checking multiple voice-mail inboxes.

When they did engage in synchronous conversations, some of the participants appeared to forget where they were while attending to complex problems over the phone. People were distracted from physical tasks such as driving or playing golf. We observed the social juxtaposition between mobile phone conversations and public spaces, as described by Ling [8]. When engaged in a conversation, people created boundaries between themselves and others who were present. The mobile professionals in our study displayed body language that signaled the priority of their business conversations.

At the time of this field study, voice conversations and voice mail were the primary uses of mobile phones in the U.S. Contextual observations enabled us to gain insight into people’s strategies for managing data, coordinating with others, and controlling their availability while mobile. By observing the use of paper artifacts in relation to mobile phone calls and information requirements we developed a model of requirements for Windows Mobile-based products. Years later, many of the core user requirements gathered in this study are still relevant.

As we began to understand the challenges of design for mobility it became evident that we would need to conduct ongoing field studies to keep up with the rapidly changing technical developments. Management supported the hiring of an anthropologist to lead this effort. This was a breakthrough that created a new job category at Microsoft and opened the door for anthropologists to be hired in several other divisions.

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International Research

While U.S.-based users talked on their cellular phones and exchanged asynchronous voice mail, Europeans and Asians were developing a quieter, less obtrusive approach to mobile communication. Most U.S. residents had not heard of SMS or GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) in 1999. Meanwhile, Europeans were rapidly adopting this communication technology, which was less expensive for them to use than voice calls. Prepaid cards made SMS accessible to teens and shielded their parents from responsibility for high phone bills [3, 6].

Field Research in Europe. It was evident we needed to broaden our scope and gain more understanding of global customers in the context of their cultures [12]. Our marketing team developed a global market research plan to collect data on mobile phone use by mobile professionals. I seized the opportunity and planned field research to follow up with a subset of the market research participants. These contextual observations would enable us to understand the actual mobile work practice underlying the data collected in market research interviews. I contracted with research vendors in the U.K., Finland, and Sweden to conduct site visits in 1999 and 2000.

This collaboration between market research and qualitative field research was an optimal alliance. The field researchers observed market research interviews and selected participants for follow-up site visits. We understood the context of each participant’s mobile work practice prior to the site visits, which enabled us to target the field observations to the most relevant situations. In addition to the mobile professionals in the market research study, we recruited some teens and young adults for the field study, to see how people were using SMS for both business and personal communication.

I developed a research design and provided a checklist of research issues, but allowed each of the research vendors to employ their own observation and data analysis methods. I asked for site summaries, activity sequences, and digital photos showing the context of mobile situations. The vendors delivered a rich set of data in formats that enabled me to conduct further analysis and to develop reports and presentations. The combination of summaries, sequences, and pictures brought the story of each person to life for the product teams.

A new method, Discount User Observations (DUO) emerged in my collaboration with Karri Laakso and Sari Laakso in Finland. The CI sequence model evolved into a timeline associated with data points, location and social context, and photos [12]. This layout, shown in Figure 2, proved to be an efficient tool for the field research team to deliver contextual observation data to a remote research associate and product team.

The observations and pictures of mobile phone use in the contexts of social interactions and workgroup collaboration brought the differences of European mobile phone use to life for the product teams back in the U.S. As the researchers delivered site summaries, communication sequences, and pictures, the teams and managers realized the value of international field research. Beyond market research, we learned what really motivated these people.

We discovered that unlike most U.S. residents at the time, these Europeans used their mobile phones as their primary point of contact. In offices we saw mobile phones used more often than the land-line phones. The implication was that people were free to move about, and they were not wasting time checking multiple voice-mail inboxes.

We learned that the acronym SMS was used as a verb, spanning multiple languages. We observed people who kept in touch with friends, loved ones, and colleagues with SMS, even while sitting at a PC. In London, we followed an IT professional who provided network support for client companies. We observed collaborative work supported by SMS as he and his coworkers used it to ask quick questions. To initiate more complex conversations SMS was frequently used to ask, “Where are you? Can you talk?”

For personal contacts, SMS afforded private contact in almost any situation. The mobile phone was treated as a private, personal device unless the display was deliberately shared with others. Our researchers followed a group of teenage girls shopping in Helsinki, and a group of young adults out for an evening in London. In both cases SMS was used extensively to coordinate meeting places and to maintain friendships.

This contextual research in Europe provided us with a snapshot of early adopters of a new technology. After observing the relative ease and input speed employed by European teens and young professionals, it was difficult to predict the likelihood of U.S.-based users typing messages on mobile phones. It did not seem likely that middle-aged U.S. residents would start entering text messages; however, teens and young adults were becoming intrigued.

This contextual research in Europe provided us with a snapshot of early adopters of a new technology. After observing the relative ease and input speed employed by European teens and young professionals, it was difficult to predict the likelihood of U.S.-based users typing messages on mobile phones.

Field Research in South Korea. In 2002 and 2003, I conducted a usability study and a qualitative field study for MSN Mobile and MSN Messenger in Seoul, South Korea. Our goals for user research projects in Korea are twofold. We study teens and young adults in this leading-edge market to see the latest trends. We release some of our most advanced MSN Mobile products in South Korea, so contextual research supports local design for Koreans as well as leading our international design process.

I conducted site visits with the help of a Korean research vendor. In these mobile observations we followed young people in several diverse environments including a high school, a university campus, a shopping mall, and a game tournament. Throughout the observations the SMS messages never ceased. The high school student used SMS to maintain a peripheral awareness of her close friends who attended different schools. This is described by Ito and Okabe [5] as “a persistent social space constituted through the periodic exchange of text messages.” A high school teacher commented, “I know that at any given time a certain percentage of my students are keying messages on their phones. But I can’t tell which students are doing it because they maintain eye contact with me while they do it!” In a 1999 study of Norwegian teens, Ling found that one in four of the students had sent or received text messages in class [7].

The participants in Korea had considerably more names in their instant messaging (IM) buddy lists than we had seen in the U.S. They communicated with many of the same people in both IM and SMS, depending on the situation. When either one was offline they would send SMS from phone to phone, but they would switch media and connect in IM when they saw each other online. Intermittent IM contact contributed to their sense of shared social space, but they maintained peripheral awareness of one another through SMS as they moved through school and public environments.

From our U.S.-based perspective there is a tendency to think that we can design a better solution for global customers. My first impression in the field was to see a breakdown between IM and SMS and to think of solutions to improve the experience. However, after more thorough analysis I understood that young people do not find their messaging practice particularly inconvenient. They are willing to put up with a bit of inconvenience to be empowered by a technology that sets them apart from their parents and teachers. It is the perceived inconvenience by adults that enables the young to maintain an autonomous space outside the scope of adult supervision [5]. The qualitative field research in Korea provided a cultural context for the product team in the U.S. to transcend ethnocentric thinking and imagine what will inspire people in several international markets.

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Circle of Friends Study

After MSN Mobile released WAP and SMS-based services in the U.S., I conducted a field study named “Circle of Friends” to study the adoption of mobile email, instant messaging, and the mobile Web among a group of university students. This study was conducted in cooperation with the faculty from the Department of Technical Communication in the College of Engineering at the University of Washington. We recruited a group of six undergraduate students who frequently used IM. A graduate research assistant functioned as a member of the circle and collected data in context of social interactions within the group. I developed the research design to study an existing social network, unaware that a similar research design was developed concurrently at Nokia by Blom et al. [2]. The Circle of Friends study was conducted in four phases.

Phase 1: Site visits. First, we conducted site visits to study the participants’ current IM and SMS activity in their own home and/or school environments. We employed the CI observation method during two-hour site visits. We documented our observations in site summaries with pictures and sequence models, and we created an affinity diagram, shown in Figure 3.

Phase 2: Usability study. We gave each member of the circle a WAP phone with MSN Mobile service. We observed each participant’s “out of box” experience and first use of MSN Mobile in a usability lab.

Phase 3: Field trial. The participants were encouraged to try out the mobile services in the course of their daily activities for one month. The graduate research assistant conducted opportunistic observations during the month, in person and through instant messaging.

Phase 4: Focus group. We concluded the study with a focus group and round table discussions in which the participants met with MSN Messenger and MSN Mobile product team members.

The students did not find IM, Hotmail, SMS, or the mobile Web particularly compelling on mobile phones. We learned in the contextual observations in Phase 1 that these participants had frequent opportunities to log into IM on PCs at home, at work, and in university computer labs. Most of them were already online so much they did not feel compelled to log into IM on mobile phones as they traveled between home, school, and work. We also understood there was a lot more going on in their IM besides transmitting text. These students used IM to associate with nearby and distant friends by multitasking between IM and school projects [4]. They checked their buddy lists just to see who was “around” [9], and they found details of their friends’ moods and activities transmitted in display names and away messages.

In the Circle of Friends study we extended our observation focus to the social network. We began to think of groups of friends and the design implications for groups. There were several differences between these young people and those we had observed in Europe and Asia. Only half of the students in the Circle of Friends study were SMS users prior to this research. None of them used SMS as frequently as typical Europeans or Asians in their age group. We need to focus on social networks of heavy SMS users in Europe and Asia to gather requirements for new mobile services.

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Our earliest efforts to gather requirements for mobile devices and services were limited to our local region in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. Many of our initial expectations about mobility were associated with our own automobile-based culture. A CI-based study of mobile professionals, commuters, and parents yielded insight into core requirements that have endured through many technological changes. The initial CI served as a catalyst to convince product teams and managers that they are not the customer. It opened our minds to understand the differences in work practice between mobile professionals and ourselves.

We worked with an ethnographer in parallel with the CI and found value in sending an observer out to collect more detailed ethnographic data on mobile professionals who moved through a series of mobile work situations all day. Management decided to hire full time anthropologists, creating a specialized ethnography role. As we have broadened our scope to focus on global markets, the anthropologists travel frequently. It is a bit like having a team of foreign correspondents who share breaking news from the field.

As we expanded our research initiatives to focus on Europe and Asia, we found it efficient and cost-effective to hire vendors to conduct site visits in their local regions. I have traveled to accompany them on site visits and in some cases members of product teams have observed as well. We weigh the costs and benefits in relation to the objectives of each study to evaluate the value of people traveling to observe site visits in person.

Some of our earlier research objectives seem quite naive in retrospect. For example, we set out to study the abbreviations and slang young people use in IM and SMS [11], with the objective to provide a selection of quick phases on the phone. After studying teens and young adults in context with their social networks we realized that they create their own language as a playful, creative expression. It is an expression of personal style. It is subversive in that it creates solidarity among peers [5, 7, 10] while alienating the establishment represented by parents, teachers, and corporations such as Microsoft. Consequently, any attempt we make to speak their language would be doomed.

Qualitative field research has expanded our understanding of mobile requirements in leading- edge markets in Europe and Asia and in our trailing U.S. market as well. Contextual observations have enabled us to predict the implications of new designs and technologies for teens and young adults as well as mobile professionals. We could not localize products effectively without understanding the cultural contexts in which they will be used in homes, schools, workplaces, and mobile environments internationally. Our research focus will continue to evolve in parallel with the emergence of wireless broadband. As it becomes possible to deliver more graphics and personalized, location-based content on a mobile device, our new challenge is to understand which elements are most important and personally relevant to busy mobile people.

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F1 Figure 1. Online mobile professionals affinity diagram.

F2 Figure 2. Activity sequences in relation to timeline.

F3 Figure 3. Affinity diagram.

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    1. Beyer, H. and Holtzblatt, K. Contextual Design: Defining Customer-Centered Systems. Morgan Kaufmann, San Francisco, 1988.

    2. Blom, J., Chipchase, J., and Lehikoinen, J. T. Contextual and cultural challenges for user mobility research. Commun. ACM 48, 7 (July 2005).

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    5. Ito, M. and Okabe, D. Intimate connections: Contextualizing Japanese youth and mobile messaging. In R. Harper, L. Palen, and A.S. Taylor, Eds., The Inside Text: Social, Cultural and Design Perspectives on SMS. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Amsterdam, forthcoming.

    6. Ling, R. and Yttri, B. Hypercoordination via mobile phones in Norway. In J.E. Katz and M. Aakhus, Eds., Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance. University Press, Cambridge, U.K., 2002.

    7. Ling, R. The impact of the mobile telephone on four established social institutions. In Proceedings of the ISSEJ2000 Conference of the International Society for the Study of European Ideas, (Bergen, Norway, Aug. 2000).

    8. Ling, R. The social juxtaposition of mobile telephone conversations and public spaces. In Porceedings of the Conference on the Social Consequences of Mobile Telephones (Chunchon, South Korea, July 2002).

    9. Nardi, B., Whittaker, S., and Bradner, E. Interaction and outeraction: Instant messaging in action. In Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW'00), (Philadelphia, PA, Dec. 2000), ACM, NY, 2000.

    10. Rheingold, H. Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Basic Books, Cambridge, MA, 2002.

    11. Thurlow, C. Generation txt? The sociolinguistics of young people's text-messaging. Discourse Analysis Online 1, 1 (2003);

    12. Wixon, D. et al. Usability in practice: Field methods—Evolution and revolution. In Human Factors in Computing Systems: CHI 2002 Extended Abstracts. ACM, NY, 2002.

    1Microsoft develops software and services for mobile devices, including Windows Mobile software and applications for Windows Mobile-based Pocket PCs and Smartphones, plus MSN® Mobile services that connect customers with MSN Messenger®, MSN Hotmail®, and the MSN Mobile portal.

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