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Why Mobile Services Fail
Howard Rheingold discusses the theory and practise of mobile design, syntax, semantics
Howard Rheingold (jean)     Print Article 
Published 2004-08-03 10:27 (KST)   
This article was originally published on TheFeature.com. OhmyNews International republishes Howard Rheingold's column courtesy of the Feature.com.

Designer Scott Jenson says mobile services like WAP and MMS were set up to fail because designers looked backwards at past successes instead of forward to new, untried ways to use mobile media.

Jenson, who, among other things, led the design team for Symbian's Quartz user interface (now known as UIQ) and worked on the Apple Newton, likens the situation to the birth of motion pictures. The first moviemakers nailed cameras to stages. Cinema didn't blossom until D.W. Griffith used close-ups and sophisticated editing to invent the language of film. Jenson thinks the same kind of thinking has prevented WAP and MMS from replicating the accidental success of texting.

"The original use of movies to capture stage plays wasn't wrong; it just wasn't ultimately all that exciting," Jenson wrote in his brilliant rant on "Default Thinking." "Something much more interesting happened as the use of the technology matured. Most likely the same will happen with photos and phones. Something far more interesting will most likely come. We should be getting used to this pattern and anticipate it."

WAP and MMS failed to meet expectations because services were designed by what Jenson calls "default thinking," a clichéd and unquestioned mindset that combines "a weak collection of axioms of design, broad market visions, or rules of execution that aren't clearly articulated. This collection exists in the background, much like the assumption that gravity exists."

The companies who assumed that the coolness of sending photos would automatically make MMS an even bigger hit than the accidental success of SMS were victims of default thinking: "While indeed, there appears to be an intuitive value to 'sending a photo,' additional questions such as 'Do people really need this?' and 'What are they doing in their lives where this is a large value?' need to be asked."

Jenson uses the notions of "design semantics" (the broader motivational issues underlying an act of communication) and "design syntax" (the way the screens and menus look when someone tries to communicate) to illustrate the important differences between SMS and MMS. Turning his own analytical tools on the problem of designing popular and usable services for mobile multimedia, he suggests four potential killer apps.

Jenson has a hunch that gift-giving rituals could drive future uses of MMS. "It is possible to create quite a complex MMS, one that includes not only a picture but sound and text as well. This has clear value as a gift. There could be a small study in the gift giving groups to see how they would respond to photos as gifts" Then he suggests a simple service that wouldn't require any change in existing SMS and mobile handsets -- enabling users to safely store messages they treat as gifts with symbolic value, a behavior uncovered by studies of adolescent use of SMS.

The product Jenson calls "Tap" would require custom software on the handset to send and receive SMS messages that convey only the time and the identity of the sender. "Although no text is sent, the message isn't really empty of content as it has a sender and an arrival time, both of which can have meaning depending on social context. This text-free message can be thought of as the social equivalent of a tap on the shoulder" that could convey different messages, depending on context. "For a family in a theme park tapping could mean it is time for lunch. It could also mean a lover is thinking of their partner during the day."

Another product would involve even more extensive software on the handset, using the simple procedure of sending SMS but substituting a brief recorded message for hand-entered text, which can be a barrier for those with less dextrous thumbs: "VoiceSMS would be sent with just 2 actions, one to start recording, and another to select a recipient, mimicking the design syntax of most SMS clients today."

Unlike the first two suggestions, which could elaborate on existing technology, Jenson's last suggestion does not address a technology but begins with a problem: the complex arrangement of one-to-one messages and forwarded messages required to achieve a group consensus (about where to meet for lunch, for example). "What we are really after is an SMS style bulletin board system with a new inbox organization. The messages should be collected into groups instead of all shoved together into a single list."

After hearing Jenson speak, and reading his work, I asked him a few questions. Check back Thursday, when Jenson will answer my questions about apps for cameraphones that break out of default thinking, about the significance of user-created apps, and whether any mobile service vendors have tried to implement the products he has suggested.
(Look for "Default Thinking" as a chapter in Harper, R. Palen, L.. & Taylor, A. (Eds), (Forthcoming 2004) The Inside Text; Social perspectives on SMS in the mobile age, Kluwer, Dordrecht, Netherlands.)
©2004 OhmyNews

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