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Three Layers of Mobile User Experience

Compared with traditional cell phones, smartphones allow users to stay connected on the go. They come with more fashionable industrial designs, bigger screens and higher resolution displays. Features of smartphones include but are not limited to: touch screen, high megapixel camera, GPS, and more gaming and entertainment options. Smartphones enable users to do a wide range of activities, such as communication, entertainment, personal information assisting and managing, and social networking. Of course, you can still use them to make phone calls, but what a smartphone offers goes far beyond just a phone.

An estimated 172 million smartphones were sold last year, which was a 24% increase from 2008. What’s driving the industry forward? The ever improving mobile user experience is the key.

When users are interacting with a smartphone, they either have a good or bad user experience. There are multiple layers of the mobile user experience. Each layer of the mobile user experience deals with a different circle of players and each layer affects the end users’ experience on a different level. In her 2006 paper, Virpi Roto discussed her understanding of the multiple layers of mobile usability: the hardware usability, the browser usability and the usability of the websites that mobile users are browsing. Because the mobile user experience has evolved significantly since 2006, an update to the three layers is in order: the hardware user experience, the operating system user experience, and the mobile site/apps user experience.

The first layer of the mobile user experience is the hardware that users directly interact with. This layer of user experience deals with the sensitivity of the touch screen, the size of the screen, the design of the button set, the size and shape of the device, and the length of the battery life. It also includes how fast the network is, how quickly a video can be loaded, and how vivid the picture color is when users are browsing photos. In addition, industrial design and the internal hardware technology such as video and image processing speed greatly impact on this layer of user experience.

The second layer of the mobile user experience is the interaction with a mobile operating system. Functions of a mobile operating system include: whether or not apps can run in background, background notification, push mail, multi-touch interface, capacitive screen support, stereo bluetooth, flash support in browser, data tethering capable, mass storage mode, video recording, turn-by-turn navigation, copy and paste, universal search, MMS messaging, webkit browser, and an app store experience.

The third layer of the mobile user experience deals with individual mobile applications and mobile websites. Considerations in this layer include: Are the tasks prioritized for mobile use? Is the workflow or navigation easy and intuitive on a mobile device? Does the information architecture follow the way users understand the site? Is the mobile website simply an abbreviated version of the full site or does it have special consideration of users’ context and environment of using a mobile device?

The First Layer: Handset Design and Network Technology

Handset manufacturers include big names such as Nokia, RIM, Apple, HTC, and Motorola. Each of these handset makers develop and target their products with a specific market segment in mind. For example, Droid made by Motorola has a bold design and sharp corners, the Apple iPhone’s slick design and high-end branding make it a fashionable accessory while RIM targets the corporate and business audience with a full keyboard for email use. Through extensive market research, the handset manufacturers know these types of characteristics are appealing to certain market segments. Recent advancements in mobile hardware include higher resolution screens which provide a richer viewing experience and superior game experience– features that cater to users who are gaming enthusiasts or heavy watchers of video on their mobile devices. As you can imagine, the kind of smartphone you have tells a lot of about what kind of person you are.

In terms of network technology, CDMA is the dominant standard in the U.S while GSM is the standard in Europe. WCDMA, a hybrid of GSM and CDMA, is growing rapidly as many GSM operators migrate to WCDMA, which is a more advanced technology. The advancements in the network allow users to get quicker access to the internet and other data services. In Stephen Wellman’s article about Google’s mobile user experience strategy, he talked about three types of mobile users: repetitive now, bored now, and urgent now. The “repetitive now” users use mobile devices to check the same information repetitively to get live updates. The “bored now” users use mobile devices to kill the couple of minutes that they have while waiting in line or sitting in a train. The “urgent now” users need to find a specific piece of information or complete certain tasks using the mobile devices in a limited period of time, such as check in a flight or find a hotel. No matter if users are simply bored, or they are eager to check live updates, or they need to do something urgently, they can use the mobile devices to achieve their goals. With the increase in text, video and music downloads and overall data usage, the network technology is important for many mobile users.

The Second Layer: The Mobile Operating System

Operating Systems contribute substantially to the mobile user experience. Mobile operating systems include Symbian, Android, Microsoft Windows OS, iPhone OS, Blackberry OS and the Web OS from Palm. Although most of the mobile operating systems act similarly on the fundamental level, they are different in one way or another. For example, the iPhone OS 3.0 doesn’t allow multiple apps to run simultaneously but the Android does. With a clear business oriented focus, the Blackberry OS enables easy integration into company internal email systems and remote management of devices but is inferior in other aspects.

The Third Layer: The Apps and The Mobile Sites

Mobile applications (apps) are software applications that are either pre-loaded on mobile devices or downloaded to the devices by users. Mobile applications can enable functionality that they normally would have with a full website on a desktop computer. Users generally have to download or purchase such applications from various application stores based on the specific phone operating systems. Application developers oftentimes need to develop the same application across different platforms and distribute them across different stores in order to gain a larger audience. Such stores include the Apple’s app store, Andriod’s app market, Symbian’s Ovi store, Palm’s app catalog, and Windows’ marketplace.

Developing a mobile website is the alternative way to go mobile. Users don’t have to download or purchase anything from the store. They access the mobile website on their smartphone the same way users access the website on the Internet: by typing the URL of the mobile website in the address bar or search the site using a search engine. Mobile websites usually feature slimmer design and less visual content to cater to the smaller screen of mobile devices and generally only time and location crucial tasks are incorporated in these mobile websites. Unlike mobile applications, mobile websites can be accessible via all operating systems without customization.

Going mobile is a big decision. By understanding the multiple layers of the mobile user experience your strategy and tactics will become much clearer. In my next blog, I’ll talk about strategies and methods marketers should look into before jumping into the mobile world.