Yesterday I attended my first Mobile Monday in Amsterdam. The theme was “value” and in my mind, I had already equated the term with “user experience”. This was a mistake. Contrary to my expectations, the event was well outside of my comfort zone. Discussions were dominated by business and technology perspectives. I found the experience frustrating at times, but I guess this is good. Frustration often leads to new insights. Therefore, although this may not sound as a recommendation, I would say MoMo is an event worth visiting for any designer interested in mobility. It will remind you that in this industry, many ideas you take for granted are far from accepted.
I thought I’d share some thoughts concerning the salient points of the evening.
Context was often equated with location. To me, these two are far from the same. Location is, at best, a component of context, which also involves what people are doing, who else is there, what objects are present, etc. But, more importantly: Context arises from interactions, it is relational and therefore cannot be objectified. Coincidentally, Adam Greenfield has posted some valuable insights on this topic.
As an example, consider a person present in the White House, in the possession of a firearm, in clear sight of the president. The meaning of this situation (i.e. the context) depends completely on who this person is and what his motivations are. He might be working (bodyguarding the president), he might be at war (making an attempt at the president’s life) or he might be playing around (the gun isn’t real, he’s the president’s son).
Anyway — I subscribe to the view that we should not attempt to guess context, the above example has hopefully shown that this is an impossible task. (At least, as long as we cannot reliably read the minds of people.) In stead, we should ‘limit’ ourselves to giving places, things, etc. a voice in the conversation (making them self-describing, and accountable) and having context arise those voices, as determined by the people involved.
Ajit Jaokar posited that open source mobile software (such as Android) will lead to new device manufacturers entering the arena. The analogy was made to the PC industry with the emergence of white-label boxes. I wonder though, for this to truly happen, shouldn’t the hardware be open-sourced too, not (just) the software?
In any case, I think having more handset manufacturers is wonderful. Not in the least for the fact that it will open the door for a more diverse offering, one potentially tailored to regions so far under-served by device manufacturers. Which brings me to my next point.
Local, global, diversity, relevance…
Several speakers alluded to the fact that mobile is a global market, and that businesses shouldn’t be shy about launching world-wide. I see several issues with this. First of all, without wanting to sound too anti-globalistic, do we really want to continue on making stuff that is the same no matter where you go? I find diversity a vital stimulus in my life and would hate to see software experiences become more and more the same the world over.
Let’s in stead consider the following: A service that might make perfect sense in one locale very likely does not offer any distinctive value in another. I think the example of the now defunct Skoeps, which was discussed at the event, illustrates this perfectly. It did not work in the Dutch market, but offers real value in ‘developing’ countries, where the amount of video crews on the ground is limited and images captured by locals using mobile phones are therefore a welcome addition to the ‘official’ coverage.
Which brings me back to the question of context, but in this case, the role it plays not as a component of a service, but in the design and development process itself. I was sad to see the most important point of Rachel Hinman’s video message go unnoticed (at least, judging from the fact that it was not discussed at all). She said that starting point for any new service should be to go out “into the wild” and observe what people are doing, what they want, what they need, what they enjoy and so on. From this real and deep understanding of people’s contexts, you can start making meaningful choices that will help you create something that offers true value.
It was this notion of starting from people’s context that I found most lacking at MoMo AMS. Besides Hinman, I was surprised to find only Yme Bosma of Hyves alluding to it. Who’d have thought?