Context and the Changing Mobile Landscape

Marketers increasingly think about consumers in complex ways. It is understood that in a changing digital landscape, the context in which they learn and shop influences what messages we deliver and how we deliver them.  But we rarely define “context”. It is one thing to design a usable app that conforms to human factors and cognitive requirements, but it is quite another to design a stage in an environment when there are innumerable semi-autonomous devices mediating in a swirl of information.

Physical Context

Physical context refers to the notion of infusing devices with a sense of “place.”  In other words, devices can distinguish the environments in which they “live” and react to them. But this is difficult. Mapping out longitude and latitude is one thing, but reacting to features (political, natural, social, etc.) is much more problematic. Getting beyond the boundaries of identifiable borders and structures, means coming to grips with “place”.

Think of a mall.  There are hundreds of stores, each with hundreds of devices. The device now has to decode what information is relevant and how it will deliver information. What competing retailer apps get precedence over others? When you receive an offer, will the device “tell” other retailers in order to generate real-time counter offers? The digital landscape is continuous at all points throughout the day and getting design right means understanding the systems in which people operate.

Device Context

Just as various kinds of sensory apparatus (GPS-receivers, proximity sensors, etc.) are the means by which mobile devices will become geographically aware, another class of sensors makes it possible for devices to become aware of each other. This presents a series of problems that are different than those of physical context.

Technology is on the verge of existing in a world with zero-infrastructure networks that can spring up anywhere, anytime. Devices will exist in a constant state of discovery.  Returning to the mall, imagine that you are with a friend whose device is communicating with yours.  In the mall are a couple of thousand devices, all of which are discovering each other.  What happens now?  Assuming we’ve dealt with the problem of one friend’s device communicating with the other friend’s device while blocking out the other 2000 devices, you still have several thousand potential “identities” that may have useful information.  How is it decided what to manage without devoting significant time to setting up the hundreds of variables?

Information Context

This is the realm of information architecture. Data no longer resides “in” our computers.  Devices are extensions of the cloud and exist as something akin to perceptual prostheses.  They exist to manipulate data in the same way a joy stick allows us to handle the arms of robot in a factory.  This reflects a shift in how we use information because all information is transitory.

Storage issues are essentially removed from the equation.  Content can leap from place to place and device to device in an instant. Content will be customizable and reflect the human-application interaction rather than shaping it. Devices will find themselves in the fourth kind of context of social interaction, with all its contingencies. Just as behavior is shaped by the moment, so too will the apps and information needed to adapt.

Socio-Cultural Context

Each person is unique to contrasting cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a county, a continent, a hemisphere. Cultural context provides a framework for what “works” for each consumer in the world.

It is at this point where a better perspective is gained on what will and will not be accepted in the mobile universe. Take a beer pouring app that mimics the pouring of a beer when the device is tilted.  It serves no direct function and yet it has been successful because of the cultural needs it to which it speaks – workplace breaks, male-to-male bonding, etc. But in another context, say Saudi Arabia, the context shifts. Success lies in understanding the reasons behind the consumers beliefs and actions in the symbolic exchanges, and the ability to code and decode those exchanges.  Marketing mishaps come from a lack of comprehension.

So What?

Our great technological leaps forward have also produced more complexity, leading to a greater need to make sense of insights. Without a means to categorize context, marketers will miss identifying trends that matter most. What to do?

  • Rethink the problem. Frequently, “the problem” is a facet of something else. For example, when researching an eBook the problem to be solved isn’t technology, it is understanding why people read different material in different contexts. It may be about displaying books as a means of gaining status. The point is the problem seen may not be the problem at all.
  • Define the contexts. Defining the contexts helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation. For example, if the consumer behavior is drinking beer, all contexts in which beer is purchased and consumed need to be articulated.
  • Think through the sample. Who is the marketing targeting? What are the social circles that will shape the event? It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural systems.
  • Make a plan that involves experiential information gathering, not just statistics. Develop a guide to navigate the data collection and a method for managing the data (everything is data). Don’t  just think about the questions to ask, but also include opportunities for observation and participation.
  • Head into the field. This is the heart of the process. Meaningful insights and moments of “truth” are slow to get at. Low-hanging fruit will be easy to spot, but the goal should be to find those deeper meanings. Because everything is data, from attitudes to artifacts, it is important to capture as much as possible.
  • Do the analysis. Analysis is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding. The goal is to bring a deep understanding of cultural behavior to the analysis process. This goes beyond casual observation and gets to the underlying structures of why people do what they do.

The process is more time consuming than traditional approaches, but it ultimately yields greater insight and reduces time and costs on the back end. The end result is that you create greater value for the client and for the company.

I Am Robot: Mobile Technology and the Sales Rep

Mobile has become an integral part of the shopping experience. There are even some opinion pieces that propose retail “reps” as we know them will soon become obsolete, as information (often more accurate than that provided by the rep) is more quickly gathered by use of smart phones. The rep, in theory, is headed for extinction. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Back in the 50s people contended that waiters would vanish with the advent of automats. By 2000 we would have flying cars and robots would do all our household chores. I clearly remember being told in 1999 (just prior to the bubble bursting) that within five years cable TV would vanish, there would be no more cash and the hotels would no longer require interacting with a human being at the point of checkin. Clearly these things didn’t happen, at least not as they were foretold.

Mobile technology hasn’t changed the fundamentals of communication, but it has made the process more complex just as writing did when it was introduced several thousand years ago (I have to wonder if there were Sumerians saying that the new-fangled technology of writing would kill speaking).  Sales folks are simply going to evolve into something new and mobile technology is going to be a tool, not a replacement. The challenge is developing mobile technology that is sensitive to the context of both employee and shopper.

Most of what research are finding is that mobile isn’t making retail interactions less important because we still prefer face-to-face interactions, but it is allowing us to be more selective. When the daily conversation is positive or intimate, we want face-to-face communication. But when the conversation is negative, we increasingly struggle with face-to-face interactions in part due to the ease with which the web has made it to avoid direct conflict. Similarly, in the retail environment, where the process is increasingly less transactional and more experiential, mobile is a tool that can facilitate or stop interaction. Long story short:

  • People want face-to-face interactions when it generates intimacy
  • Texting tools and apps are training us not to be able to deal with conflict in a face-to-face encounter
  • People use their devices to avoid interaction with strangers or to signal that they want to be left alone by their intimates
  • Think about how mobile can integrate with a shopping context, not replace it

While mobile technology definitely affects the interaction, it is a question of integration rather than replacement.  Retail shopping has become as much about the experience than the stuff being sold — the store is a media channel. That means reps will still be there but their roles will increasingly develop into mediators of a storyline than people simply pushing products. Think of the emphasis Southwest Airlines has put on personality as the top of the criteria for flight attendants. The interaction on the retail stage is about fulfilling the need for validation on the part of the shopper.

Context and the Lives of Devices

We spend a great deal of time talking about context, but rarely use models to define elements of it.  This particularly true when talking about mobile devices and accounts for the hit-and-miss quality of  most apps available on the market.  It is one thing to design a usable app that conforms to human factors and cognitive requirements, but it is quite another to design a stage in an environment, or an environment itself, when there are innumerable semi-autonomous devices mediating an swirl of information.  Consequently, it makes sense for us to think about how we structure context so that we can determine what exactly we can affect.

Physical Context

From the computational side of things, physical context refers to the notion of imbuing devices with a sense of “place.”  In other words, devices can distinguish the environments in which they “live” at any given moment and react to them. But this is much more difficult than it at first appears. Mapping out longitude and latitude is one thing, but reacting to features (political, natural, social, etc.) is much more problematic. Getting beyond demarcation of identifiable borders and structures, means coming to grips with place (as opposed to space).  That in turns having to be “aware” on some level.

Think of a mall.  Within that mall are hundreds of stores, each with hundreds of devices and/or nodes of information. The device now has to decode what information is most relevant to itself, what information is most relevant to the user and how it will deliver that information.  Returning to the mall example, we have to think about a host of things in order to make any app relevant.  What competing retailer apps get precedence over others? When you receive an offer from one store, will the device “tell” other retailers in order to generate real-time counter offers?  When someone else is hold your device for you (say, while trying on clothing but needing to set the iPad aside), how will the device know what incoming content is private and what is public?  How will the device communicate with a location or with other devices as it moves throughout the mall?

Device Context

Just as various kinds of sensory apparatus (GPS-receivers, proximity sensors, etc.) are the means by which mobile devices will become geographically aware, another class of sensors makes it possible for devices to become aware of each other. There is a fundamental difference between the ability to transmit data between devices and the ability (and desire) of devices to discover each other. And this presents a series of problems that are different in nature than those of physical context. Because this deals with choices of communication.

We are on the verge of existing in a world with zero-infrastructure networks that can spring up anywhere, anytime. That means that devices are in a potentially constant state of discovery.  Returning to the mall for a moment, imagine that your are with a friend whose device is communicating with yours.  In there mall are a couple of thousand devices, all of which are discovering each other.  What happens now?  Assuming we’ve dealt with the problem of my mobile phone communicating with my friend’s phone while blocking out the other 2000 devices, we still have several thousand potentially “identities” that may have useful information for us.  How do we select how to manage that without devoting a ridiculous amount of time to setting up the hundreds of variables that shape what we do and don’t want at any given time? And all this is couched in a neat little world defined within a single, bounded  geographical unit.  So understanding device context is as important as understanding physical context.

Information Context

This is the realm of information architecture, plain and simple.  But with the advent of pervasive mobile, this topic is becoming even more complex.  Specifically, data no longer resides, literally or figuratively, “in” our computers.  Our devices are extensions of the cloud and exist as something akin to perceptual prostheses.  They exist to manipulate data in the same way a joy stick allows us to handle the arms of robot in a factory.  And this is important because it reflects a shift in how we think about and use information because all information (and the aps that carry that information) are transitory and by and large public.

This changes the nature of what the device has to actually be. Storage issues are essentially removed from the equation.  Content can leap from place to place and device to device in an instant. All content will be customizable and reflect the human-application interaction rather than shaping it. This leads to the point that devices, and the people who use them, will find themselves in the 4th kind of context of social interaction, with all its peculiarities and contingencies. Just as our behavior and worldview shapes and is shaped by the moment in which we find ourselves, so too will our apps and information need to adapt to the moment.  In other words, devices will need to be more human.

Socio-Cultural Context

The whole humankind is riven with contrasting practices, cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a city, a county, a state, a nation, a continent, a hemisphere etc. A cultural context provides a shared understanding of meaning provides a framework for what “works” in the world. It is what helps you recognize “your kind” in all senses of the word.

And it is at the point of socio-cultural understanding where gain a better perspective on what will and will not be accepted in the mobile universe.  We need to understand the essence behind the veil of design and usage to uncover meaning.  Take the beer pouring app as an example.  Here we have a simple app that mimics the pouring of a beer when you tilt your device.  On the surface it has little relevance to our daily lives.  It serves no direct function and yet it has been tremendously successful because of the cultural needs it to which it speaks – workplace breaks from the mundane, the ability to show off the newest thing, male-to-male pair bonding, etc.  It’s absurdity is precisely what makes it relevant.  But in another context, say Saudi Arabia, the context shifts and meaning change to fit that particular milieu.

The nature of our successes lies in understanding the reasons behind our beliefs and actions, in the symbolic exchanges we are part of and our abilities to code and decode those symbolic exchanges.  The nature of our mistakes essentially lie in a lack of comprehension. It leads to UI and app development that speak to a minority of the population even as they try to sell to the masses. Without understand the underlying epistemological constructs of a group (or more accurately, a mix of often associated groups at different points of interaction and interpretation) then we miss opportunities.

So What?

So why does any of this matter?  It matters because good design and messaging are increasingly difficult to master.  Our great technological leaps forward have also produced more complexity, which in turn leads to a greater need to make sense of what is “going on” in the broadest sense of the term when it comes to gathering insights and translating them into design and business applications. Without a means by which to categorize context, we can’t isolate those things that matter most.  And we miss enormous opportunities.

Mobile Design and What the Numbers DON’T Tell Us

I, like so much of the Western Hemisphere, spent part of my weekend shopping for dolls, pajamas and the latest electronic gadget.  And like so many others, I turned to my mobile phone for support on more than one occasion.  I am far from unique in this regard.  What caught my eye was the number of children I saw with a cell phone in hand – not their own (although there were no doubt some pre-tween kids among the throngs who did indeed have the pleasure of owning a very expensive smart phone, though I hesitate to think they were the norm), but a parent’s phone, which they used to play games, watch YouTube and generally make the tedium of shopping less pronounced.  What struck me as relevant is that when asked in surveys, the data frequently comes back saying that parent’s rarely give over their phones to the kiddies while shopping.  Observations in the field would imply quite the opposite is true.  Mobile phone use in a shopping environment is not just about the owner of the phone, it is about the parent/child dynamic and the underlying practices that go beyond procurement of goods.

Why does it matter?  It matters because while we have plenty of data about what people say they do, we have precious few insights about what’s really going on.  We are still in the wild west mentality of mobile design and need to get a better understanding of the range of contexts as we design mobile experiences for shoppers.  One size does not fit all and the numbers, while compelling, mean little if we don’t address the bigger questions under the surface.  It matters because a good mobile design and a creative mobile strategy can mean the difference between a useful application and a waste of millions of dollars in development, reduced brand equity, etc.

As another example, look at the numbers around the Hispanic market.  The numbers show that Hispanics are generally younger and more technologically savvy. AOL’s Hispanic Cyberstudy reports 46% of Hispanics who are actively online are under the age of 35.  32% of Hispanics access the Internet through their smartphones, compared to 20% of the general market. With roughly $1.3 trillion in buying it’s no wonder that Hispanics are a significant target for marketers.  But the numbers don’t address the bigger questions.

First, which “Hispanics” are we talking about?  Do the numbers refer to 3rd generation Cuban Americans with money or 1st generation Guatemalan farm workers? While or bias would probably lead us to assume the latter isn’t using a smart phone to shop, there is neither qualitative nor quantitative evidence to support this; is simply a matter of our own prejudices and preconceived notions about immigrants.  Second, Hispanics skew younger as a whole when compared against the total US population, so of course they are accessing the web through their phones more frequently than the general market – the data show that this is the case for all younger shoppers, so the difference between Hispanics and everyone else is misleading.  Finally, simply being online via a mobile device doesn’t necessarily mean ecommerce is taking place or that it is even desired.  Is the phone being used to supplement computer-based online interaction or is it a surrogate?  Do the numbers even reflect  use or do they reflect self perceptions, desires, the search for status, etc.? The point is that while we can infer quite a bit from the numbers, we are filtering them through our own biases.  Until we rethink the questions a bit we are designing based on potentially false assumptions.

Regardless of the populations to which we want to cater, designing a good mobile experience should entail getting on the ground and spending time learning what’s really going on.  And sometimes that means getting inventive about how we gather insights.  For example, if you want to understand how a good mobile banking site should operate, it isn’t enough to know the numbers of people using financial apps.  You need to understand how they conceive of money, when they do their banking (e.g. work, at home once everyone is in bed, on the train, etc.), and how they view their bank (many people hate their bank, but the cost of switching doesn’t outweigh the pain).  If you want to understand what the ramification of something going wrong are, spend time looking at mobile transactions in a place like Afghanistan, where banking can be a deadly affair – whatever people are doing in a place where bad mobile design can get you killed will probably shed some light on what is and isn’t necessary the world over.

The point is simple.  Good mobile design means getting your hands dirty and learning how context shapes how people use a given app or mobile site.  If all you have are statistics, you’re bound to create a solution that addresses the wrong problem.

If the Technology Fits…

Retailers and designers need to think of the application and the technology to be incorporated across channels in terms of how it can fundamentally change the retail dynamic.  The application needs to be more than an interesting novelty, it needs to address the unspoken, contextual realities of the people selling products. The application strategy need to be indispensable to store associates. That means thinking about how the tools will be used on the sales floor – will it detract from the interpersonal interaction or add to them; will it make the job of the sales associate more difficult physically as they go about their day with a device in hand; will it be an improvement or a hindrance?

In the rush to add the newest device to the marketing mix we often overstep the cultural and psychological limitations of the people to whom we are selling.  We design with what we think would be useful in mind.  But think for a moment about something like a farmers market or on a national scale, whole foods.  Part of the reason for being in these locations is to escape the overly technologized world in which we live day to day.  The people shopping are looking for a form of escape from mass production, using the setting and the food as a way of connecting with a romanticized sense of the past.  They use the environment as a stage on which to teach their children and their friends about “purity” and “simplicity.”  They use it as a form of self-validation to reaffirm that they are doing their part to be green.  Does a digital display work in this context?  It may, but it has to have more thought than simply adding an application or interactive sign.

The application, the device, the media may be interesting or novel, but will they help customer/shopper interactions? So understanding the culture of shopping and the larger context is the first step in developing a useful set of tools and a real strategy (as opposed to a set of tactics disguised as a strategy). Designing for an environment means thinking about more than designing a solution to a task.

Gavin