Defining Context

Planners, researchers and marketers increasingly think about consumer in complex ways. We understand that in a changing digital landscape, where people are dialed in 27/7, the context in which they learn and shop is incredibly important and influences what messages we deliver and how we deliver them.  So increasingly, we are thinking about what situations govern behavior and designing to fit that complexity. 

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 socio-cultural 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 holding your device for you (say, while trying on clothing but needing to set the iPad aside or while your child plays Angry Birds on the couch in the evening), 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? Is it even necessary? The point is simply this; we increasingly have access to the digital landscape 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. 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 you 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? Perhaps more importantly, how do we develop a process to manage it that mimics, or at least compliments, the human brain and cultural patterns of behavior? 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) is 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 we 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 bonding, etc.  Its absurdity is precisely what makes it relevant.  But in another context, say Saudi Arabia, the context shifts and meaning must 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 lies 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. So how do we get at underlying contexts? To be perfectly blunt, there is no perfect system because contexts change if we’ve done our jobs well (cause and effect), but there are ways to come close. Depending on the project, questions may be very tactical and specific or very strategic and broad. In either case, the first step is to clearly articulate what the overarching goal is.

First, rethink the problem. Frequently, what we see as the problem is in fact a facet of something else. For example, when researching something like an eBook the problem to be solved isn’t technology, it may be understanding why people read different material in different contexts. It may be about displaying books for colleagues and friends as a means of gaining status. The point is that the problem we see may not be the problem at all and we need to think about possibilities before we enter the field.

Second, begin defining the contexts.
Where does an activity or practice take place? Defining the contexts we want to examine helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation. For example, if we’re studying beer drinking, we need to articulate all the possible contexts in which beer is purchased and consumed.

Third, think through the complexity of the sample.
Who are the people we want to talk with? What are the social and cultural circles that will shape the event? It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural, social, professional and environmental systems, determining not only who will be the primary participants, but also the actors that shape the context.

Fourth, make a game plan that involves direct experiential information gathering, don’t just dig into statistics. Put together a guide to help navigate the data collection and a method for managing the data (remember, everything is data and it is easy to become overwhelmed without a plan). Having a series of key questions and observational points to explore is the first component. But don’t just think about the questions you will ask, but also include opportunities for observation, mapping, and participation.

Fifth, 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 practices and meanings. Because everything is data, from attitudes to mannerisms to artifacts, it is important to capture as much as possible. Take notes, draw maps and sketches, take photographs, shoot video, and collect audio – the smallest piece of information may have the greatest impact

Sixth, do the analysis. Hands down, analysis is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding part of research. A trained ethnographer, for example, will do more than report anecdotes. A trained ethnographer will bring a deep understanding of cultural understanding and social theory to the analysis process. This goes beyond casual observation and starts to pull together the web of significances and practices that get to the underlying structures of why people do what they do. Analysis should always work within a framework grounded in the social sciences. Analysis takes time, but the results will include modes of behavior, models of practice, experience frameworks, design principles, and cultural patterns. Once the data has been analyzed and crafted into something meaningful, the research team should be able to provide a rich story with a clear set of “aha” findings.

Finally, it isn’t enough to simply hand off results. As compelling as we may find our insights, that doesn’t always translate into someone seeing immediately how to apply them. Once insights and findings are shared, you need to work with others to craft those findings into action plans, product ideas, etc.

The end result is that you create greater value for the client and for yourself. The process is, admittedly, more time consuming than traditional approaches, but it ultimately yields greater insight and reduces time and costs on the back end. It also yields better work that will impact the customer or end user more significantly. 

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.

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.

Beyond Mobility: What Businesses Can Learn From Ugandan Banking

Drive through any city, town or village in Uganda and you’ll see a multitude of buildings painted bright yellow. That yellow is the color identity of MTN, a self-described “mobile communications and network access company” that sells phones, SIM cards and phone accessories. At first glance, they’re a fairly standard regional phone and Internet provider.

What isn’t ho-hum, however, is their MTN MobileMoney service. This service allows you to walk into any MTN retail (I use that term very loosely for many of the outlets) and put money in an online account. This money can then be sent to any recipient via text, for a fee. The recipient need only take the text to another MTN outlet to redeem tangible currency.

This may seem fairly benign to those of us used to mobile banking via the Internet. But, then again, we live in a cashless society. In contrast to much of the West, Uganda is a cash society. Except for marked establishment in Kampala and Entebbe, where most westerners – and increasingly, the Chinese – are concentrated, you’d be hard pressed to spot a place that will accept your Visa or an ATM. Banks themselves can be few and far between. Phone stores? Everywhere. MobileMoney has become a surrogate ATM. What money you have, you put into your mobile money account, so you can pull cash out at leisure from practically any community.

The other way this mobile banking has come into play is with remittances. Like much of the developing world, transient or migrant fathers and sons keep many families afloat by sending part of their earnings back home. For the last 50 years, this transaction has been done only when the employed return home or by entrusting money in an envelope with a bus driver, who doubles as “courier.” Now, money can be transmitted safely and instantaneously.

So what does this say about mobile technology and different needs in different societies? And what can banking in the developed world take from it?  Quite a bit.  Innovation doesn’t stem from examining the obvious and we can learn a great deal about our own practices and beliefs by learning how others think about mobile technology, money, banking stability, technology as an expression of power, etc.  It can break down preconceived notions we have about ourselves and people around the globe.  And above all else, it can define new opportunities that your competitors have never even considered.

Global Culture and the Importance of Mobile Design

It’s widely recognized that brands and products can succeed or fail on the realization of their relative impacts on target audiences. It isn’t enough to build campaigns and strategies based on the newest technology. Without a plan based on real-life uses, needs and beliefs, businesses fail.  In an increasingly complex shopping ecosystem, where the lines between retail space and virtual space blur and use of time is dictated by the shopper rather than the availability of the retailer, understanding subtleties in meaning and behavior is of paramount importance.  In the mobile sector, especially when thinking in terms of globalization and emerging markets, getting it “right” means digging deeper than what demographic and statistical information provide and looking at how mobile devices are and will be used in context.

Case in point, the explosive growth of mobile-phone ownership in the developing world is partly the result of a vibrant recycling, the arrival of cheap phones and a general increase in per capita income. It is also growing rapidly, in part, to the efforts of forward-thinking retailers and developers. For example, anthropologists working for Nokia spend increasing amounts of time trying to understand what people living at the so-called “bottom of the pyramid” might want from a phone. In addition to handset innovation and apps geared to the improving daily life (such as designs with multiple phone books), people are increasingly looking to use mobile devices to shop. So what? The important element is what they are shopping for and how they use their devices, much of which can be transferred from a setting like India to a fast-paced market like New York. It isn’t enough to find the best deal, you also need to calculate the easiest route there, whether or not you can also pick up a new pair of jeans along the way and whether or not this still allows you time to meet your friends for that after dinner cocktail.

Another point. Only 7% of the population of India regularly access the internet from a PC. But brutal price wars mean that 507 million Indians own mobile phones (Indian operators such as Bharti Airtel and Reliance Communications sign up as many as 20 million new subscribers a month). That’s 507 million people who see your products and retail setting as potential status brands. It may be hard to believe, but Pabst Blue Ribbon is a premium brand in China, garnering around $40 for a bottle. It’s all in the positioning and the ease with which the shopper can find and access your brand. It is now possible for a person in Bangalore to order hand-crafted chocolate from San Francisco on his mobile phone, or to find the best deal on a new pair of Nikes within 5 miles from his home.

In other developing countries, too, there are many more mobile phones than traditional internet connections. There are 610 million internet users in Brazil, Russia, India, China and Indonesia (the so-called BRICI countries), but 1.8 billion mobile-phone connections, according to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). And each of these economic giants has different expectations about language, product status and shopping. Getting your mobile strategy right can mean millions.

Whether in the US, Europe or developing markets around the world the possibilities are tremendous. Farmers in remote areas will find a manufacturer’s products and customized advice on crop planting using their cell phone. Your favorite cup of coffee will find your iPad as you move from a meeting in Paris to one in Shanghai.  Your Nook will “talk” to the store you’re in and automatically download content to keep the children occupied as you try on a new pair of shoes.

In order for the mobile phone to reach its full potential, we’re going to need to understand what people really need from their mobile devices and how these tools will integrate with the overall shopping experience.

 

By Gavin