Mobile Portland Notes

So last night I made my way down to Mobile Portland. I was so excited about the event as the topic was the exact thing I have been thinking about over the last couple of weeks, The Myth of Mobile Context. The panel did not disappoint and Jason did a great job of moderating the discussion. I took copious notes and will try my best to make sense of them here. The panel consisted of Josh Clark, Daniel Davis, Ty Hatch, Rachel Hinman, and Tim Kadlec.

Jason started off the evening by asking the panelists if mobile is a new mass media or is it just the internet brought to a different screen?

Josh kicked off the answers saying that the devices we are seeing now are bringing about new combinations that we haven’t seen. Touch is brand new and it lets us manipulate things differently, it changes the way we think about interfaces. Daniel is wary of the idea of anything being labeled the “new” anything. He sees the PC as a stopgap much like the Mainframe was a stopgap on the way to the PC. Mobile is the new normal internet. Ty was on the fence with this one, thinking that maybe it is, but he had a great comparison, saying that it is a lot like the disruption that was caused by Impressionism when you look at art history, it led to so many new areas in the art world. Right now with the internet we have an explosion of what is experience and what do we do with it. Rachel spoke to the mental model of computing changing, rather than a desktop with folders (being a tool to get something done) it is becoming a distribution of media. It is changing what we can do. Josh then brought up a great point - mobile as distribution of software media and how people see the apps on their phones as accessories just as much as the phone itself. The question finished with Tim saying that he agrees resoundingly that mobile is a new mass media and he compared it to the bastard (or love) child of the web and mobile, which explains our difficulties because we just don’t quite know where it fits in.

Jason then asked if there was anything different about mobile and how you would define those differences if there are.

Tim started out the round of answers saying that there is a context to it, but it is very difficult to find. He likened it to sci-fi, where things adapt and have potential, that’s the way mobile feels right now. Rachel said the dirty secret of mobile is that we all don’t have a handle on context. To design for usage everywhere is really hard. She also said that we don’t really know the answer to what mobile offers that is unique, we are still learning.

Jason broke in with a question about Opera, since it is used by many people who have never used a PC before, the mobile web is their first experience of the web, do they view mobile totally differently?

Daniel replied that many of them are no PC and straight to mobile and so Opera tries very hard to put a desktop browser in a mobile phone, trying to give people the full experience. He also made the excellent point that mobile can be any device depending on the situation of the user. Josh then pointed out that we should start thinking more about mobile devices and capabilities because mobile is actually more. Devices can do more than a desktop computer, so why aren’t we thinking about it that way? He went on to my say my absolute favorite quote of the evening,

Every time you say; “Oh, this is mobile, people won’t want to do this,” you are making a mistake. You can make educated guesses about the most common things people will do and create hierarchies for that, but give them the full website.

Dan then intoned the mantra of Luke, start with mobile first.

Jason then opened it up to the audience for questions and I will admit, my notes from this part aren’t as good, so I’ll just give a few highlights of things that were said.

Ty had a great piece about finding the sweet spot of what someone is actually trying to do with the device, making sure they aren’t trying to cram in too much into the experience, but if you aren’t sure what someone is doing, this device allows you to ask, find out and then you can get information back to make the experience much better for the user.

There was then a long discusion towards the end about how the label of mobile is the problem. Josh brought this up, but Tim also blogged about it. Instead of thinking about mobile, think about devices, or as he put it, nontraditional computing devices, which obviously will never catch on, but is a more appropriate way to think about all the various ways that someone could access the internet. I especially like the metaphor that Ty used, he said we are still in the Star Wars phase with mobile, with Han and Chewie banging away at the Millenium Falcon, but we want to be in the Star Trek phase and just ask for Earl Grey Hot and it will appear. The panel seemed to agree that mobile is still trying to find its way, it has taken a lot from the PC and just tried to use it and some of that isn’t quite right, as Rachel pointed out.

The final bit that I really found useful was in talking about trying to use geo browsing, knowing where people are and then giving them more information. Rachel spoke about being careful about how we do this because people associate place and space in different ways, there are nuances to behavior in what you do when you are in a specific space, her example was asking someone on a train platform for help rather than digging out the phone. You need to make sure you are adding to the experience and not detracting from it. Josh followed this up with the excellent point that there is a cultural context, just because people can do something doesn’t mean that they will. He used the example of Best Buy and people actually didn’t want to scan bar codes to see if they could find a better deal, it wasn’t viewed as behavior they wanted others to see them doing.

All-in-all it was a great panel and I am so thankful to have Jason and Mobile Portland in this community. The work they are doing is awesome and the events just keep getting better. CAN NOT WAIT for next month on Mobile Health, should be really interesting. I do believe they may release the video of the event, so if you are interested keep your eyes on the Mobile Portland twitter feed or website.