I recently gave an interview for the online Mobile newsletter and discussion group Mo:Life
Here's the full text:QUESTIONS & ANSWERS - mo:life talks to Jeff Axup
This week's Q&A features Jeff Axup. Jeff is a PhD candidate in the Information Environments program at the University of Queensland. He was previously employed as a usability consultant in Portland, Oregon, and Sydney. He is currently involved in several projects developing information sharing technologies for backpackers, using ethnographic and participatory methods. Jeff is interested in using social network theory and automated analysis techniques to improve the design of mobile, group communications technologies.mo:life:
Can you tell us a little about your work on “mobile communities”? What does that mean? And why should people in the industry take notice of such research?jeff axup:
Communities are defined by sociologists as networks of people who share strong social ties which provide informational and physical resources. Traditionally these were geographically bounded neighbourhoods. However, with the advent of modern communication and transportation technologies, they are increasingly mobile and dispersed. A tourism research paper recently noted that "Society as a whole is becoming more restless and mobile, in contrast to the relatively rigid patterns of modernity. One of the cultural symbols of this increasingly mobile world is the backpacker" (Richards & Wilson, 2004). As we become increasingly more mobile, it is likely that we will adopt behaviours similar to existing mobile communities such as backpackers, truckers, and travelling business people.
Mobile device manufacturers already want to support "anytime, anywhere" access, and they may be able to benefit from a better understanding of how these communities operate and what their needs are. We are currently studying backpackers in Australia, who represent a large, mobile, tourist population and significant revenue source.mo:life:
What makes a mobile phone a “group device”?jeff axup:
I’ll give the example of using a mobile phone. The direct user is the person physically interacting with the phone. An indirect user might be a friend telling you to place a call for them while they are driving. Individual users are by themselves, while groups of users indicate collaborative or shared usage. Several recent research studies have shown a variety of examples of communal phone usage, including turn-taking, borrowing, and sharing of communication content. In addition to usage of devices by groups in-person, remote users also affect our individual use. An example would be a spouse calling us on our phone while we’re in a library or a meeting. We wouldn’t have used the device if someone else hadn’t done it for us. Other members of our social networks use our devices, or request our use of them, and greatly affect how we end up using them.mo:life:
What do you imagine mobile devices looking like in five years? Will they facilitate mobile communities? How?jeff axup:
This is the dangerous but alluring question of predicting the future, which everyone wants to do, but nearly everyone gets wrong. So, I’ll give my vision of what I would like to help develop. Technology is shrinking and becoming more wearable. It is also becoming increasingly wireless, inexpensive, runs longer and holds more. Consequently they are becoming more personal and identified as essential items that are seldom left behind when on the move.
Five years is sufficient time for us to wear our phones instead of carrying them and for those phones to enable increased group communication capabilities. If designed properly they will complement existing group goals and behaviours. They will enable us to communicate with networks of people in ways that were impossible or insufficiently usable before. To give a tangible example: backpackers currently communicate face to face, via physical message boards in hostels and to some degree via SMS, IM and phone calls. In the future they could be informed of interesting people they could talk to, form instantaneous, short-term communication channels while on tours, or tap into community-authored travel advice. People are inherently social, but we still lack the ability to easily communicate to groups in many circumstances where we would like to. mo:life:
Can you give us an example of a mobile community, and how they may have adopted and adapted the typically one to one communication model of mobile telephony?jeff axup:
Sure, I’ll provide a bit more detail on the backpacker example above. Backpackers on the East coast of Australia tend to move in North-South flocking patterns. They move in one direction, jumping between different cities. They are “information hungry” and constantly swap stories and gossip about where they have been or where they are going to. Friends in other cities, or those met while travelling form distributed social networks and resources for advice or places to stay. Pairs of backpacker travelling together may carry one phone, one phone card, or one e-mail address, and use it between them. Phones may be used by different users with their own SIM cards. Other technologies, such as digital cameras are often collaboratively used while travelling. Cameras with an LCD screen are commonly used by backpackers to share their travel experiences and show others where they are heading to next. Some backpackers also tell us they share their cameras with others to get photos from different photographers. Web-based travel diaries are increasingly used to communicate location and travel experience to family and friends and soon picture-phones will integrate seamlessly with this.mo:life:
What are the main usability challenges for mobile groups at present?jeff axup:
We recently ran a study looking at a group of three people using a mobile discussion list prototype to search and rendezvous at an unknown location. We discovered a number of usability problems related to SMS discussion list usage including: multitasking during message composition and reading; speed of keyboard entry; excessive demand on visual attention; and ambiguity of intended recipients. More generally speaking, mobile devices still suffer from expensive wireless data connectivity, poor input devices and lack of contextual awareness. Mobile users still have difficulty easily communicating with groups, transferring information between their phones, and finding software to support their daily activities. Groups face challenges of visualizing their own behaviour, coordinating actions and communicating physical location and plans efficientlymo:life:
From a "user design" perspective, how do you imagine mobile video working, if at all?jeff axup:
Funny you should say “if at all”, which was exactly what I was going to mention. The majority of new mobile phone features are technology driven. They are created because they can be created. There are also too many products being directly ported from desktop computers, which support entirely different tasks and interactions.
I am dubious of the worth of video on cameras. However, I was also originally sceptical about camera phones and I’m starting to like them. It appears that camera phones may prove useful for reading coded symbols in the environment, language translation, or sharing via moblogs (web logs produced from mobile devices). Note however, that this is different than how they were originally marketed, which was for sending individual photos to a friend via MMS. Video may have applications, but I don’t think it will primarily be used for video conferencing as envisioned by marketing teams. It would be nice to see more technologies developed in response to observed user needs, instead of simply producing the next feature that has become technically feasible.