Think Mobile Is Only a Channel? Think Again

Planning for Mobile Starts with How You View Mobile

Colleen Jones Posted by
Colleen Jones

Jan 19 2012

The use of mobile in the U.S. and around the world is growing faster than you can say “app or mobi site?” The possibilities for mobile are exciting and, at the same time, mind boggling. Where do you start planning the mobile content and experience for users? And, internally, where do you begin planning ownership and process for mobile?

The planning starts before you realize it. It starts with your view of mobile. How you see mobile will affect everything else you plan—for better or for worse. So, it’s worth taking a moment to check your perspective.

A LOVE AFFAIR WITH MOBILE

A little background…I’ve loved mobile ever since I led strategic customer experience projects at Cingular Wireless 8 years ago. I imagined all the wonderful things mobile and I could do together. We could change the world—or at least customer experience at Cingular Wireless. But, mobile wasn’t quite ready. Mobile was not fast or smart enough. So, I had to turn my attention elsewhere. But, my heart belonged to mobile. Each year since then, my heart skipped a beat or two when I’d listen to buzz about mobile. “This is the year of mobile,” I’d hear…only to be disappointed. Until last year.

Last year, mobile got its “stuff” together. Smarter mobile devices met faster wireless networks, and mobile adoption started to soar. (Along with my heart…)

As a result, I’ve worked on mobile strategies for clients over the past year. I’ve led intense analyses for clients with markets in the U.S. and around the (increasingly mobile) world. I’ve made mobile recommendations that my clients would have to live with for a year, so I’ve had to consider a large scale for the long term. At the same time, I’ve watched the traffic on this site, content-science.com, shift more and more to mobile. I’ve had to decide what to do about it. For example, we’re optimizing the site for smartphone and tablet browsers.

Along the way of making these recommendations and decisions, I’ve come to some realizations about mobile. One of the biggest? Mobile is not simply a channel. Let me explain…

WHERE THE CHANNEL VIEW OF MOBILE COMES FROM

Human nature leads us to view something new in terms of what we already know. And, what we already know is channels. Channels are conduits. Most companies and organizations have dealt with a combination of print, web, email, and phone channels for years. Depending on your role or background, you might see mobile as a specific kind of channel. For example, I managed projects across several customer service channels at Cingular Wireless, so I see mobile as a perfect way to make self-service, such as paying a bill, easier. If your background is more media or product support, however, you might see mobile as more of a distribution channel—another way to get your content out to people. Here’s a table of the different perspectives we bring to mobile as a channel.

Perspectives We Bring to Mobile
ROLE OR BACKGROUND WILL VIEW MOBILE AS…
Customer Service Contact Channel
Marketing + Advertising Campaign Channel
Media / Publishing Distribution Channel
Product Support Documentation Distribution Channel

A small part of me wishes mobile were a channel, especially a distribution channel. Wouldn’t that make life easier? We could simply put all of our content in one place, make our web content accessible, and optimize our interfaces…then we’d be done. We could adjust our XML and our style sheets, and that’s pretty much that. But, sadly—or happily—this isn’t the case. Here’s why.

DEBUNKING THE CHANNEL-ONLY VIEW

A channel implies information or content is flowing through it like water through a pipe. And, I tend to think of a pipe with a valve that we, as either the channel users or the channel owners, have to open and close as we send and receive content.

pipe-with-valve

Sometimes, the flow is two ways, back and forth. When a customer calls customer service on the phone and gets a reply, that’s two ways. Sometimes, the flow is one way. When a publisher distributes an article on the web and in print, that’s a one-way flow from the publisher to the reader through channels.

Mobile can act like a channel. When you optimize your website for mobile tablets and phones, for example, you take care of mobile as a channel. People can do most everything they did on your web channel through their mobile devices.

But, mobile can act very differently from a channel. Let me explain more about what makes mobile distinct.

Mobile Smartphones Give Constant Contact

Mobile has this unique potential to be a constant contact. For mobile smartphones, there’s a proactivity, an intimacy, and an immediacy that’s nothing like any channel, even the web.

Last week, Lisa gave us a tour of the possibilities for using smartphone applications and sensors to track our personal health data—and even give alerts or reminders exactly when we need them. Your phone, for example, can awake you at precisely the right time. When is the right time? Not when your alarm says so but when your body says so—when you’re in the best state of sleep for waking.

And, Helen shared an example from finance. The eTrade mobile application gives people continuous access to their accounts so they can monitor their investments and make trades instantly. In a similar way, Mint and many banks offer mobile applications to connect us constantly to our personal financial data—and even alert us when our accounts change or when we’re charged a fee.

(Is this constant connection to content always good? Not necessarily, as Michael pointed out.)

These examples are only a start. I could write entire posts on the possibilities of smartphones for retail and travel. Well, I’ll share one travel example. Last fall, I stepped off my flight to DC and checked the email on my phone for my hotel confirmation. I didn’t find one. I forgot to book a hotel! After a brief wave of panic, I realized I had my phone. I booked a room online in a few seconds. Why so fast? My phone knew where I was and showed nearby hotels almost instantly. My smartphone rescued me.

My point is this: By fostering initiative, intimacy, and immediacy, mobile smartphones are more of a companion or even a lifeguard than a channel.There’s potential for constant monitoring and feedback, for a constant flow of content and data. As a result, smartphones can provide the right content at the right moment—sometimes without the user having to ask.

So, that’s smartphones. What about mobile tablets? They don’t quite fit a channel view, either—but in a different way from smartphones.

Mobile Tablets Deepen, Socialize, + Expand Content Consumption

Mobile tablets free us to delve into content—media, games, and more—quickly and to stay in it for a long time. Tablets let people get into content when they’re hanging out in the kitchen or lounging on their couches, not crouched over their desks. It’s a relaxed experience, like having the newspaper at the breakfast table. I know I’ll linger a bit longer on an article if I’m not interrupted by an email or a phone call.

Tablets also can make content consumption more social. Over the holidays, for example, my family and I gathered around the iPad at the kitchen table to view photos of my trip to London. And, we can use tablets at the same time as using another channel. I used the iPad, for instance, to see reactions to Ricky Gervais’ wry jokes on Twitter while I watched him host the Golden Globes.

Tablets are so simple, they’re even bringing new types of users into content consumption. Take my mother, the technoskeptic. My mom doesn’t see a point in learning a complex computer when all she wants to do with it is read, shop, and send an occasional message. She had tried a computer once or twice but didn’t stick with it. It seemed too bulky and complicated. I didn’t blame her. The benefit wasn’t worth the cost to her time and effort.

But, when the iPad and other tablets came on the market, my dad and I saw potential. So, we decided to get her a tablet for Christmas. My mom opened it on Christmas morning. By that night, she was checking email, surfing the web, and trying an app. Since then, my mother has used the tablet at least once a day. (If the Q1 sales for online retailers skyrocket, now you know why.)

So, tablets potentially increase the demand for content with which we can engage deeply and socialize often. And, they’re attracting digital newcomers like my mom. Tablets, to me, are less of a valved pipe for sending and receiving content and more of a way to immerse in content.

So, not only are the tablet experience and the smartphone experience different from what we’re used to with channels, but those experiences are very different from each other. Why lump the tablet experience (immersive) together with the smartphone experience (constant contact) as a single channel? It doesn’t make sense.

MOBILE IS NOT JUST A CHANNEL…BUT WHAT IS IT?

As I’ve delved into the distinct characteristics of using mobile smartphones and mobile tablets, I realized mobile is not simply a channel through which we distribute or receive content. It’s not a valved pipe. It’s not even a single pipe. Mobile is more than I could have imagined 8 years ago.

I’m convinced that if you view mobile only as a channel and, as a result, only optimize your websites for mobile devices, you waste a tremendous opportunity. You miss out on what makes mobile, mobile.

That begs the question, then, of how should we view mobile? And what are the planning implications—both opportunities and challenges—for mobile content and UX? I’ll share a few ideas in my next post.