Usability and Mobility

Efforts to understand the usability concerns of a connected mobile world began more than a decade ago. In the beginning, it was technological limitations that defined the restrictions inherent in mobile devices. Subsequently, different human interaction problems were analyzed, such as ergonomic factors and ubiquitous access properties. In recent years, debates about entry and exit mechanisms have populated the conversations. What is clear is that the “anytime, anywhere” connection model has proven more challenging for designers and investors than previously anticipated. What is required is a new look at mobility not as an attribute of the mobile device but as an attribute of the user and the mobile device combined.

Mobility in the usual sense is not usually attributed to the mobile user. An interaction should be classified as such if the user and mobile device relocated during the interaction. Devices that move during such interaction but render the user immobile are not considered mobile. One of the important elements of user-centered design is the focus on the products in use. Applications adapted to the wireless world are not truly mobile and some applications are not suitable for this type of use. Many of them are mini versions of their desktop counterparts and require much more attention from the user than the user is willing to offer. A good mobility design does not consider a user sitting on a sofa but in the street doing multiple tasks and communicating with others. Attention should be paid to the user’s headspace in combination with the possible use of the application itself. This requires more rigor in the design process than any other method. Designers, in the nascent world of wirelessly connected design, take a trial-and-error approach to quickly launching products, but as the field matures, product viability will become more important than feasibility. This has a huge stake for both designers and developers. The hardware must take into account the mobility of the users, as well as the devices they use. Not all devices classified as mobile allow mobile interaction. Many devices are designed for use in the mobile office and don’t take the field in context. Devices with screens and keyboards, whether touch or not, require users to keep their attention on the screen and keep their hands free of other physical objects. Devices with multiple I/O components are likely to be more suitable in the field environment so that the user can choose and mix methods of interaction with the device.

In the context of wireless application interaction, it is not only the user who influences the interaction, but often the context itself that defines it. In such cases, it is important to be aware of the context when evaluating users and not assume that the information obtained from these users is sufficient out of context. The evaluation needs to perceive this context from the user’s point of view. These unexpected environmental conditions become more difficult during the design process, as task evaluation, prototyping, and design validity open up a Pandora’s Box of possibilities. The variability of the usage environment affects the usability analysis in certain configurations. Consider the simple example of following a delivery driver down a delivery route or the more complex task of following an aircraft service engineer performing maintenance on an aircraft engine. On the one hand, a simulation could help predict behavior; however, such simulations cannot account for the unpredictability of the real environment, such as adverse weather conditions. The nature of the situation could change in the course of a single task.

A final issue to consider in mobile interaction design is multitasking. Wireless applications often require the user to interact with them while performing other tasks. These tasks range from a simple walk to more environmentally hazardous and complex maneuvers. These parallel activities must be carefully thought out. Absolute context, the user’s location on the map, and relative context, the user’s location relative to other objects around them will allow the creation of different location-based services. Additionally, the connected nature of the wireless world allows for a great deal of collaboration. This opens up the design to even more opportunities and challenges that we have yet to deeply consider. The main point to keep in mind is that, regardless of product challenges, when designing for mobility, any design must consider the user and the device combined in the interaction.

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