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.

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