Peter Odum

Mobile User Insights: Design for Travel

Travel changes what we ask of our mobile devices

Traveling isn’t the same as being mobile. Being ‘mobile’ is routine. The commute is all about everyday mobility. Traveling by contrast is about changing your personal context, sometimes radically. Travel changes how devices get used. A recent trip I took to Chile yielded some particular insights about mobile devices and travel.

1. Airplane mode must be easy to find. Luckily, on my current phone (relatively modern, launched last year), this was not a problem. Using my previous device (maybe two years old) I was never able to find airplane mode at all (it may yet be there somewhere), and as a result could never use any of the other features while on a plane. It’s such a simple requirement, but the day you want to play a game on a flight and can’t find the mode – it’s maddening.

2. Location-based services are useful in different ways. At home, I use location-based services to find a nearby store, or someone’s house in the neighborhood. Abroad, they gave me a greater comfort about my general surroundings and reassurance that I wouldn’t get lost. Using the device and triangulated data to find my current location on a map was fantastic, and really helped my geography-limited brain cope with the fact that I didn’t really know where I was in a city of 5 million inhabitants. So locally, location-based tech is mostly practical, while abroad it is more about providing an emotional comfort level in a strange environment.

3. Data is a premium commodity, and needs finer control. Because of the high price of data overseas I had to carefully watch how much data I used. Several times during the trip I was intensely interested in what was going on at home (this was during the worst of the recent economic crisis). Though I wanted to reduce data use without cutting myself off entirely, my current device made data an all-or-nothing proposition (including forcing the download of images in email). Lessons from this: it is important to be able to turn off international data roaming, but even better would be the additional ability to control and reduce data consumption without turning data entirely off. Finer adjustments, such as displaying email and web sites without images, might only need to appear when the user is known to be roaming off-network, but would allow for much better management of data costs. A device that followed default best behaviors (using less data) when roaming, but provided appropriate contextual options (’Display images? Y/N’) would be ideal.

4. Traveling means less, but more crucial, communication. I communicated less – most people knew I was traveling, so I didn’t feel obligated to keep in touch. My contacts were short and limited mostly to coordination of plans. The only other communication I did was to send a few key pictures of family and scenery. I could even have gone entirely without incoming voice calls: a colleague of mine turns off voice mode entirely when traveling, and just deals with people via voicemail. This protects him from accepting and spending money on unrecognized or unwanted calls, and lets him choose which calls to respond to. Overall, travel may reduce the need for general voice communication, but the few calls that are placed are even more critical, as they generally involve trip planning.

5. Mobile media players aren’t just for adults. Prior to the trip I had picked up a personal media player for my 3-year-old daughter and loaded it with appropriate films and shows. While we didn’t use it often, it proved its importance when my daughter woke up and started screaming on the plane in the middle of a 9-hour flight. Being able to focus her on the movie Cinderella when all else failed was a massive help to our sanity and presumably that of the other passengers. The media device she carried was so simple in design that even a three year old could manage it - even though it was designed for adults, it wasn’t overcomplicated. While the device designers probably never intended their device to be used by a young child, by making it simple they made it more accessible to all sorts of people. There is great virtue in simplicity: design simpler interactions and you increase the chances of reaching a wider audience.

6. Modularity can compensate for device failures. Two days into our trip, my digital camera started refusing to take pictures of anything brightly lit. Left with a language barrier in a foreign country with no easy access to repairs, I contemplated having no pictures at all from this vital family trip. Luckily I found I could take pictures with borrowed lenses from a family member, to my great relief. The problem was contained in one piece of my equipment, and the fact that my device was modular meant that I could change out that piece, while still using the rest. With both software and hardware, ensure that the entire system doesn’t break when one portion fails. This gives users a chance to salvage the situation even when things go wrong.

7. Flexible devices can enable lighter travel. My family carried several devices (two modern phones, a camera, two portable media players) with overlapping functionality, but even those built by the same manufacturer had no way of interconnecting. At one point I had to buy an additional 2 gigabytes of storage for my camera despite carrying approximately 84 gigabytes of empty storage space with me in the other devices. As I and others have written before, part of convergence is enabling devices to function together as an ecosystem. I carried a variety of devices on the trip, but all were insular, and no exchange of data was possible between them. More flexibility and interoperability between these devices could have provided for lighter travel with fewer devices, or just more flexible use and storage of our data.

Designers should consider travel when designing mobile devices. The intensity of travel may expose design possibilities that color the more typical uses, or may expose completely different user needs, but those needs aren’t just corner cases. The intensity of experiences during travel can influence our perceptions of a device even when we return to our everyday context. Travel certainly isn’t the only use case to consider for a mobile device, but it shouldn’t be dismissed, because the demands of travel, while different, have much to teach us.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.