Cloud Four Blog

Technical notes, War stories and anecdotes

On Mobile Context

The question of mobile context has plagued me. In January 2009, I wrote about the “On the Go” Myth?. Therefore, it doesn’t surprise me to see very smart people grappling with mobile context and coming to the conclusion that “mobile context has been overblown”.

So given my previous doubts about mobile context, you’d think I would find it easy to agree with the current meme that mobile context doesn’t exist. And yet when I read posts and tweets that argue that there is no mobile web, I find myself disagreeing.

What accounts for this cognitive dissonance? A lot of it has to do with my belief that mobile is a new mass media and what that means for the mobile web.

Separating implementation from theory

Many of the objections that I see to mobile context are based on the idea that people are making decisions to remove content from mobile sites thinking that they are doing their users a favor when in fact all they are doing is pissing people off.

These are valid points about poor implementations based on mobile context. But whether or not these implementations are poor is irrelevant if the whole idea of mobile context is a fallacy.

Therefore, I want to look at the foundation, questions and assumptions that might lead a person to conclude that the mobile context is important. Or at minimum, that there are reasons to handle mobile web as something distinct from the larger web.

This post is about theory, not implementation.

Is mobile a new mass media?

A lot of my thinking on this can be attributed to Tomi Ahonen who makes a compelling case for mobile as the seventh mass media. The mass media in order are:

  1. Print
  2. Recordings
  3. Cinema
  4. Radio
  5. Television
  6. Internet
  7. Mobile Phones

Tomi also argues that each mass media has unique abilities that cannot be replicated by the previous ones. Mobile has eight unique abilities:

  1. Mobile is personal
  2. Mobile is permanently carried
  3. Mobile is always on
  4. Mobile has a built-in payment mechanism
  5. Mobile is available at the point of creative inspiration
  6. Mobile has the most accurate audience measurement
  7. Mobile captures the social context of media consumption
  8. Mobile allows augmented reality to be used in media

It is these unique abilities that I find most compelling about mobile. Even though many people now say that “mobile” to encompasses everything from phones to tablets to in-dash car systems, I still think the mobile phone is special and transformative unto itself because of these unique abilities.

If mobile is a new mass media, what does it mean?

This is the question that I ineffectively tried to examine in my Dao of the Mobile Web article. To get a full perspective on what it means to move from one mass media to another—in this case from print to the Internet—I highly recommend reading John Allsopp’s Dao of Web Design article.

John writes that “Television was at that time often referred to as ‘radio with pictures’, and that’s a pretty accurate description. Much of television followed the format of popular radio at that time.”

John’s point was that when a new medium is born, we don’t know how to use it properly. We try to fit it into what we already now:

When a new medium borrows from an existing one, some of what it borrows makes sense, but much of the borrowing is thoughtless, “ritual”, and often constrains the new medium. Over time, the new medium develops its own conventions, throwing off existing conventions that don’t make sense.

Which brings us to the second question we should ask ourselves. Does a new mass media have different characteristics and different lessons from the previous mass media?

Tomi Ahonen said “Mobile the 7th Mass Media is to internet like TV is to radio.” If you agree both that mobile is a new mass media and that new mass media have different characteristics and lessons, then Tomi’s statement makes sense.

I find the logic that mobile is a new mass media to be compelling. And if it is a new mass media, then doing the same things we did (or should have been doing) for the desktop Internet is limiting mobile’s potential.

Is mobile web a new mass media?

This is where the questions get trickier. Stephen Hay says there is no mobile web, just the web. Many others agree and I see their logic.

Yet, if we think mobile devices have unique abilities that make them a new mass media, then I certainly hope the web can take advantage of those abilities. Because those abilities are explicitly defined as unique, then we logically end up at the conclusion that the mobile web is something new as well.

Thus, if mobile web is the child to the desktop web, then the things we need to learn about it likely won’t be the same lessons that we took from the transition from the printed page to the desktop web.

Could it be that the reason why so many people find John’s Dao of Web Design article relevant eleven years after it was written is exactly because we’re still trying to fit the parent medium’s lessons onto the new medium?

Is mobile web a half-breed? A love child between two mass media?

I had a lengthy email exchange with Ethan Marcotte and Tim Kadlec about these questions. Tim had a very insightful response. He wrote:

Where it gets tricky is when we start talking specifically mobile web. By itself – no, I don’t think we can call it a new mass media.

However, I think if we view mobile (not mobile web) as a new mass media then I think it starts to shed a little light on why the discussion of mobile context and ‘one web’ has been so muddled for so long.

If mobile is a new medium, then the mobile web is a bit of a half-breed – it is part mobile medium and part internet medium so it inherits traits from both.

Tim makes a lot of sense here. This is an inherent conflict for the mobile web when viewed through the prism of mass media changes.

Maybe mobile context really is key, but we just don’t know how to use it yet.

James Pearce wrote an insightful comment on a Jeff Croft blog post that stood out to me. He gets to the same questions I had when I reread the Dao of Web Design:

So is the rise of the mobile web our Michelson-Morley experiment? The circumstances in which we discover that these rules might no longer quite apply outside our previous comfort zone?

I’m fascinated to explore how the web can evolve over the next 10 years. I believe that understanding context is at the heart of it – like the speed of light was to turn-of-the-century physicists – and that we should continue to explore the boundaries so as to change the expectations of both creators and users.

Or, like those same physicists 120 years ago, do we really think we’ve got it all figured out?

Tim Kadlec made a similar point drawing from science fiction:

A common element in many of the more futuristic stories are devices that are most comparable to mobile phones – always with you, always on. They don’t stop there though. They respond to context of environment and adapt based on the users behavioral history – they create a truly personalized and responsive user experience regardless of the situation.

Mobile, unlike any medium prior to it, has that potential. That is why James is exactly right – context is most definitely at the heart of it and we do need to explore it further. How do we accurately determine it? What does it tell us about intent? What criteria do we need to be able to determine when we should, and when we shouldn’t, be taking advantage of it? If we don’t explore those topics, then we’re shortchanging the potential of mobile.

I find the idea that there is nothing unique about mobile web to be a depressing thought. If mobile web is a half-breed, then will mobile web ever be able to fully realize the potential of mobile as a new mass media?

I prefer to look at it the way James described it. As the big experiment and challenge we’re just beginning to explore.

For more on the mobile context discussion

Last Month, we hosted a panel at Mobile Portland with Josh Clark, Daniel Davis, Ty Hatch, Rachel Hinman and Tim Kadlec discussing the The Myth of Mobile Context. It was an honor to have such an illustrious panel discussing such a timely topic.

If you’re interested in exploring this question more, I encourage you to watch the video of the panel. They cover mobile context and much more. It was a fantastic evening and worth watching.

Additional articles on the topic:

Finally, a fun student project from 2009 animating mobile context concepts from Barbara Ballard’s book Designing the Mobile User Experience.