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mobile technology users devices

Joanna Lumsden
National Research Council of Canada IIT e-Business, Canada


Many experts predicted that this, the first decade of the 21 st century, will be the decade of mobile computing; although in recent years mobile technology has been one of the major growth areas in computing, the hype has thus far exceeded the reality (Urbaczewski, Valacich, & Jessup, 2003). Why is this? A recent international study of users of handheld devices suggests that there is a predominant perception that quality of service is low and that mobile applications are difficult to use; additionally, although users recognise the potential of emerging mobile technology, the study highlighted a general feeling that the technology is currently dominating rather than supporting users (Jarvenpaa, Lang, Takeda, & Tuunainen, 2003). Users are generally forgiving of physical limitations of mobile devices imposed by technological constraints; they are not, however, so forgiving of the interface to these devices (Sarker & Wells, 2003). Users can excuse restrictions on their use of mobile technology on the basis of level of technological advancement, but find it hard to accept impractical, illogical, or inconvenient interaction design.

Mobile devices are becoming increasingly diverse and are continuing to shrink in size and weight. Although this increases the portability of such devices, their usability tends to suffer. Screen sizes are becoming smaller making them hard to read. If interaction design for mobile technologies does not receive sufficient research attention, the levels of frustration—noted to be high for mobile technology and fuelled almost entirely by lack of usability (Venkatesh, Ramesh, & Massey, 2003)—currently experienced by m-commerce users will only worsen. Widespread acceptance of mobile devices amongst individual consumers is essential for the promise and commercial benefit of mobility and m-commerce to be realised. This level of acceptance will not be achieved if users’ interaction experience with mobile technology is negative. We have to design the right types of m-interaction if we are to make m-commerce a desirable facility in the future; an important prerequisite for this is ensuring that users’ experience meets both their sensory and functional needs (Venkatesh et al., 2003).

Given the resource disparity between mobile and desktop technologies, successful e-commerce interface design does not necessarily equate to successful m-commerce design. It is therefore imperative that the specific needs of m-commerce are addressed in order to heighten the potential for acceptance of m-commerce as a domain in its own right. This chapter begins by exploring the complexities of designing interaction for mobile technology, highlighting the effect of context on the use of such technology. It then goes on to discuss how interaction design for mobile devices might evolve, introducing alternative interaction modalities that are likely to affect that future evolution. By highlighting some of the possibilities for novel interaction with mobile technology it is hoped that future designers will be encouraged to “think out of the box” in terms of their designs and, by doing so, achieve greater levels of acceptance of m-commerce.


The great advantage the telephone possesses over every other form of electrical apparatus consists in the fact that it requires no skill to operate the instrument. Alexander Graham Bell, 1878

The above observation from Alexander Graham Bell, the founder of telecommunications, epitomises what we must hold as our primary goal when designing future m-interaction; that is, since the nature of mobile devices is such that we cannot assume users are skilled, m-interaction should seem natural and intuitive and should fit so well with mobile contexts of use that users feel no skill is required to use the associated mobile device. Part of achieving this is acquiring a better understanding of the way in which mobility affects the use of mobile devices and thereafter designing m-interaction to accommodate these influences. Additionally, we need to better understand user behaviour and social conventions in order to align m-interaction with these key influences over mobile device use. Foremost, we need to design m-interaction such that a mix of different interaction styles are used to overcome device limitations (for example, screen size restrictions). Ultimately, the key to success in a mobile context will be the ability to present, and allow users to interact with, content in a customized and customizable fashion.

It is hard to design purely visual interfaces that accommodate users’ limited attention; that said, much of the interface research on mobile devices tends to focus on visual displays, often presented through head-mounted graphical displays (Barfield & Caudell, 2001) which can be obtrusive, are hard to use in bright daylight, and occupy the user’s visual resource (Geelhoed, Falahee, & Latham, 2000). By converting some or all of the content and interaction requirements from the typical visual to audio, the output space for mobile devices can be dramatically enhanced and enlarged. We have the option of both speech and non-speech audio to help us achieve this.

Speech-Based Audio

Using voice technologies, users issue commands to a system simply by speaking, and output is returned using either synthesised or pre-recorded speech (Beasly, Farley, O’Reilly, & Squire, 2002; Lai & Yankelovich, 2000). Voice-based systems can use constrained (Beasly et al., 2002) or unconstrained (Lai & Yankelovich, 2000) vocabularies with accordingly different levels of sophistication balanced against accuracy. This type of m-interaction can seem very natural; it can permit eyes-free and even hands-free interaction with m-commerce applications. However, perhaps more so than any of the other possible m-interaction techniques, speech-based interaction faces a number of environmental hurdles: for instance, ambient noise levels can render speech-based interaction wholly impractical and for obvious reasons, privacy is a major concern. When used for both input and output, speech monopolises our auditory resource—we can listen to non-speech audio while issuing speech-based commands, but it is hard to listen to and interpret speech-based output while issuing speech-based input. That said, given appropriate contextual settings, speech-based interaction—especially when combined with other interaction techniques—is a viable building block for m-interaction of the future.

Non-Speech Audio

Non-speech audio has proven very effective at improving interaction on mobile devices by allowing users to maintain their visual focus on navigating through their physical environment while presenting information to them via their audio channel (Brewster, 2002; Brewster, Lumsden, Bell, Hall, & Tasker, 2003; Holland & Morse, 2001; Pirhonen, Brewster, & Holguin, 2002; Sawhney & Schmandt, 2000).

Non-speech audio, which has the advantage that it is language independent and is typically fast, generally falls into two categories: “earcons”, which are musical tones combined to convey meaning relative to application objects or activities, and “auditory icons”, which are everyday sounds used to represent application objects or activities. Non-speech audio can be multidimensional both in terms of the data it conveys and the spatial location in which it is presented. Most humans are very good at streaming audio cues, so it is possible to play non-speech audio cues with spatial positioning around the user’s head in 3D space and for the user to be able to identify the direction of the sound source and take appropriate action (for example, selecting an audio-representation of a menu item). Non-speech audio clearly supports eyes-free interaction, leaving the speech channel free for other use. However, non-speech audio it is principally an output or feedback mechanism; to be used effectively within the interface to mobile devices, it needs to be coupled with an input mechanism. As intimated previously, speech-based input is a potential candidate for use with non-speech audio output; so too, however, is gestural input.


The future of m-interaction looks exciting and bright if we embrace the possibilities open to us and adopt a paradigm shift in terms of our approach to user interface design for mobile technology. This discussion has highlighted some of those possibilities, stressing the potential for combined use of audio and gestural interaction as it has been shown to be an effective combination in terms of its ability to significantly improve the usability of mobile technology.

The applicability of each mode or style of interaction is determined by context of use; in essence, the various interaction techniques are most powerful and effective when used in combination to create multimodal user interfaces that accord with the contextual requirements of the application and user. There are no hard and fast rules governing how these techniques should be used or combined; innovation is the driving force at present. Mindful of their social acceptability, we need to combine new, imaginative techniques to derive the maximum usability for mobile devices. We need to strive to ensure that users control technology and prevent the complexities of the technology controlling users. We need to eliminate the perception that m-commerce is difficult to use. Most importantly, we need to design future m-interaction so that it is as easy to use as Alexander Graham Bell’s old-fashioned telephone—that is, so that users can focus on the semantics of the task they are using the technology to achieve rather than the mechanics of the technology itself.

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