With the Windows Phone 7 launch now behind us and the arrival of devices either days (Europe) of weeks (North America) ahead, there is a lot of discussion around the new platform and the mobile phone space in general. One area of both discussion and debate that seems to be popping up quite frequently, both in personal discussions and on the Internet, concerns me a bit. It’s not the discussion per se that concerns me; it’s the use (and often time misuse) of two words that play an important factor in user satisfaction around mobile devices (and technology in general) – customization and personalization. Understanding what these concepts really mean and how mobile devices are designed with regards to the two concepts may make all the difference in determining which platform and specific device best fits your need. As a result, I thought it might be good time to talk to these two concepts in a bit more detail and try to eliminate some of the misrepresentation via interchangeability some have used.
Let’s start with the the concept of customization. At its core, customization deals with the look and feel of the device. Not necessarily the hardware, mind you, although you can customize what hardware buttons do when pressed. Customization is largely about the aesthetics of the device. It’s changing the layout of screens, the colors of screens, the sounds the device makes. It’s what appears or doesn’t appear on screens and how it appears. Customization is something that, first and foremost, needs to be enabled by the operating system. Those capabilities, in turn, have to be allowed by both the the hardware manufacturer and the mobile operator. Third party software vendors can also potentially play a part in customization, depending on how much access to customization is provided to the developer.
Customization has been either a strong point point or a weak point for mobile platform providers. The Windows Mobile operating system has had a long history of being a very customizable platform. Android has quickly developed this reputation as well. Apple, on the other hand, has taken its proverbial lumps on this front. Customization is, of course, a user preference. For many people, it is simply not that big a deal. Those who desire customization typically are considered to be more of the “power user” of mobile devices. In addition to desiring customization, they often tend to desire more out of their device in terms of ability and functionality.
Customization by and large affects how the device looks and sounds, and to some extent may affect the way the user interacts with the device. There is another level of interaction, however. This leads us to the concept of personalization.
It can rightfully be argued that personalization is a form of customization, to stop there would be quite wrong. Personalization goes far deeper into the user experience with the device than customization. If we were to look at the depth of user experiences as an onion, customization largely makes up the outer layers by focusing on sight, sound and basic device navigation. The concept of personalization goes to the next level – it focuses on trying to answer the question how do I make the user experience throughout device usage truly my own.
Like customization, personalization that has to start with the mobile device operating system. Unlike customization, however, the effort involved in enabling personalization is far more complicated. To be successful in this area, in-depth research and knowledge of understanding how a user may work with a device is required. Actually developing a user experience is often the final step in a more time-consuming process of identifying target users and (for lack of a better term) “getting inside their heads”. It is about understanding how people think and behave when interacting with a technology and providing the tools to mimic most closely those behavioral patterns. Finally, it is about enabling the user to tailor those core experiences in ways to make the device more like the user in the way that they think – in this way the device is an extension of the user, a facilitator and truly personal. Perhaps the best way to think of this is through an example.
Suppose I want to get together with a couple of friends before a user group meeting for a bite to eat. From a human thought process, I would probably want to -
- Decide on a place to get together;
- Determine the appropriate time;
- Let just those friends know about the get together.
Seems simple enough, right? Now, try to map those steps to interactions on a mobile device. You likely will end up with something like -
- Navigate to a browser or application that allows me to find a proper meeting place. Depending on the application and its ability to recognize and remember your preferences, searching could be either easy or difficult.
- Once selected, either remember the location or use some sort of cut and paste mechanism to save the details in memory.
- Navigate out of the previous application and into a calendar application to pick an appropriate time. If you don’t share calendars, by the way, the time may just be an educated guess.
- Once a time is selected, you will need to paste the location information into a meeting invitation.
- Now you will need to find your friends in the contact management application. Depending upon the abilities of the application and search capabilities, this could be difficult (if not impossible). What if your friends aren’t in the default contacts application? What if they are not in any contact application, but are stored in a location on the Internet (Facebook, for example)?
- After the searching, you send off the invite.
Even in a simple example, you can see how human thought may not map quite well to device interaction. Most who respond to this example with “well, that isn’t so hard” are people who are very comfortable with technology in general and (through experience) are comfortable in performing this task. They are the “power user”. Mobile phones, however, need to address the more casual user much like other technologies have had to adjust. Think of the our evolution with something as commonplace as the VCR (and subsequent DVD and BluRay). Early user experiences were difficult for all but the most tech-savvy. They evolved, however, to make using the technology easier for the average consumer. Mobile devices are now moving into this same realm. More people then ever are purchasing sophisticated mobile phones, and most are not power users. As a result, the user experiences need to evolve as well.
Moving back to our example, personalization would need to focus on a few areas in order to create a more human, or “natural” experience -
- The device/application would know and/or learn more about your preferences for things like food and use them to help with searching.
- The device/application would be aware of location in aiding with search selection. Not only your current location, but perhaps the location of your friends.
- The device would allow you to know more about your friends – where their information can be found and how that information (back to location, for example) will be used.
- The experience of selecting a location and inviting friends would be more integrated, requiring less navigation and behaving more like the user thinks.
As a wrinkle on the last (and perhaps most important) point listed above, the order in which I perform the task may be different. I may wish to identify people first and then pick a location. Ideally, the device should support that order of interaction in a seamless fashion as well. This level of interaction is what personalization is really all about.
Historically, mobile devices have not been successful when it comes to personalization. The disjointed user experiences contained within Windows Mobile made for a constant sore point for new and less experienced users. Ironically, I am hearing some complaints from new and less sophisticated users of Android devices as well. They are not as bad as Windows Mobile complaints (things like Google integration help in some respects), but they are still there. A couple of years back, the iPhone took the first steps towards improving the user experience and personalization (this has always been an Apple strong point). However, little has evolved from Apple in this are in the last couple of iterations of iOS. Then there is Windows Phone 7.
For those that watched the Microsoft press event on October 11th (if you have not seen it, it is available on demand from the Microsoft PressPass site), a lot of the feedback I have received relates to the integration of applications and the seamless flow of some of the common tasks for a phone user. Ladies and gentlemen, I propose to you that -I wondered if I would ever be able to say this – Microsoft is starting to get user experiences and personalization on a mobile device. While I am a stereotypical power user, I now crave a Windows Phone 7 device. Why? – because customization is superficial; personalization, however, makes things easier. Customization may fulfill an impulse, but personalization males a difference for me in the long run. Honestly, Microsoft has not achieved “personalization nirvana” with Windows Phone 7. They have, however, taken a huge first step in this first release. When you see how fundamentally different the personalization aspect of Windows Phone 7 is, you can better understand why this operating system was a complete departure from Windows Mobile down to the very core of the operating system.
There is nothing wrong with making customization a priority over personalization, or vice-versa. It is, of course, a personal preference. It is a mistake, however, to say (accidentally or intentionally) that customization and personalization are one in the same. These two distinctly different concepts can make all of the difference between satisfaction and success when selecting a mobile device. Just remember to ask yourself what really matters the most.