I recently attended a Forrester Research Executive Briefing session titled “Mobile Is The New Face Of Engagement.” Ted Schadler and Melissa Parrish, the two primary analysts who spoke, articulated a strong counter point to the core challenge of working in mobile today, which is that for clients and vendors alike the whole story is technology led: I need an App, or I need a way to use location based services, or near field communications, or QR codes, or augmented reality, etc. As an industry, we’re leading with what can be done, not what users need.
The current state of mobile reminds me of the cultural moment in the middle of “Web 2.0” when many organizations finally grasped the importance of social, but missed the broader point and instead focused on the necessity of their Facebook app, a play for user-generated-content, or a YouTube channel, without really thinking about how those might enable real engagement with their customers and drive business growth.
The Always Addressable Customer
The approach that Schadler and Parrish presented suggested a more compelling way of refocusing the mobile question, based on a new segment (or really a way of thinking about a segment) they call the Always Addressable Customer:
The Always Addressable Customer uses multiple devices, accesses Internet data from multiple locations, and is a frequent user. Parrish added that even this definition will need to evolve – how many of us think of ourselves as “going online” every time we pull out our phones to check an email, tweet, or google something? We no longer really even think of going on (or off) line, just of accessing some needed information. But the overall effect of the picture is a good one: there is a user segment which is constantly online, not just when tethered to one location or using one device, and companies need to learn how to reach these users.
This way of framing the segment addresses the disconnect that happens when organizations segment their customers/users as either mobile or non-mobile. Customers cross channels and use different interfaces at different times – but you should present a consistent brand to them across those channels. (Remember when you couldn’t return online purchase in-store?).
Parrish presented some very interesting stats on just how quickly this segment of the audience is growing, and how attractive this segment is for b2b and b2c companies alike. (We also discussed b2e and p2p but the primary focus was b2c and b2b). Clearly these are attractive users to attract and retain – no longer a fringe group of early adopters:
- Always Addressable Customers were not a big enough segment to track in 2010. In Q3 of 2011 they were 38% of online users, and in Q3 of 2012 they were 42% (in Forrester’s North American Technographics research).
- Though a greater percentage of users in Gen Y in the Always Addressable group, there were still 24% in this category even in the demographic of “Older Boomers” (56-66) and 29% in “Younger Boomers” (46-55).
- Not surprisingly, Always Addressable Customers also over-index on many of the Social Technographics activities and categories – they are more active across the digital spectrum not just in specific areas
The Addressability Framework
The challenge, of course, is how to effectively reach and engage with these always-on users. This is where the Addressability Framework comes in. It explains how organizations going after this segment should frame their thinking:
The framework puts the customer in the center – and ideally a very specific customer, not just a generic user. This is where we can leverage traditional experience design deliverables like personas and user research – how closely can we identify the customer segment(s) we’re trying to address?
Then the discussion proceeds to the legs of the triangle – needs, contexts, and technologies. I prefer to think of needs and contexts as having precedence over the technology discussion, as I think it helps avoid the “we need an iPhone app” phenomenon and keep the focus on how we can best engage users.
The focus here is on what the person being considered in the framework needs. It’s not about what we as a business need that customer to do. This means setting aside for the moment company goals and focusing on user needs even where those needs might not overlap with business goals. It means thinking through the whole experience and having a service design mindset more than an application or web design mindset. It means having real use cases grounded in a solid understanding and (most likely) contextual user research. It means not just thinking “I know what our customers want” but ssking users directly and trying to solve user problems.
It isn’t that organizations generally ignore this step – I’ve been in plenty of brainstorming sessions where user needs were the lead topic. The reality is, though, that the “user needs” often get overwhelmed by “company haves”: assets the organization might be able to leverage in which they’ve invested previously. (We have detailed product descriptions we spent a lot to write and normalize, we have these social media properties to promote, we have a store locator service we can call).
The trick is to keep the focus first on defining real user need. This doesn’t mean the users needs must be critical to the user (there’s plenty of work to do meeting non-essential needs like distraction) but that they must be real needs, not needs we hope users will express. Otherwise you’re going to spend some very expensive marketing dollars trying to convince everyone they need what you’ve designed.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the industry about “the mobile context” – but we need to explode the notion that there is one context, mobile or otherwise. Sometimes on a mobile device (phone, tablet, or even lightweight notebook) a user is very much “on the go” in the traditional sense: walking actively down a city street, stepping out of a taxicab (one of my favorite overused stock photos of 2012), or boarding a plane. This certainly (hopefully?) implies limited attention span, potentially limited bandwidth, and a need to focus on a few key tasks. Other times, however, I might be using that same device in a stable, high bandwidth, relaxed environment. How many people using their smart phone are sitting on their couch with TV on in the background on Wi-Fi? Spending 6+ hours trapped on a flight perhaps with no network access but lots of time to kill? Sometimes mobile usage means having the mobile device only; sometimes mobile usage happens in a very device rich environment, with desktop, smart TV, tablet and other options within reach at all times.
Ultimately it’s probably best to recognize that users have many contexts and move between them, just as they do between devices. (Though sometimes the same device is present and used in multiple contexts, and some contexts involve multiple devices). Responsive design is a wonderful thing, but it only takes into account a small portion of the context – device screen size and (in some) bandwidth.
Once some needs and contexts have been established, it’s time to bring in some technology which might help us answer those needs in those contexts. If the solution included a mobile application, would location awareness be a key part of the app? If a mobile web application, would we be limited in contexts where network access was problematic? How could we use push notification to proactively satisfy user needs without coming across as spammy?
Technology comes last in the framework not in order to avoid complexity but in order to ensure that the complex set of options available is understood in the context of user need. It’s far too easy for those versed in the technology space to fall into the “we can” solution mode, in which a focus on the available tools overshadows what it is we might use those tools to build.
Conclusion: Customer Needs not Company Capabilities
Of course, it’s a simple framework, and the true test of its value will be how it gets applied. Too many organizations come at mobile (and other digital initiatives generally) with a framework (consciously or unconsciously) based on: “What assets do we have; which do we want to leverage; what do we want customers to do; and on what technology stack will we deliver it?”
Putting customer needs and context first, then informing the discussion with what digital technologies make possible, results in a much richer customer experience design opportunity than starting from what we have and hoping we can connect to some customer need.
It also scares some organizations, as it has a tendency to reveal just how incapable existing systems and processes are, and just how much must change to truly meet the Always Addressable Customer. Ultimately that’s what leads organizations to begin with what they have, or what they are capable of delivering, rather than what customers really need and can use.