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Intense Research into Mobile Users Helps Guide Design of Oracle Applications

 

Kathy Miedema

Author: Kathy Miedema, Oracle Applications User Experience
February 11, 2013




Mobile devices are changing the face of enterprise applications. And Oracle is staying at the front of this trend by investing in studies that research how and why people are using their mobile devices—whether the devices are smartphones, tablets, or a combination of devices.

Lynn Rampoldi-Hnilo
Lynn Rampoldi-Hnilo

Recently, the Oracle Applications User Experience (Applications UX) team sent members on a global expedition to investigate how and why enterprise workers use their mobile devices. Team members studied everyday workers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sweden, Chicago, and Beijing. This is the second time that the Applications UX team has undertaken a large, worldwide study of how workers use mobile devices. In a previous trip four years ago, team members visited India and Singapore, as well as other large US cities. During all of its research studies, team members walk and ride alongside workers as they go about their daily jobs. They shadow specific field job roles, like sales representatives, field service technicians, retail merchandisers, and members of Generation Y, such as students, to learn in a real-world context how people are using their mobile devices to help them do their work.

“For Oracle to really know what the mobile workforce is doing, we need to watch them do their work. It’s important for us to not make assumptions”
– Lynn Rampoldi-Hnilo,
Senior Manager, Oracle Applications Mobile User Experience team

“The mobile landscape is constantly changing,” said Lynn Rampoldi-Hnilo, senior manager for the Oracle Applications Mobile User Experience team. “For Oracle to really know what the mobile workforce is doing, we need to watch them do their work. It’s important for us to not make assumptions,” she said. For example, the consumer tablet market is on the rise, but does that mean everyone is using a tablet at work? Traveling to where users are working and observing them in their normal environments enables the Applications UX team to determine what tools and apps workers are using globally to best support their needs, Rampoldi-Hnilo said. The team also studies the attitudes and requirements of mobile workers on social networks, gamification, collaboration, and analytics.

Michele Snyder
Michele Snyder

Many workers classify their smartphones as their most personal device, Rampoldi-Hnilo said. But the tablet is a different story. Users are still defining how they will use tablets. She said Oracle team members were more likely to see people share tablet devices with others, something which they absolutely wouldn’t do with their smartphones. Workers did carry tablets around with them, although many considered them “heavy” compared to a smartphone and wanted to carry these tablets around for only a limited time to perform specific tasks. Another finding that affected mobile device use was the issue of connectivity: “If you weren’t out in the field watching people trying to get connected to use a device, you wouldn’t know that a tablet app needs a disconnected state,” Rampoldi-Hnilo said.

Connectivity wasn’t the only obstacle inhibiting use of particular mobile devices. Michele Snyder, a principal usability engineer who was part of the mobile research team, said that in China, the team did not find frequent use of tablets where they expected. “Many people were using subways, which were insanely crowded,” she said. “A tablet solution would not be useful in an environment like this. In a car culture, you can sit in your car and use a tablet when not driving. We probably wouldn’t have thought about this if we hadn’t been there.”

“Things happen on the fly,” Rampoldi-Hnilo said. “That’s why it’s important to be in the field,” to see what people are actually doing in different environments. She said that it’s also important to visit and study people in multiple cultures. “Oracle is an international company, and we need to represent international customers.”

Mobile Cultures and Landscapes

Photo by Brent White, Oracle Applications User Experience

A San Francisco participant in a recent study uses a smartphone, tablet, and landline conference-room telephone to complete a task.

In four years, use of the smartphone has grown tremendously, and new mobile technologies have entered the system. Four years ago, Rampoldi-Hnilo said, there weren’t tablets. While the tablet is still considered emerging technology in some countries, its use is rapidly growing in other places. Oracle’s investment in these studies has helped the mobile Applications UX team detect these changes in how and why people are using their mobile devices.

When the Applications UX team ran its first series of studies, people in the United States were using smartphones in a tangential way to support their work lives, Rampoldi-Hnilo said. They were using the calendar or contacts list, but these were all native to the device. Enterprise applications, if they existed, were rarely used. In the latest Oracle study, smartphones were heavily used, there were lots and lots of mobile apps, people were being creative and trying out apps to see what worked for them, and their companies were also providing apps, she said.

Snyder said one conclusion that the Applications UX team can draw from the most recent studies is that people are starting to adapt their smartphones to their work lives. They are going beyond the native functionality with applications that enable them to scan bar codes, take or make payments, and use global positioning systems (GPS). “It’s not just a phone anymore,” Snyder said. “It’s replacing other technology.”

Photo by Thao Nguyen, Oracle Applications User Experience

A retail merchandiser in Beijing inspects products in a grocery store and uses his smartphone to track the number of items on a shelf.

Pinpointing the differences in mobile cultures is also important. Snyder noted that the biggest differences were between China and others counties that were studied. Mobile workers in China relied heavily on instant messaging instead of email. They did not rely on their calendars, play as many games, or use social networks as much as people who were shadowed in other countries, although that appeared to be changing with the younger generation.

Immersion in Culture Brings Challenges, Rewards

Traveling around the globe comes with its own set of challenges. The Applications UX team works with recruiters to find people who fit a certain profile, such as a retail merchandiser, a sales representative, or a field technician. The Applications UX team members then spend a full day following each person as he or she does the job.

Sometimes language is an issue: In China, members of the team traveled with an entourage that included a local guide, a translator, and the person being shadowed. “Having a translator was absolutely necessary,” Snyder, who did not speak the language, reported after working with a merchandise representative for a grocery chain in Beijing.  “It took me awhile to adapt. We did learn that it does take a long time when translation is involved.”

This type of research allows researchers to immerse themselves in a particular environment. Team members in Chicago followed study participants in a hospital, where they were required to wear sterile clothing such as scrubs. They also walked door-to-door in a neighborhood with a sales representative, and drove with a field service technician from one customer location to the next.

Team members who visited Stockholm noted how easy it was to use public transportation and the cleanliness of the city.  People they observed used earbuds to listen to music and talk on the phone.  Offices were open in design, with chief information officers working alongside their employees.  Rampoldi-Hnilo said that the team wouldn’t have grasped the lack of hierarchy and importance of equality in Swedish companies if they hadn’t observed it personally.

Photo by Chaya Bijani, Oracle Applications User Experience

Michele Snyder from the Applications UX team interviews an inventory technician in a hospital stock room in Chicago (the study participant wanted to remain anonymous).

Brent White, a user experience architect and member of the mobile team, said that when Oracle researchers followed a tech executive participant into the office, the executive didn't walk to the corner office. He found an open seat next to an in-house sales representative, plugged in his iPhone earbud, opened his laptop, and got to work.

White said that participants in Stockholm were constantly looking for new mobile applications that saved money, gave valuable information, and helped with work, entertainment, and the arts.

Identifying Mobile Trends

The Applications UX researchers also learned and validated many of their other findings from previous studies around mobile use.

For example, in Sweden, the team found sophisticated users of both smartphones and tablets, and found that social networking tools played a big role in daily life, both work-related and personal.

“Almost everyone we talked to really used social networks to keep up with what’s going on,” Rampoldi-Hnilo said. Social networking was used to meet up and to know where to go. The Swedish participants were “personally very social, and that extended in work life. There was no hard and fast line between work and social,” she said. They found that people had adopted a variety of social networking tools, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Mobile users in the states were also using social tools, but there were different nuances. Snyder said such social networking is often Facebook-driven in the US. Even when an employee’s company provided a social site for their workers, the social networking tools provided by the company simply weren’t being used.

In China, Snyder said that only the younger generation used any sort of social site, and they used such sites frequently. People were not using social networking tools, especially in a work environment. However, Snyder said it was interesting how much instant-messaging was happening.

The team also found that people in China did not want to pay for apps. In fact, Snyder said, they found that people often “jailbreak” their phones in order to get free apps. This process changes access to the operating system so that unauthorized applications can then be downloaded. “They didn’t see the value of paying for [an app] if they could get it for free,” she said.

She also said that tablets were used primarily to watch movies and play games. Field representatives might show presentations, but otherwise the tablet was used for entertainment. Rampoldi-Hnilo said the same was somewhat true in Sweden, where people are still using the tablet for entertainment. However, there was evidence that more workers there are starting to use it in their work.

In the US, participants in the study did use tablets for work-related purposes and were even more likely to do so if the right enterprise application was available. However, connection problems were frequently an issue, especially when in a city where tall buildings often block reception and make it difficult to work in a connected state. Even wi-fi-enabled devices could not always get a connection. The team also reported that users will soon expect their enterprise applications to integrate device functionality, such as barcode scanning, cameras, and GPS.

Photo by Lynn Rampoldi-Hnilo, Oracle Applications User Experience

Brent White, right, takes notes as Swedish study participant Capri Norrman explains what she is using on her tablet.

Other cultural aspects could influence the user experience as well. Thao Nguyen, Senior Manager, New Interactions, reported from Beijing that the hierarchical nature of the Chinese culture could be expected to affect some
user interface
designs, such as an organizational chart, because employees might want to see more information about a person. By comparison, that information could be streamlined in a country like Sweden or the US, where the same detail might not be required.

Ensuring Success for the Next Generation of Applications

Rampoldi-Hnilo says the data gathered in the Applications UX remote studies brings validity and extra information to Oracle’s product design. “We see how someone is going to work on something,” she said. The information gained in the field adds and shapes feature ideas. “This helps us streamline how designs are going to work best in the field. We can make sure Oracle really knows who the user is and the tasks they are performing.”

The research also identifies trends for the future, which results in suggestions for functionality. “We bring this information back and really help connect developers to the user,” she said.

Rampoldi-Hnilo said the information gathered also helps Oracle target younger mobile users who may not be in the workforce just yet, but will be soon. “We observe them as well,” she said. “We can make sure Oracle really is forward-looking. By the time those designs come out, this group will be entering the workforce. We want to provide a comfortable environment for these workers.”

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