Mobile users like disabled PC users

Mobile-device users find they have the same usability problems that some disabled users encounter with PCs, according to researchers from the University of Manchester.

Mobile-device users find they have the same usability problems that some disabled users encounter with PCs, according to researchers from the University of Manchester.

The typing and pointing errors on PCs that are experienced by motor-impaired users are very similar to the mistakes made by mobile-device users, according to Dr Yeliz Yesilada, who was part of a team researching mobile-usability issues.

"Mobile devices have a limited screen size and the keypads are small; there are a lot of problems with the interface," said Yesilada. "Users become situationally impaired by the limitations of the device or location. If you're outside on a sunny day, you can't really see the screen."

Common problems include people pressing the wrong key adjacent to the target key, or missing certain key presses by not pressing hard enough, said Yesilada.

Programs which assist motor-impaired PC users could be adapted for mobile-telephone use, said fellow researcher Tianyi Chen.

"In recent years, solutions have been built to help disabled users that can now be applied for the benefit of mobile-phone users," said Chen. "Using solutions developed for disabled users can help handset manufacturers reduce the time we all spend correcting errors on our mobiles."

For the study, the University of Manchester researchers re-analysed work carried out in 1999 by Shari Trewin and Helen Pain, scientists at the University of Edinburgh, who had looked into the typing problems of physically disabled users. The University of Manchester researchers then reran the experiments with mobile users and found that were significant similarities between the two user groups.

Dr Carsten Sorensen, senior lecturer in information systems at the London School of Economics, said the research illustrated a fundamental problem with some mobile applications.

"Most people who make mobile applications think the device is a small computer. This is standard error number one," said Carsten. "If you want to write programs for mobile phones that make people tick, don't start by taking programs like Exchange and just shrinking them. There's a massive gap between what people want and what people who make devices think they want."

Sorensen said that technology companies needed to overcome bottlenecks for innovation and obstacles to delivering new services on mobile phones, by seeking to understand the relationships people have with different devices.

"We tend to give too much importance to the technology, rather than the relationship between the technology and the user," said Sorensen. "We tend to misjudge the human aspect. The reason most technology works is not because of the technology itself, but because people are willing to accept the conditions imposed on them to use that technology."

With some mobile devices, people are willing to make potential sacrifices to their work/life balance in exchange for being contactable at all times, said Sorensen.

Sorensen added that usability and functionality combined explain, in part, the popularity of business devices such as the BlackBerry.

"BlackBerry is a key example of usability," said Sorensen. "It has two letters per key, a reasonably big screen and push email. It works."