The Future Of Mobile Is Context

Delivering highly contextual mobile services is an expectation. Mobile phones are personal devices. Consumers expect personal and relevant experiences. 

What is context?

Forrester defines “context” as

“the sum total of what your customer has told you and is experiencing at his moment of engagement.”

Context includes:

Situation: the current location, altitude, and speed the customer is experiencing.

Preferences: the history or personal decisions the customer has shared with you.

Attitudes: the feelings or emotions implied by the customer’s actions or logistics.

eBusiness professionals make limited or very basic use of context today. Mostly, they use an individual’s location to tell her where the nearest store or hotel is. The use of location is a minimum requirement today to meet consumer expectations of “decent” mobile services. The bar is rising quickly though. eBusiness professionals need to layer intelligence on top of contextual information and plan how they will use new contextual information such as temperature or altitude.

Here are a few scenarios that simply leverage intelligence with location:

  • Banks. Should a user require the same depth of authentication at home, at work, or in a foreign country?
  • Hotels. How much should you quote a prospective customer for a room tonight if she is 5 miles or 500 miles away?
  • Airlines. What home page services should you show a passenger whose flight leaves in 2 hours? In 10 minutes?
  • Retailers. How would you react if a customer was using your application for price comparisons and inventory checks from your competitor’s store?
  • Insurance providers. How do you use mobile to mitigate risky behaviors? State Farm already has an application that stops incoming text messages while an owner is driving a vehicle.

This stuff may sound really cool and exciting . . . if it were 2010. Leading eBusiness professionals are already mastering the business rules and infrastructure needed to deliver on these scenarios. The opportunities around context are just starting to get interesting. Give the report a read if you’d like to look into the future and see where your competition and consumer expectations are headed. 

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The Future Of Mobile Is Context

Why do you use the remote to change the channel on your TV? An airplane to fly across the country? A microwave to heat up food? Why — because it is convenient. Consumers will adopt and use convenient services and products. In mobile, this means services that offer immediacy and simplicity through a highly contextual experience. If my gate changes for my flight leaving in 40 minutes, I want to know now — there is value in knowing now or immediately. If I want to donate money to the flood victims in Louisiana, it is simpler to send a quick text message rather than write a check and mail it. If I want to eat Thai food near my home, I want to find a restaurant in San Francisco — near my location (context). Using my phone that leverages my location through GPS is simpler than typing in a neighborhood or address.

Mobile phones are convenient tools to do many things today — refill a prescription, deposit a check, navigate, check Facebook, or get email. The list of convenient services on mobile phones is going to continue to grow. Why? Because contextual information is going to get a lot, lot richer. Today, context is primarily the location of an individual, their stated preferences, or past behavior (e.g., purchases). This information is gathered as consumers use their mobile phones for navigation, news, and shopping. The information collected will become much richer for two reasons. First, consumers will use their phones to do more things (e.g., change channels on the TV, monitor glucose levels, and open their car doors). Second, devices will have sensors such as barometers or microbolometers that collect more information passively about the consumer’s environment. The available information is becoming richer — companies that want to deliver contextual experiences must evolve their expertise.

Forrester has identified four phase of evolution:

Step 1: Master the basics. The use of location, time-of-day, and past behavior was leveraged by less than half of professionals recently interviewed by Forrester. The most well-known example is Google Maps, which assumes you want to search nearby places, for example.

Step 2: Layer in intelligence. This takes the use of location, for example, one step further and enables new opportunities. If your customer opens your shopping application in your store or your competitor’s store, what content or pricing will you show them? If a hotel prospect is 5 miles or 500 miles away on the day of the booking, how does this impact pricing?

Step 3: Finalize the divorce from the PC. Mobile phones are not mini-PCs. The merger of the physical and information worlds will take one giant step forward here when new sensor technologies are combined with sophisticated display and video elements. At this phase more than before, the phone becomes an opportunity to deliver entirely new innovative services and products that have the potential to generate revenue. For example, sensors and other advancements will detect smells such as body odor and make specific recommendations on deodorants and perfumes.

Step 4: Embrace motion as a control mechanism. Phones can be controlled with motion today. What will be different in three to five years? First, the motion-detecting sensors will be on a single chip with a common programming layer that will simplify the use of them in applications. You’ll answer your phone by flipping it over rather than opening a “slide.” You’ll make payments by tapping your phone to a POS rather than using a screen shot of a prepaid card to mimic a physical one.

How fast do you need to move? It depends on your business strategy, mobile objectives, industry sector, and mobile philosophy. Game developers are already using motion controls. Airlines with mobile-savvy customers are entering Step #2. So are medical device manufacturers. If you’re in one of these industries, you need to take a close look at what your competitors are doing, and make sure your IT organization is gearing up to make the changes necessary to support a “mobile-first” client strategy. Getting  IT in shape to tackle mobile is not just about mastering new technologies like app stores, objective-C, or HTML 5: Delivering a customer-centric context will be a new way of thinking for most of your current developers. It will take time for them to understand the challenges and opportunities that mobile context presents. Regardless of how quickly you take the plunge into mobile, you’ll need to deliver more frequently and to more devices than you do now. As a result, your IT peers will need to start thinking about the development processes they use and their skill mix or they won’t be able to support your demands. 

What will it mean in five years? Consumers' desire for convenience will trump their need for privacy. They will gradually allow access to this information residing on their phones to trusted partners in exchange for convenient services not unlike the use of credit cards today. Content and services will become highly personalized. The phone will be both a hub collecting information from machines around us and a modem relaying it to applications or services that will leverage it to offer convenient services.

The ability to deliver highly contextual experiences will evolve in sophistication with technology in the phone. Already, phones have GPS, accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers. Going forward, they will have barometers, chemical sensors, and microbolometers. They already have two cameras enabling 3D video capture and distance measurements.

Last year wasn’t “the year of mobile.” This year probably won’t be either. Mobile is just starting to get interesting. Mobile will be the most important digital medium — it’s just a matter of when. These highly contextual experiences will completely change behaviors, expectations, and what’s possible. Stay tuned.

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