The User experience, or how the user experiences the end product is the key to acceptance. This is where a user interface design enters the design process. While most people think of this with computers, it also refers to many other designed products such as military aircrafts, vehicles, airports, audio equipment and, other devices used with computers. (1) Mobile technology is another product that falls within this category. If end users feel that something is difficult to learn, not easy to use or too inconvenient, an excellent product could possibly fail.
Mobile technology is something that has been growing over the past decade and is something that our generation grew up with. We have seen mobile technology grow from an enormous brick to a sleek little device that surfs the web.
With this, as a designer, understanding the difference between personal and social usability helps make a difference in what the product might need and who it will be for.
Personal Usability- Focuses on addressing the needs and concerns of an individual. It pays great dividends to the company in terms of business and customer satisfaction!
Social Usability- Focuses on addressing the needs and concerns of society at large, in terms of impact across masses. It may or may not make business sense.
Improving the reach of mobile technology in rural areas should be of top priority with social issues such as illiteracy, epidemics, poverty, unemployment, water scarcity, female foeticide, etc. are faced prominently by the rural population.
As per the GSM Associations report (Global System for Mobile Communications), our planet has over 3 billion mobile subscribers. If you consider the total population of the world (i.e. 6.6 billion) mobile phones are spreading very rapidly. The mobile phone, like a trusted companion, walks along with us in the most private and public places. It is the most powerful source of information and a medium of communication. "The fusion of mobile telephone with multiple gadgets (computer, internet, television, radio, camera, variety of sensors, etc.) makes it a fairy tale magic wand/ crystal ball. The biggest challenge is how innovatively can we use its immense potential for a desired social transformation." (2) In other words, how can the usability of this design help society?
The creation and pushing of design with mobile technology has come a very long way since the first cell phone. These new inventions of technology have created social demonstrations in both constructive and deconstructive use. Mobile has been helpful for rescue operations during floods, cyclones and disaster management. Blood banks in Kenya send SMS updates about the stock to local hospitals. There are examples of using SMS for sex education, HIV awareness creation, sending weather updates to fisherman and market information to farmers, etc. PDA phones are also used for capturing medical data of villagers. There are reports that discuss how mobile phones are helping in poverty alleviation. SMS polls by television game shows and news channels are rooting the democratic values even deeper. These examples are eloquent enough to tell what cell phones are capable of.
However, with the good, comes the bad. Youngsters can use this technology to circulate bomb hoaxes, pornographic messages which in turn causes social havoc. Mobile communication has given boost to all types of business activities. But we can't ignore that drug dealers, prostitutes, burglars, terrorists and other dangerous anti-social elements are also causing tremendous social nuisance using the power of mobile technology. Usability of these devices can cause social alienation, or invade the privacy of others. Accidents caused by cell phone distraction, health hazards due to electromagnetic radiation of mobile stations, neck problems, and the recent BlackBerry Thumb (Repetitive Stress Injury). (2)
Socially useful applications with basic technology extensions are important in improving social usability of mobile devices. As a designer, we are always trying to create the next best thing and are constantly working to meet the needs of our users. We need to understand that there are going to be positive and negative experiences that may come from our design when designing for society. We can't always please everyone, and someone will always find a different way to use the design. But in knowing this, we can manipulate usability to help social needs.
**Could there be specially enabled mobile handsets for the people who live in flood prone areas or cyclonic regions? A handset with a big SOS (Save Our Souls) button? Why not?!