Monday, 31 March 2008

Report: what consumers want from comms technology

The Ofcom Consumer Panel's recent research report "Switched on: an exploration of Britain's tech savvy consumers" (PDF) (see also their 27 March 2008 news release), conducted for the Panel by Sparkler, is a good summary of what consumers want from communications technologies like mobile phones or the Internet, and indeed its conclusions could be applied to any technology.

It's an interesting read - very clearly written, and the conclusions are I think pretty obvious to consumers, but it's helpful to have official research confirming consumers' views in order to inform the Panel's thinking and contribute to the Convergence Think Tank or CTT.

The CTT was set up by the UK government departments for culture and business in December 2007 in order to examine convergence and its possible impacts, challenges and opportunities on the communications industries etc as well as its impact on future government policy and regulation.

"Convergence" has been defined by the CTT as "the merging of the individual communications industries (IT, broadcasting, telecommunications etc) into single converged market" - there's also a longer government page on "What is Convergence?". (Incidentally, the papers for the CTT's seminars are available online, and worth reading for those interested in this area.)

In the case of the Panel report, they considered communications technologies as internet, TV, radio, mobile phones and gaming - and had an excellent definition of convergence on page 54 as 3 separate definitions:
  1. The existence of many functionalities in one device.
  2. All functionalities in one device being of the highest quality or ‘best in class’, with the device having no primary purpose.
  3. The ability to link separate devices together, best understood as ‘integration’.
The research looked at convergence both in the home and in the pocket i.e. mobile.

The Panel report shows that "most consumers will take up technology because it meets a need, not just because it is clever or new. Consumers will not give up their normal social and cultural patterns at the press of a button – communications technologies have to work with the grain of everyday life. Those technologies which do this and meet consumer needs will tend to be well received."

"There are a few notes of caution however, particularly in relation to privacy and the use of personal electronic data by others. Other consumer concerns are: the difficulty of navigating a path through the increasingly complex communications market; and a feeling of powerlessness in the face of the changes that these new technologies bring."

Or as the news release put it: "UK consumers are savvy and switched on users of new technology, but they fear intrusion into their privacy and don’t trust that their personal data will be protected... Without exception, consumers said that privacy should be heavily protected. Among other things, they said they felt under siege from spam on the phone and the web and they expressed particular concerns about dodgy dates, paedophiles and unscrupulous internet vendors."

I'm not sure about the statement that "providing consumers with an easily understandable and publicly available set of guidelines on how to guard their privacy could help address this issue." There are so many aspects to protecting privacy and security online or on mobile phones. There are already sites like Get Safe Online. More guidance would be good, but I don't think "Consumers should be better educated" is a substitute for regulating the industry e.g. so that proper technical measures to ensure security and privacy will be put into place and conversely stopping technological intrusions into privacy such as Phorm.

While the main focus was on concerns regarding users' privacy and security, the report also reveals a lot about other aspects of consumers' views on and use of technology, splitting consumers into different, sometimes overlapping, types:
  • Content Generators
  • Domestic Tech Goddesses
  • Facebook Community Leaders
  • On Demanders
  • Retired Browsers
  • Tech Blokes
  • Tech Hobbyists
  • Teen Boys
  • Teen Girls.
Although they spoke to only 10 four-person groups across Britain, it seems that the results from a small group can be as valuable and as accurate as from a huge sample (see e.g. this interesting talk from BarCampLondon last year on DIY User Research).

Not surprisingly, important areas where improvements are needed included:

"Clarity of language - currently many consumers are confused by technical jargon which obscures the benefits of a service or device and discourages them from using that product. If consumers are to understand the benefits of new technologies these have to be explained in simple terms, including what they mean to their lives.

Of particular importance in a world where integration of devices will become more prevalent will be explaining how devices can ‘speak’ to each other."

As regulars know, jargon is an area I feel quite passionately needs to be addressed.

"Do not allow consumers to be locked-in - free choice depends upon a consumers’ ability to change operators, providers and devices with ease. Consumers often mentioned the ‘hassle’ of changing suppliers of services as a major barrier to switching. In this complex technological market, providing people with the tools that enable them to choose the most appropriate communications devices and services will be essential.

Ensuring compatibility and interoperability is also key. Consumers should not be compelled to remain with one manufacturer because that is the only way devices can be integrated. This also holds true for peripherals such as chargers and memory cards...

Devices should not be restricted to services. In the case of iTunes, consumers should not be forced to choose between losing content that they have already purchased and own, or sticking with the same device in order to preserve this content."

"It’s easier to regulate markets than people... Since the [universal human] needs will not change, the market should meet these needs rather than try and work against human nature. For example, the current impasse over illegal downloading of music can be seen as a result of a delay in recognising that it is difficult to stop people doing things that are simple, cost-effective and do not disrupt their lives."

"Ultimately, people will continue to adopt technologies that are simple, cost-effective, and easy to use". And "Ultimately, placing people’s needs at the core of technological development remains the surest way to achieve a technologically advanced and satisfied society." Absolutely right, I say!

A BBC News blog post on mobile internet kids a few weeks ago indicated that the school children of today, tomorrow's buyers, will be even more demanding: "When I asked a group of them what they wanted from a phone they had plenty of demands: “Multimedia, the internet, Bluetooth, MP3s.” What about simple phone calls? “Boring!!” they chorused." But I think it is still the companies that deliver simple, cost-effective, easy to use multimedia, internet, Bluetooth etc - in the pocket, please! - which will be the winners.

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