Thursday, 22 June 2006

How Big Clock Saved My Neighborhood

I want to tell you a little story about a mobile data application. From one perspective you might think it's trivial, but to me it speaks volumes about how the mobile data market works and what suppliers need to do to make it successful. I have to give you some background in order to explain the story; please stick with me and you'll see where I'm going.

I'd been hoping to post a big commentary on the future of mobile platforms this week, but I couldn't get it done. My schedule slipped because I was heavily involved in a neighborhood protest against a nearby housing development. A developer was looking to build houses that are about twice the size of anything else in the neighborhood, on much smaller lots. We thought it was a clear violation of the city's planning rules, and we were worried about what the close-packed houses would do to the neighborhood.

For months our protest had been working its way through the byzantine planning system in San Jose – several rounds of formal protest documents, meetings with city officials and the developer, flyers to the neighborhood, signs, a hearing before the Planning Commission, and finally a presentation Tuesday night before the City Council. We prepared a very extensive PowerPoint deck documenting the reasons for our protest, which is what used up my blog-writing time last week.

My neighbors asked me to be the lead speaker, meaning I'd have five minutes to summarize our case – and not a second more. San Jose City Council meetings start at seven pm and often run until one am or later, so the mayor enforces rigid limits on speaker time. It was critical that I make all our points, without skipping anything but also without rushing too much.

I scripted my talk and practiced it several times. Unfortunately, I couldn't get it consistently to come in at five minutes. If I accidentally added even one sentence, it caused the whole thing to go off course, and I'd run out of time before I hit the conclusion.

I was deeply worried. But then I remembered a survey we did a couple of years ago regarding applications usage on Palm devices. One of the most popular applications was something called Big Clock.

When I saw that at the time, I thought, "so what, a clock." But now I had an urgent need for something that would help me stay on track with the speech. So I searched for Big Clock online, and sure enough I found the website.

My Hero

If you haven't tried Big Clock, it is a combination clock, timer, and alarm system. And as the name implies, the numbers are extremely big. The timer function turned out to be exactly what I needed – I set it to five minutes, and it counted down the seconds in big numbers that I could read at a glance. As you can see, the interface is ugly but very functional, with large buttons that you can tap with a finger (something you need when you're on a podium).

Tuesday night at 11 pm, Big Clock and I made the presentation together. I was very grateful I had help, because sure enough my speech started to run long. When I noticed, I was able to talk faster and jump to the conclusion. I finished literally as the mayor started to tell me to shut up.

We won the case. I don't claim Big Clock did it all, but it sure helped.

Lessons about mobile data applications

There has to be a real need.
I didn't care about Big Clock until I needed a timer, and then I needed it desperately. But if I did more public speaking, I probably would have sought it out a long time ago. Often mobile applications do things that are "useful" or "cool." Forget about it. If you aren't solving a burning need, the user won't go for it. (By the way, burning needs can include boredom – this is why mobile games sell well.)

It has to be easy to install.
Palm OS isn't great at this, but fortunately Big Clock comes as a single file, so once I unzipped it on my PC I could just double-click on the icon and sync it to my device. It would have been even better if I could have installed it wirelessly.

It should be easy to learn.
No, strike that – it needs to work with no learning at all. Big Clock shines here. The tabs are self-explanatory, and there are some delightful touches in the interface. For example, you can reset the numbers just by tapping on them – tap in the top of a number and it goes up one, tap on the bottom and it goes down one. I found this just by tapping on things – something the Palm user interface encourages (because you can rarely damage data or cause problems by tapping, you feel safe exploring).

The user must be aware of the application.
I was lucky that I'd done that survey on application usage. Otherwise I probably would have never heard of the product, and you wouldn't be reading this today. I don't know how the average user is supposed to know what applications are out there.

Most mobile data platforms today fail one or more of these tests. Sometimes the application does something that looks cool but doesn't solve a real problem (I see this very often with applications developed by mobile operators). Or the applications are hidden, or they are hard to install, or the user doesn't even know they exist.

Failure on any one of these imperatives causes the whole mobile data ecosystem to fall apart. That's why most mobile data solutions fail today, and that's what I want to talk about fixing in my next post.

Next week, I promise.

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