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On Mobile Context

By Jason Grigsby

Published on July 12th, 2011

The question of mobile context has plagued me. In January 2009, I wrote about the “On the Go” Myth?. Therefore, it doesn’t surprise me to see very smart people grappling with mobile context and coming to the conclusion that “mobile context has been overblown”.

So given my previous doubts about mobile context, you’d think I would find it easy to agree with the current meme that mobile context doesn’t exist. And yet when I read posts and tweets that argue that there is no mobile web, I find myself disagreeing.

What accounts for this cognitive dissonance? A lot of it has to do with my belief that mobile is a new mass media and what that means for the mobile web.

Many of the objections that I see to mobile context are based on the idea that people are making decisions to remove content from mobile sites thinking that they are doing their users a favor when in fact all they are doing is pissing people off.

These are valid points about poor implementations based on mobile context. But whether or not these implementations are poor is irrelevant if the whole idea of mobile context is a fallacy.

Therefore, I want to look at the foundation, questions and assumptions that might lead a person to conclude that the mobile context is important. Or at minimum, that there are reasons to handle mobile web as something distinct from the larger web.

This post is about theory, not implementation.

A lot of my thinking on this can be attributed to Tomi Ahonen who makes a compelling case for mobile as the seventh mass media. The mass media in order are:

  1. Print
  2. Recordings
  3. Cinema
  4. Radio
  5. Television
  6. Internet
  7. Mobile Phones

Tomi also argues that each mass media has unique abilities that cannot be replicated by the previous ones. Mobile has eight unique abilities:

  1. Mobile is personal
  2. Mobile is permanently carried
  3. Mobile is always on
  4. Mobile has a built-in payment mechanism
  5. Mobile is available at the point of creative inspiration
  6. Mobile has the most accurate audience measurement
  7. Mobile captures the social context of media consumption
  8. Mobile allows augmented reality to be used in media

It is these unique abilities that I find most compelling about mobile. Even though many people now say that “mobile” to encompasses everything from phones to tablets to in-dash car systems, I still think the mobile phone is special and transformative unto itself because of these unique abilities.

This is the question that I ineffectively tried to examine in my Dao of the Mobile Web article. To get a full perspective on what it means to move from one mass media to another—in this case from print to the Internet—I highly recommend reading John Allsopp’s Dao of Web Design article.

John writes that “Television was at that time often referred to as ‘radio with pictures’, and that’s a pretty accurate description. Much of television followed the format of popular radio at that time.”

John’s point was that when a new medium is born, we don’t know how to use it properly. We try to fit it into what we already now:

When a new medium borrows from an existing one, some of what it borrows makes sense, but much of the borrowing is thoughtless, “ritual”, and often constrains the new medium. Over time, the new medium develops its own conventions, throwing off existing conventions that don’t make sense.

Which brings us to the second question we should ask ourselves. Does a new mass media have different characteristics and different lessons from the previous mass media?

Tomi Ahonen said “Mobile the 7th Mass Media is to internet like TV is to radio.” If you agree both that mobile is a new mass media and that new mass media have different characteristics and lessons, then Tomi’s statement makes sense.

I find the logic that mobile is a new mass media to be compelling. And if it is a new mass media, then doing the same things we did (or should have been doing) for the desktop Internet is limiting mobile’s potential.

This is where the questions get trickier. Stephen Hay says there is no mobile web, just the web. Many others agree and I see their logic.

Yet, if we think mobile devices have unique abilities that make them a new mass media, then I certainly hope the web can take advantage of those abilities. Because those abilities are explicitly defined as unique, then we logically end up at the conclusion that the mobile web is something new as well.

Thus, if mobile web is the child to the desktop web, then the things we need to learn about it likely won’t be the same lessons that we took from the transition from the printed page to the desktop web.

Could it be that the reason why so many people find John’s Dao of Web Design article relevant eleven years after it was written is exactly because we’re still trying to fit the parent medium’s lessons onto the new medium?

I had a lengthy email exchange with Ethan Marcotte and Tim Kadlec about these questions. Tim had a very insightful response. He wrote:

Where it gets tricky is when we start talking specifically mobile web. By itself – no, I don’t think we can call it a new mass media.

However, I think if we view mobile (not mobile web) as a new mass media then I think it starts to shed a little light on why the discussion of mobile context and ‘one web’ has been so muddled for so long.

If mobile is a new medium, then the mobile web is a bit of a half-breed – it is part mobile medium and part internet medium so it inherits traits from both.

Tim makes a lot of sense here. This is an inherent conflict for the mobile web when viewed through the prism of mass media changes.

James Pearce wrote an insightful comment on a Jeff Croft blog post that stood out to me. He gets to the same questions I had when I reread the Dao of Web Design:

So is the rise of the mobile web our Michelson-Morley experiment? The circumstances in which we discover that these rules might no longer quite apply outside our previous comfort zone?

I’m fascinated to explore how the web can evolve over the next 10 years. I believe that understanding context is at the heart of it – like the speed of light was to turn-of-the-century physicists – and that we should continue to explore the boundaries so as to change the expectations of both creators and users.

Or, like those same physicists 120 years ago, do we really think we’ve got it all figured out?

Tim Kadlec made a similar point drawing from science fiction:

A common element in many of the more futuristic stories are devices that are most comparable to mobile phones – always with you, always on. They don’t stop there though. They respond to context of environment and adapt based on the users behavioral history – they create a truly personalized and responsive user experience regardless of the situation.

Mobile, unlike any medium prior to it, has that potential. That is why James is exactly right – context is most definitely at the heart of it and we do need to explore it further. How do we accurately determine it? What does it tell us about intent? What criteria do we need to be able to determine when we should, and when we shouldn’t, be taking advantage of it? If we don’t explore those topics, then we’re shortchanging the potential of mobile.

I find the idea that there is nothing unique about mobile web to be a depressing thought. If mobile web is a half-breed, then will mobile web ever be able to fully realize the potential of mobile as a new mass media?

I prefer to look at it the way James described it. As the big experiment and challenge we’re just beginning to explore.

Last Month, we hosted a panel at Mobile Portland with Josh Clark, Daniel Davis, Ty Hatch, Rachel Hinman and Tim Kadlec discussing the The Myth of Mobile Context. It was an honor to have such an illustrious panel discussing such a timely topic.

If you’re interested in exploring this question more, I encourage you to watch the video of the panel. They cover mobile context and much more. It was a fantastic evening and worth watching.

Additional articles on the topic:


James Pearce said:

Oooh - thanks for the moral support.

I think declaring "mobile context doesn't exist" is probably a natural defense mechanism against a concept we don't quite know how to deal with yet.

More device & sensor APIs, and I think its potential will start to take shape, and we'll just move on.

In the meantime, I'm glad you avoided that daft "mind-reading" axiom :-)

Dave Olsen said:

I'm wondering if you're wanting to mix platform with content a bit too much and that's your hang-up on context. It's not "media" that's important so much as "format/delivery vehicle" that's important. Content, mobile web or apps, doesn't necessarily define what makes this new format special or different. TV was different from the previous format of radio because of moving pictures, not because of the content the moving pictures were made up of (e.g. plays are, at a simplified level, similar on both).

Mobile, our latest format, is defined by being personal. Completely, totally, unadulterated, never-out-of-reach personal. Not just in your living room personal like TV but in your hand anywhere *couch*bathroom*cough* personal. To me that's the "context" of mobile. It's you. It's what information you want when you want it. It's your thoughts and feelings shared with whom you want, again, when you want. It's what you want do to, is this getting repetitive?, when you want. And that's because of the characteristics of the device (e.g. touch(!), customization, size, weight, networking, cameras, etc.). NOT because of a Facebook app or the Twitter mobile website or whatever the hell environment you're in at the moment.

You have a need. Address it. Now.

The current mobile web, or rather the predominance of our implementations, is not a half-breed. It's legacy. The browser can almost be considered Mac OS X's "classic mode" for our devices. Boy, as someone who loves mobile web that sounds depressing. But if that's the case then... one web is out the window too. "Classic mode" and classic web implementations aren't going to go away anytime soon. There's just way too much content out there and we have to find a bridge. That little search box in the browser can be a serious pain in the arse ;) That being said, the way forward for successful mobile web implementations is focusing on the personal. Just think about what Mobile First really implies. "What tasks make sense to the *user*?" "What does the *user* want?" "What is going to be most relatable to *them*?" All personal.

The challenge that's out there for us now is "How do we make the experience we want to deliver via this little bit of glass and plastic personal?" Current web implementations point the way forward but, for once, we'll really have to drop the total bullshit that is using the web as a crude bullhorn for talking *at* people. That's totally a holdover from print and a lesson we failed to learn the last go around. Does usability come back to the fore?

The good news for us is that their is inertia in this mass of existing content. And it's this inertia that will give us time to sort out how to make the best use of mobile's special capabilities via the mobile web. Hopefully, we'll be able to reinvent the type of content and interface that we interact with users with making content personal and relevant.

TL;DR version: The articles you link to at the beginning are correct... and wrong. It's just that they're trying to define context too narrowly. And go with your gut. If it feels like there's a mobile context then their probably is. Mobile *is* fundamentally different. It's way more personal than anything we've ever had before.

Tim Kadlec said:

Thanks for putting all this together in one coherent post—there's some great stuff here!

Mobile does present a challenge. It's messy, but important. As James said—context is absolutely, unequivocally at the heart of the matter. We are selling short the potential of mobile if we don’t explore this topic of context and intent and attempt to figure this out.

Understanding context is the key to moving us from a web that simply adapts to devices, to a web that adapts to people. That alone makes it worth exploring.

Sam said:

Isn't it a bit simpler?

Sometimes context matters on mobile.

Sometimes it doesn't.

(Matters to the User).

Those times it does matter are pretty easy to address right now via GPS, NFC, QR or even emerging triggers such as set-top boxes spewing out some audio signal to connect with a mobile device from a television show or ad unit.

Heck, even using a shortcode/keyword on a package and a different one in a print ad will give you a lot of contextual information to deliver the right information and experience to the User.

Then, there are all those other times when it's merely shrunken-web use and context is irrelevant.

Carl Mangold said:

I agree with the statement "Mobile is to internet like TV is to radio", and would like to extend that with "Using a browser on a mobile device is like listening to radio on a TV".

The mobile internet consists of connected apps. Mobile browsers are only there to ease the transition to the new realm.

Jacob Swartwood said:

I couldn't disagree more with the theme of this article and some of these comments.

@Dave Olsen mentions you are likely mixing content with platform, and I believe he is right. My hang-up is not in the specific points of the article (regarding Mobile as a new context), but rather in the underlying theme of comparing it to Internet as a previous mass media.

Although I would classify the Internet as a medium for delivering content, it is certainly not mutually exclusive with Mobile (or TV for that matter). The Internet does not fit with the other mass medias... it should probably be the Personal Computer. This is my complaint; please stop comparing "Mobile" to "Web".

I'm not sure how any of us who watched as desktop (installed) applications rose and then fell to the Web, can realistically believe that mobile (installed) applications won't do the same. The reason Mobile installed apps exist are that they are a segway until web specifications (and thusly web applications) are able to catch up to new DEVICE features and requirements. Once device APIs, better support and strategy for offline APIs, Intents APIs, and many other aspects of Mobile are commonplace, Mobile will no longer require the (installed) "App" shim.

@Carl Mangold, I think you have it backwards... Mobile browsers and Internet specifications are not ready yet. Connected apps are only there to ease the transition to the Mobile Internet.

Jacob Swartwood said:

I think I may have come across a little harsh in tone (in that last comment). I simply find it short-sighted when people compare any context to web. I see no reason why the Internet would not replace the delivery mechanisms for all contexts in time. That said...

I apologize if I took away from @Grigsby's insightful article in any way. I agree that we all have a lot to learn about the Mobile context. It is a great time for both the Mobile context and the Internet as a delivery mechanism. Please stay excited and innovative.

Jason Grigsby (Article Author ) said:

@jacob No worries. Thanks for being cognizant of tone. I appreciate that.

I’m quite interested in your perspective on this, but I’m afraid I didn’t follow your comment.

Any chance you’re going to the Breaking Development conference in September? I love to chat about this over a beer. :-)


Jacob Swartwood said:

This would definitely be a good beer chat. Unfortunately, I'm doubtful I'll be at Breaking Dev... although it looks like a great conference. I think I need to work on crossing the barrier from attending to speaking, so I can justify going to more events :)

I was in between meetings at work and thus a little hasty with my post (as you may have gathered from my immediate follow-up).

Permit me a rewrite of my thesis:
Honestly, I am not sure if disagree with Mobile as a half-breed (or pure-breed) mass media, or if it is the Internet which doesn't belong on that list. (I'm leaning toward the latter). It is simply the comparison that irks me. Mobile empowers the user with new features & presence, and it empowers the Internet with new reach & immediacy. But the Internet is evolutionary; Mobile is simply teaching a young dog new tricks. I'm confident that web apps will eventually become the norm for Mobile, and that the Internet will grow to be more seamless between Mobile, Desktop, and many future contexts. The lines between consumption contexts will blur and simultaneously "the User's Internet" will become more contextually distributed.

Again, I want to stress my agreement with the importance of truly understanding Mobile context. And as always, I look forward to reading more of your posts about Mobile.

If you'd like to continue a discussion (or I can clarify anything further) in an offline thread, you are welcome to DM me (@jswartwood) on Twitter or email if you have access to my address (submitted) via these replies. Otherwise, I look forward to that beer one day.

Jason Grigsby (Article Author ) said:

@jswartwood thanks for adding to your thoughts. I thought you might be picking at the inclusion of the Internet in the list of mass media. I’m going to give that some thought.

My gut says Internet qualifies as mass media, but it has been a long time since I was in mass media history and theory classes. I’m not sure any longer what the academia accepts as the definition of mass media any longer.

Derek Pennycuff said:

Someone laughed at me recently (but not in a mean way) for using the term "desktop web". But that's honestly how I think of it, and for reasons similar to what @jswartwood is talking about…I think. :)

I don't see "the web" as radio and mobile as TV. I see the web as the broadcast medium just like the electromagnetic spectrum carries both radio and TV signals over the air. In that situation the personal computer is the previous mass medium, not "the web".

Both personal computers and mobile devices can use the protocols that make "the web", but they can both do other things too. Some of those other things overlap as well, but they behave a bit differently. The user experience is different. The UX of the mobile web is different than the desktop web just like the UX for Plants Vs. Zombies is different on my MacBook Pro than on my iPad.

Mobile context is real, but independent of the web. It should be considered for any web project in direct proportion to the likelihood of that project being used on a mobile device. I doubt that's a low likelihood for any web project launching today or in the future.

Mounir Shita said:

Having worked on (and still am) Ambient Intelligence technologies for last two years (which is all about context) I have to say that mobile context does not exist. I see “mobile context” as an artificial definition defined by technologist to help in mobile app development (with app I mean native apps, sms apps, mobile web apps, etc). Technology needs to understand the purpose of content to be able to provide maximum value. Understanding purpose means understanding context.

Simple example:

A person is using a shopping list application on his mobile device. In the first scenario he adds a couple of items to his list prior to arriving at the grocery store. In the second scenario he is at the grocery store and is using the shopping list to remind him what to purchase.

“Mobile Context” does not distinguish between these two scenarios. In the first scenario there is no point in adding aisle information or store specific coupons as you may not know what store he is going to. In the second scenario aisle and coupons/sale information might be critical to be able to provide maximum value.

If you, as the app developer, only recognizes “mobile context” then you will not be able to provide real value. That that’s key….context is not something developer should be defining. Context exists at any given time. Technology’s job is to understand context and provide maximum value to the user within this context. “Mobile Context” is tech definition and hence artificial.

Last word: Based on what I learned from my work, understanding context and providing max value to end-user is, with today’s technology, almost (or at least practically) impossible. Applications today are not, in my opinion, made the wrong way, but the best way we are capable of making them. But I do believe the real winners of tomorrow will be the developers who understand real end user context over mobile context.