Sorting through the many differing views on mobility
A couple of years ago, I was invited to speak at a conference to give a presentation on mobile technology. The event was all about the use of technology in the accounting industry, and it was attended by technology directors and CIOs of accounting firms. I was very excited about giving the session because I believed that there was enormous potential within the industry to leverage mobile applications beyond e-mail, like time & expense tracking, business intelligence, and workflow automation. Forty-five minutes into my presentation on mobile applications for primarily handheld devices like smartphones, I wrapped things up and asked the audience for questions. I very quickly realized that I had completely missed the mark—in their industry, a mobile worker was someone who took a laptop with an enormous display, a separate external LCD monitor, a scanner, and mobile laser printers with them to the client site. We had completely different understandings of what mobile devices and mobile workers were!
Based on that experience, I've learned that before it's possible to have an in-depth conversation about mobility, you need to be on the same page as to what you mean by the word "mobile." Even major companies in the technology industry have widely varying definitions of who a mobile worker is. For instance, the definition of a mobile worker to Intel is very different than who a mobile worker is according to Symbol/Motorola. In an attempt to provide a common framework for discussion, I've incorporated the various definitions into three different categories of mobile workers: the constantly-mobile worker, the occasionally-mobile worker, and the hybrid-mobile worker.
The constantly-mobile worker
Many workers actually do their job while they are moving. This category includes utility meter readers going from house to house and retail workers filling orders inside a warehouse. This presents some very unique usability challenges. Because the worker will very likely need to be doing something else while they are using the mobile device, it should be capable of one-handed operation. And because of the environment they are working in, the device will likely need to be at least somewhat ruggedized.
The constantly-mobile worker is usually task-oriented, and the ability to automate tasks by capturing, analyzing, and displaying data on a handheld device can provide very dramatic return-on-investment potential.
The occasionally-mobile worker
There are other mobile workers who travel between locations, but only do their work while they are at their destination and more or less stationary. This category includes a growing number of office workers, who have seen their desktop PC replaced with a laptop, so they can take it with them to secondary offices and conference rooms, on business trips, and to home at night and on the weekends. This type of worker only needs to use a computer while physically seated at a desk, table, or other fixed location. As such, their computer hardware and software should be optimized for stationary use with a larger screen and input devices.
The occasionally-mobile worker is often information-oriented, and although they are mobile, they only work when they're not moving.
The hybrid-mobile worker
This category is comprised of occasionally-mobile workers that need to be able to access information while they're on the go, instead of waiting until they get to their destination. This is probably the most rapidly growing category of mobile workers.