Study: No Place to Go but Up for WAP Usability

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"Wireless application protocol is a failed technology. ... It's not just bad, it's insufferably bad. It's a clumsy user interface. It cuts across so many different services," said usability expert Jakob Nielsen, principal of Nielsen Norman Group.

He based his comments on "WAP Usability: Déjà Vu: 1994 All Over Again," a study Nielsen Norman Group conducted in August and September in which the majority of WAP users surveyed declared the mobile Internet to be user-unfriendly.

The study surveyed only 20 users but was designed to provide observational experiences rather than a statistical analysis of usage trends.

"The subjective experience and the objective data [imply] that ultimately the experience is too bad for people," Nielsen said. "It's not a matter of fixing just one thing. There were so many elements that were bad."

And despite what proponents of WAP say, "these things won't change in the short term, one or two years," he said.

Nielsen is optimistic about rapidly developing technology that would yield, for example, a personal digital assistant that would allow phone use through an earpiece.

"What you want is a device that was from the beginning designed for this, as opposed to a phone that is dictated by the shape of the human head," he said.

Among respondents' dislikes were too much text and the shape of the phone, which made it difficult to read at length. Seventy percent said the phone's limited screen size would prevent them from using WAP in the future.

"If I wanted to read something in depth, I'd get a newspaper, because it's annoying looking at that tiny screen," one respondent said.

Those surveyed were residents of London, most 30 to 40 years old, with professions ranging from media executive to hairdresser. Their experience with home Internet use varied. The study required the users to perform preset tasks on WAP-enabled phones before and after they spent a week alone with the phones.

Nielsen said he is not surprised by the results of the study, although "maybe surprised at how strong [the negative responses] were."

What he least expected was that "killing time" would be such an effective application for mobile devices. "The killing time angle has potential," he said, "and I didn't anticipate it would be that big."

Perhaps the most negative result of the study was that when asked whether they were likely to use a WAP phone on their own within one year, 70 percent said no. On the brighter side, only 20 percent said no when asked whether they might get WAP within three years.

Most troublesome to those surveyed was the inability to connect because of various failure modes, the same glitches and difficulties found with the Web in 1994. Outdated content and incomplete services were problems back then and represent part of the problem now.

Slow connection speeds were the most disliked feature of WAP. Access to news was the positive aspect users mentioned most often. Sports and entertainment were the most popular categories. Travel has great potential, but the study found that 65 percent of users were unable to find local travel information when asked. Surprisingly, portability did not rank high with WAP use.

The goal of the study, Nielsen said, was "to give that impressionistic feeling to the readers of how it feels to use the product. When you do a reality check of actual human behavior, it generates so much interest for future study. It's so much easier to build a service if it's based on what people want."

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