Consumer mistrust of mobile on the move

By Neil Pawley

Commuting in Hong Kong means travelling on the MTR. Unlike the London Underground, it’s clean, the trains run on time and it offers one thing that changes the social dynamic of travellers. It has universal high speed internet access throughout the entire system.

Pretty much everyone, young and old, is hunched over a PSPVita, smartphone or tablet device, playing, tapping or reading. It’s not the fact that this is common place that’s interesting, it’s the type of interaction that’s going on that raises questions.

Those that aren’t playing games or watching reruns of TV shows are busy on social networking sites or chatting using BBM or text. Importantly, what isn’t happening is any real web browsing or data exchange. Few people are actually shopping, purchasing or undertaking financial transactions of any consequence.

Smart phones and tablets are perfectly capable of these operations with companies investing a great deal in improving processes to promote their use. Yet online savvy consumers I speak to in Asia commonly talk about a mistrust of smart devices for operations on the move. For them this kind of transaction is better conducted on a laptop when at home. So, why is this happening?

One reason for this reluctance seems to be that the innate portability and ease of use of the smart phone or tablet is both the blessing and the curse of this tool. Always on and close to hand they offer instant access to everything.

Unfortunately this convenience also brings the increased fear of losing the device through neglect or theft. Either situation will not only cause a great deal of inconvenience for the owner but there is also the concern, particularly for those that rely upon the device, that whoever holds their phone or tablet also has access to much of their lives. Personal photos, contacts, passwords, emails, texts and most importantly, their financial interests.

Another is the lack of trust in the security of the tablet and smart phone itself. This is due to these tools being relatively new and for some, untested but in the main it’s driven by two quite different issues. Both of which can be easily overcome by the user feeling they have control over the environment in which they are used. The first is the way the device connects to the internet, the other is a design shortcoming that no provider is seemingly doing anything about.


When the user is out and about, using public transport, sitting in a coffee shop, they are expected to use uncontrolled, community Wi-Fi networks that can be accessed by anyone. This creates a feeling of unease, restricting the actions that many users are willing to undertake. A consumer may not do much to their own home Wi-Fi unit to secure it (many have no idea how) but it’s at home, in a controlled environment, can be seen and touched so in their mind, relied upon.

This is further compounded by the lack of a robust and continuous service ‘in the wild’. Consumers commonly complain of lost connections at inconvenient moments. This colours their trust of the provider and again limits their willingness to undertake anything more than the smallest of transactions.

Tablet design

This has more to do with one of the main selling points of the tablet device. Whichever one you use each is designed to have a screen that is both bright and clear. In fact, Apple invests a great deal of money in extolling the virtues of their latest iPads retina screen with sharpness of picture. This visibility issue is compounded further by providers who are intent on designing apps and web sites that make interpreting and digesting information as simple as possible through clarity and legibility. In some ways this is great from a user experience point of view but these two factors combine to ensure that what is seen by the device owner is generally shared with those around them.

Commuting on the MTR is boring so it’s impossible to not steal a glance across at what others are doing, interested in which site they are using, what they are saying to their friends or what movie they’re watching. Ignoring screens is even harder at night. I took a couple of snaps at Happy Valley race course a few weeks ago to illustrate how simple it is for others to nose in on what others are doing. The luminosity and size of screen ensure that it’s difficult to not see what’s going on.

It’s going to be difficult to overcome either of these issues in the short term. The user’s fear of shared networks will persist until providers can prove that they are both secure and robust enough. Fighting human nature is even harder, who hasn’t stolen a glimpse of another passengers newspaper when stuck on a train? I guarantee that if it’s there, people will look.

The media will tell you that use of mobile devices for financial transactions, both retail and banking is on the increase, which is undoubtedly true. What they don’t tell you is that these transactions are happening on mobile devices which are not necessarily mobile at all but most likely to be conducted at home or in the office which is deemed to be both safe and convenient. This rather defeats the object of the exercise if you ask me.

Of course, there is always the possibility that people just don’t want to undertake anything more complex than posting a comment to Facebook or browsing online newspapers when travelling on the train. Maybe, just maybe, that’s all we have the bandwidth and appetite for on the way to work.

Neil Pawley

I joined W3C in 1995 working for six years on the formation of guidelines for HTML, CSS, RDF and WAI. I worked with some of the cleverest people around, lectured in the UK and US and authored and contributed to a number of technical publications. I’m also immensely proud of having contributed three entries to Roger’s Profanisaurus in 1998 and they are still there.

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