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Near field communication (NFC) is a short-range wireless technology that allows users to connect devices and access content and services by simply holding enabled devices near each other.

Once NFC chips are integrated into devices, a host of new applications can be built that can:

  • Pay for goods and services
  • Help people access such things as public transport, office buildings, or their cars
  • Download music, videos, and discount coupons from smart posters
  • Share content such as music, videos and photographs
  • exchange business cards

A few Android smartphones already support NFC and Microsoft and Apple are expected to integrate NFC in the phones to be launched in late 2012.

According to a recent study, one-third of iPhone users indicated that they were “likely” or “very likely” to use mobile payments. Analysis from Juniper Research states that the NFC mobile payments market will exceed $75 billion globally by 2013, when 20% of all phones shipped will possess NFC capability.

With these developments, a flurry of NFC enabled apps is expected to hit the market. Anokwa, Borriello, Pering and Want contend that since NFC can be used both for simple interactions like touching a secure door with a cell phone to gain access, and for more complex scenarios such as buying a movie ticket. Without a user model in place, NFC enabled applications may end up a mix of poorly thought out interfaces without a unifying interaction model.


Usability framework for mobile designs

Constantinos Coursaris and Dan Kim argue that “usability is a more important issue for mobile technology than for other areas, because many mobile applications remain difficult to use, lack flexibility, and lack robustness” (A Meta-Analytical Review of Empirical Mobile Usability Studies, Journal of Usability Studies, May 2011). They highlight challenges such as small screens and non-traditional input methods, among others.

To help improve the focus on mobile devices, they extended discussions and frameworks proposed by Han et al. (2001) and Kwahk and Han (2002) to create a contextual usability framework for mobile computing environments:

The concept of “Context” is not new to any of us in the field, but two elements of the framework deserve special attention.

First, they explicitly used “Technology,” rather than “product” or “device” because mobile devices fit within a larger ecosystem of technology. The wireless or data network impacts the user experience with the device and its applications. The application iTunes on the user’s laptop influences their interaction with their iPhone or iPad.

Secondly, “Environment” is a critical factor. In their qualitative review of 100 empirical mobile usability studies, only 11% of studies explored factors as they relate to the environment. Coursaris and Kim see a huge opportunity to study environmental characteristics:

“For example, little is known about the impact of collocation (i.e., a mobile user being in physical proximity to other individuals) on the use of a mobile device (e.g., which types of applications are more likely to be used when alone vs. collocated with familiar or unfamiliar individuals).”

This is fascinating given that a primary purpose of mobile devices is to be used in a non-sedentary environment that involves interacting with (or at least being in the proximity of) other individuals. Studying real users in the real world (conducting real tasks) can be daunting, which is likely why many researchers fall back on controlling as many variables as possible. Conducting research in a lab has many benefits, not least of which is the ability to easily collect the actual measures of the “Usability Dimensions.”

Our challenge then, as researchers, is to determine how we can extend our research to these more realistic situations, whether those are “mocked up” in a complex lab setting or using some other research technique.

Some of the research that Coursaris and Kim analyzed included lab settings with environmental conditions, such as participants walking on treadmills, walking along paths and obstacle courses, and high vs. low light conditions. Other approaches include prototype interfaces where user behavior can be tracked while they are “in the field.” Self-report or diaries from users in the real world is another approach.

A framework for self-reporting on mobile designs

In their research on mobile business services, Vuolle et al. worked to develop a questionnaire to measure the user experience of mobile designs (Developing a Questionnaire for Measuring Mobile Business Service Experience, MobileHCI 2008). By definition, it is based on users’ self-reports about their mobile experiences, but it does provide another useful framework consisting of three dimensions:

  1. Perceived usability of a mobile business service
  2. Fit for mobile working context
  3. Perceived impact on mobile work productivity

In their research, they saw distinct differences based on users and their contexts of use. For example, differences were found between the responses of knowledge workers as compared to taxi drivers.

Knowledge workers generally had more control over their environment, so “amount of attention needed” and “simplicity of use” were less critical, as well as control over environmental weather effects. Taxi drivers operate their mobile devices while on the move (yikes!) and cannot choose the environmental context. However, knowledge workers can move to avoid glare from the sun or come in out of the rain.

Vuolle et al. developed their MoBiS-Q questionnaire tool to help evaluate mobile designs in the real world. They recognize that the main benefits of a questionnaire approach are “efficiency and scale.”

Recognizing this value, it is also important to remember that the best data is performance data:



Whatever approach we follow, we should leverage the framework Coursaris and Kim propose:

  1. Choose the Usability Dimensions we want to address in our designs
  2. Acknowledge and respect the Context
  3. Ensure we have clear usability goals (Consequence of Usability)

In the end, this all serves as a reminder that we need to look at the users in their context. As often as we remind ourselves that we are not the users, even when we sit behind a desktop in a cubicle, just like them, we need to remind ourselves that we are not the user of the mobile applications either. We need to understand them and their context of use to deliver the most usable and useful solutions.


Coursaris, C.K. and Kim, D. (2011). A meta-analytical review of empirical mobile usability studies. Journal of Usability Studies, Vol. 6, Issue 3, May 2011, pp. 117-171.

Han, S.H., Yun, M.H., Kwahk, J., and Hong, S.W. (2001). Usability of consumer electronic products. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 28(3-4), 143-151.

Kwahk, J., & Han, S.H. (2002). A methodology for evaluating the usability of audiovisual consumer electronic products. Applied Ergonomics, 33, 419-431.

Vuolle, M., Kallio, T., Kulju, M., Tiainen, M., Vainio, T., and Wigelius, H. (2008). Developing a questionnaire for measuring mobile business service experience. MobileHCI 2008, Sept. 2-5, 2008, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

Leave a comment here

Reader comments

Laxmidhar V. Gaopande
Rolta India Limited

This article is very interesting and brings out key facts one should keep in his mind in mobile applications design. The video is excellent.

Shital Desai

Does the UX and Usability framework remain same for a responsive design? How do we carry out responsive design process?

Pablo Gonzalez
Squiggly Marketing

It's a great article. Just a simple question: Why HFI doesn't have a Mobile Optimized website? Actually, I checked this site on and it's design and functionality didn't change since 2010. It's time to put in practice what you preach, don't you agree?


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