March 22, 2001

How to make wireless directory services useful

Summary: Wireless directory services need to recognize both the limitations and the benefits of mobile phones, by making search results more to-the-point and context-sensitive.

When Clearnet (Telus Mobility) introduced a new wireless web service for its mobile PCS subscribers some time ago, I expected great things. Clearnet had always been known for a relatively positive customer experience:

Clearnet customers could be regularly surprised by the little details that made interacting with the company less painful than doing so with competitors. For example, customers who had to wait on hold for their customer support staff were able to choose the style of music they wanted to listen to while on hold. Clearnet accidentally sold a number of phones with an incorrect battery type, and they almost immediately sent the correct battery in the mail along with a clear and friendly apology.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the practical services in Clearnet's wireless web offering--directories that enable users to find products and services wherever they happen to be--are barely usable, as are similar services from many other wireless service companies.

The main problems with wireless directories today

Mobile phones are hard to use because they don't have a reliable input mechanism--who ever thought of typing on a numeric keypad? They've got small screens and sometimes spotty reliability. And so, the simpler the interaction, and the more results are to-the-point, the better the user experience. Existing wireless directories behave too much like those from other media or communication mechanisms, so they don't work well within the restrictive design of mobile phones. Here are the biggest problems with existing wireless directories:

An example of time wasted using wireless yellow pages

I wanted to find French restaurants in Toronto, Ontario, using my mobile phone. So, I navigated to the yellow pages directory, and typed in "French restaurant". I then selected Toronto, Ontario, and initiated a search. Using T9 predictive text entry on my Sanyo SCP-4500, that took about one minute. Here were the search results:

1 Chinese Foods
2 Chinese Foods
[next screen]
3 Restaurant Eq
4 Restaurant Eq
5 Restaurant Ma
6 Restaurants

I have no idea where I would find French restaurants in that list (especially since so many of the categories begin with "Restaurant" even though the designers of the service knew very well that the biggest mobile phone display screens would cut off almost everything else in each line.)

Once a listing is found, users are then left to make an additional phone call or another web search to find directions. The results aren't sensitive to geography.

Each common problem, solved

1. reliance on category-searching

Most wireless directory services I have encountered require searching by some sort of category as opposed to common key words or key phrases. If I search for "bubble tea" (a Taiwanese beverage popular in the Toronto area), I get no results, and no helpful suggestions. However, there are several businesses under the category "Tea Houses" that explicitly mention bubble tea in their name or description.

The solution, then, is to make sure listings are displayed not by category, but instead listed by key phrase or key words. In the case of my search for French restaurants, if the search results had been displayed at the lowest level (list of restaurants, not categories) and by key phrase, I would have been presented with much more useful results.

2. long, off-topic lists of results

Related to the previous problem, long, off-topic lists of results need to be eliminated. One of the best ways to keep results short and on-topic is to be much more discrimating on the server side: only serve a few results with extremely high relevance.

When users use a web search tool, the results are likely to include documents with ten, five, or even just one percent estimated relevance. On the web, it's possible that the user will scan the results page and see key words in the low-relevance documents that are still important to them. On a mobile phone, users can't scan and pick out the same information, so it's better to take a chance and keep the user focused on the high-relevance results.

3. results are too general and users need to do too much work

As demonstrated above, search results are often difficult to decipher on cell phones. So, search results should be as low-level as possible, meaning that actual "final destinations" should make up the bulk of search results.

Another tip is to name items more uniqely. For instance, directories shouldn't serve a bunch of results that begin with Restaurant: (such as Restaurant: Louie's; Restaurant: Il Postino; Restaurant: McDonald's). Instead, remember that users actively searched for a topic, so they know what kinds of results to expect. If I searched for French restaurants, I expect a list of restaurants, so each result needn't be individually described as a restaurant.

4. context-insensitive results

If I wanted a list of all kinds of restaurants anywhere in a large city, I would look those up before I left my home or office. Cities are big, and if I'm using my mobile phone to look something up, I'd like to know what's near me, not what's an hour away. Mobile phone providers have a rough idea where a given phone is located. Therefore, search results should be sensitive to the location of the phone if appropriate.

It is certainly more difficult to do a general search on a mobile phone, since they have tiny screens and horrible interaction mechanisms. The value of a wireless directory is mobility; the ability to give users information that will help them wherever they happen to be standing.

5. failing to correct common errors

As I've said before, mobile phones are hard to use. Even Palm Pilot devices have significant limitations. Like almost every other technical service, wireless directory services should do whatever they can to correct common user mistakes.

If I misspell "restaurant" on my phone, it can be quite a chore and waste of time to correct it. There are relatively few instances when a common correction cannot be found by an ordinary spell checker, and in those rare circumstances, the user can afford to correct his mistake. But ordinarily, users should not have to make a great effort just to correct a tiny mistake, especially when the result of all of their painstaking work may be totally irrelevant!


Mobile phones have limitations which make them unsuitable devices for ordinary web directories or equivalent paper directories. Results need to be short, to-the-point, and relevant to the user's location. Designers need to assume more responsibility in wireless directories, even if it means taking some control away from the user.

Adam Baker is a user experience designer who's worked at Google, Apple, BlackBerry, and Marketcircle, and mentored startups in Vancouver.