WAP: It’s Just Not There Yet

A field study of WAP users in the UK by the Nielsen Norman Group found that wireless Internet access has a long way to go before the general public considers it a useful tool.

The Nielsen Norman Group gave 20 users in London a WAP phone and asked them to use it for a week and record their impressions in a diary. Traditional usability tests were also performed at the beginning and end of the field study. When the study was completed, the participants were asked whether they were likely to use a WAP phone within one year, 70 percent answered “no.” When asked whether they might get a WAP device within three year, 20 percent said “no.”

The participants in the study were asked to accomplish simple tasks using a WAP phone at both the beginning and the end of the study. While most of the users expected the tasks to take approximately 30 seconds before performing them, they took much longer. The users also showed little improvement in performance times after the trial period ended (see table).

Time to Perform Tasks on WAP Phone
Task Minutes
Start End
Read world headlines* 1.3 1.1
Read Guardian’s headlines 0.9 0.8
Check weather forecast 2.7 1.9
Read TV listings 2.6 1.6
* from standard portal
Source: Nielsen Norman Group

With WAP users paying for airtime by the minute, these times were a concern to many of the participants. But the study also suggested that good user interface design can alleviate some of the problems. Checking the headlines at The Guardian was quicker than the standard, built-in portal that came with the WAP phones, and that may be because The Guardian made more of an investment in usability.

The main conclusion of the Nielsen Norman Group study was that WAP is currently in a similar state to the one the Web was in around 1994. The greatest problem experienced by the participants was an inability to connect because of network failures, phones crashing, or services being down.

Misguided design principles that borrow from previous media, especially the Web, are reminiscent of the “brochureware” state of the Web in 1994. Design principles that work great in print do not work as well in interactive media, the study found. Unclear labels and menu choices and mismatches between the information architecture and the users tasks (for example, TV listings organized by network instead of time made users scroll four pages to see what time a program aired) also plagued the participants. On several occasions users failed to scroll WAP screens to see content and menu option, a problem that early Web users experienced in 1994.

The WAP handsets themselves (Ericsson R320s and Nokia 7110e) used in the study did not suffer from usability problems. The biggest problem with the phones was that they are phones, and that the user experience would be better on devices constructed with information display and manipulation as the primary goal.

As for the services, the study found that mobile Internet services that work well with users follow two different approaches. One approach consists of highly goal-driven services aimed at providing fast answers to specific questions (e.g., weather forecast, was my flight cancelled?). The other is entertainment focused whose sole purpose is killing time (e.g., games, gossip, sports). Sports and entertainment were the most popular categories bookmarked by the study’s participants, while shopping hardly showed up at all.

A study of Internet professionals by internet.com came to a similar conclusion as the Norman Nielsen study. The internet.com study “Ready… Or Not? IT Professionals Find Promise and Problems With the Wireless Web,” found that a truly wireless Internet experience that would allow IT professionals to perform the same tasks currently conducted on the wired Internet is yet to come. Among the reasons technology professionals are reluctant to embrace the wireless Internet are costs, nascent technology, and the complexities of the hardware-user interface.

Internet professionals, early adopters of both wired and wireless Internet access, are following similar adoption patterns for wireless Web use as they used with the adoption of the Web. Uses of the technology are migrating from business related to more personal use as satisfaction with the technology improves and costs fall.

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