Mobile travel guide

ABSTRACT

The paper presents the result of a study conducted on a prototype mobile travel guide to improve its usability of mobile application. It discusses the findings in terms of suitable contents and interface design for such application that is implemented for devices with limited screen size. The prototype of mobile travel guide consists of travel information that aids its users in their journey at a particular destination. The prototype has been tested on the field against 12 participants, aged between 10 to 39 years old who has between 4-12 years of experience of using mobile phones. This study has summarized the differences between two distinct user group based on their age and their reaction to the prototype contents and appearance.

Keywords: Usability, mobile, user evaluation, location-based services

INTRODUCTION

The progression of technology has led mobile phone and PDA to become ubiquitous in our every day lives. Mobile phones nowadays are not only restricted to making calls or receiving multimedia messages, but also provide information-based services and infrastructures [1,2,3]. This ultimately allows phone to evolve into a small computing device with the ability to integrate third-party application, paving the way for application developers to produce portable software on mobile phones [4]. The advancement of technology also made phone manufacturer to produce smaller devices to meet market demands, eventually producing mobile phones that suffer from small screens [5].

Small screens when coupled with the number of features and application available on today's devices have driven mobile phone much harder to use [6], leading to a number of studies undertaken to improve mobile phone usability [7].

Among of the infrastructures introduced on mobile devices is Location-Based Service (LBS) that allows application to retrieve spatial coordinates from the phone and integrate them with an extensive range of services that utilizes location information [8]. LBS enable application developers to produce software which can sense the user current location, and present them with choices or action related to their current environment. One of the applications that benefits from LBS is tourism, where it can provide assistance to users while travelling with local information or services based on the users' current location [9].

A common travel guide application such as this tends to contain a vast amount of application. This would presents a challenge to software developers as a typical mobile phone screen space is much more limited when compared to one on Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) or on a normal computer which was done by previous studies[10,11,12]. This presents challenge to application developer to develop an application which has to utilize the screen size of a mobile phone in order to present meaningful information to travelers while maintaining application usability.

The purpose of this paper is to present our finding and lessons that we learn during the course of performing initial study of designing content and appearance of Mobile Travel Guide application for mobile phone in order to increase its usability for its target users.

THE PROTOTYPE

The prototype Mobile Travel Guide was developed using Java Micro Edition (JavaME) Location API (JSR-179) support and implemented on Nokia Symbian Series 60 phone. JSR-179 support enables application to be aware of its current location and display the relevant information immediately to user.

The reason for selecting JavaME platform is because it is the most widely supported platform for developing third-party application for mobile phones. JavaME is also supported across several mobile phone manufacturers and vendors that made it much portable than other application platform available to mobile phones.

The main menu of the application prototype implements Fisheye[13] user-interface elements as shown in Figure 1 with emphasis given to icons to represent the type of services or point-of-interest that the user wishes to enquire. The icons on the Fisheye make it easier for users to select their desired item. Information displayed on the main menu is always available and never changes.

Evaluation of Prototype

The usability study was done with 12 participants ranging from 10 to 39 years old. The purpose of the study was to discover the preferences of the users in terms of the prototype contents and appearance. We categorised those aged 10-19 years old as teenagers and those aged 20-39 years old as adults. We believed that both age groups have a lot of differences in their preferences towards the prototype as well as similarities too. The evaluation was done in a university campus and a college for three consecutive days. It was conducted in the field because the prototype represents a consumer application, which can be used by anyone who travels. Thus, we wanted to pick members of the public randomly rather than recruiting them according to certain criteria in advance.

Each user was first introduced to the prototype. They were given a brief explanation on the evaluation criteria and the tasks to be executed. There were five tasks which focused on finding information pertaining to travelling such as hotels, restaurants, shopping centre, tourists' hotspots and local facilities and services. The tasks included making a phone call to a three-star hotel and a taxi service once the information about them is displayed on the phone screen. Users were observed while performing the tasks. Once the evaluation was complete, each user was informally interviewed to record their response towards the prototype, its contents and its user interface design.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSIONS

This section will discuss the findings from the usability study. It will summarize the contents preferred, including its organization and appearance of contents which comprises of visual cue and animations.

Contents and Its Organization

The prototype consists of information about hotels, restaurants, shopping heaven, places of interest and local amenities. During the informal one-to-one interview, every participant gave feedback in improving the prototype as to fulfil his or her specific requirements. Teenagers (10-19 years old) would like to access information on sports centre, recreational park, stadium, football match schedule, cinema and bowling alley. They also wanted comprehensive information of public transport. It seemed like entertainment and recreational information were the utmost important for the young travellers. However, the adults (20-39 years old) were more serious in using the prototype as a navigation assistant. They suggested implementing a map together with instruction of direction to guide the users in reaching the target destination. Currently, the prototype is not equipped with map, thus users can only view information like the destination address and distance (in kilometre) from the current location. The map will eventually aid its users in determining the route to take along the journey. Nonetheless, some of the adults mentioned about writing their reviews of a particular place or service so that they could share the information with other users. Consequently, it will help them in their travelling decision making.

Most teenagers and adults preferred if the prototype could disseminate important information for the Muslims too, for example: local prayer time and location of mosques. Additionally, they also wanted to have access to the information of public events in their surroundings so that they could participate or visit.

According to the participants, the organization of entries in the main menu was not that important. Hence, the order Hotels, Restaurants, Shopping, Places of interests and Local Amenities in the prototype were accepted. However, they were concerned about the information provided for every place or service. They thought that the information were lengthy and hard to read. Thus, they would like the information to be organized in point form, and not in long sentences. For example, Hotels information should cover only its address, telephone number, room rates and short descriptions about its facilities. This is because seeking accurate information in a short time is crucial to travellers, especially when they were not familiar with the destination or when they had an unplanned trip.

Appearance

The user interface of the prototype was designed using Fisheye for the main menu and List for all submenus. The icons in the Fisheye style represents a visual cue as opposed to plain text in the List style. Another visual cue was also implemented by having the stars icon next to every hotel name in the list. The number of stars indicated the ratings of the hotel. Besides that, the prototype has implemented animations in screen transition. The animations were similar to those provided in presentation software in desktop environment.

All participants have never seen the Fisheye style, thus they were excited seeing such user interface design on a small screen device. All of them except a female and a male (30-39 years old) liked the Fisheye style. Those who liked it had difficulties in navigating the main menu initially; however, once they understood the navigation style, they could perform all tasks successfully. When asked their opinion about the Fisheye style, most participants responded that it was appealing and interesting. Nevertheless, they suggested adding left and right arrow below the icons so that users understand how to navigate around. On the other hand, the female participant felt that it was not user-friendly as she could not view all options that were available in the main menu simultaneously. As such, she suggested using List or Grid style in the prototype. Furthermore, the male participant with computing background preferred the List style too because from his personal experience, it was faster to navigate.

From the observation, all participants could easily find the four-star hotel since the name of every hotel in the list was accompanied with the stars icon. This visual cue was in favour because it helps the users in identifying the ratings of every hotel quickly. In addition, all participants agreed that the 'Call' softkey that was available in the screen containing hotel and taxi information was useful in making phone call immediately to the specific service.

A surprise finding from the study was that none of the participants were aware of the animations in the screen transition. Once they were asked about their opinion of the animations, they said that they did not realize it at all, but responded positively that animations might be suitable for such application.

CONCLUSIONS

The study revealed that teenagers were more adapt in navigating through the application menu when compared to much older users. Both younger and older users prefer to have a compact representation of information when using the application rather than having to read longer sentences with take time. Older users tend to prefers hierarchical menu in contrast to younger users which prefers menu to be presented with icons and visual cues. Both user groups agree that fisheye menu representation is much more compact and intuitive to use in a small screen environment.

The Fisheye style is suitable to be combined with the List style, as to add visual cue that can assist the users. The use of animations in screen transition is something new, thus more investigations need to be done to determine the suitability of animations in a mobile application. However formal consumer application needs fewer animations because reaching contents promptly is more important. There should be a balance between delivering the right contents and presenting them to the users.

The prototype has been tested to a small number of users from 10 to 39 years old. The usability test must be conducted with a larger number of participants and with users above 40 years old to draw a better conclusion on general user preferences for a mobile travel guide application, especially in Malaysian context.

REFERENCES

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