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Mobile Internet Intent, Action and Inaction

I've recently encountered a number of interesting studies, discussions and disagreements regarding the use of mobile phones to access the Internet. As an iPhone user, I love having the Internet in my pocket, but I often find myself deferring actions that require significant involvement until I have the Internet on my lap, using the larger screen and keyboard of my MacBook Pro. A face-to-face discussion with a friend who, like me, tends to defer reading or acting on long emails - and then often forgetting them entirely - when he sees them on his iPhone, followed by an online discussion with an iPhone user who sees no difference in his Internet-related activities conducted through his iPhone vs. laptop, prompted me to dig a little deeper for broader trends.

image from The online disagreement occurred in a comment exchange on an post seeking input on an upcoming Pew Internet survey on health topics by Susannah Fox. The thread started with a comment on accessing health information via mobile phones, and I joined in with an observation about the shallow skimming I tend to do when accessing information on my iPhone, and projecting that onto the population at large:

What I wonder, though, is how the constrained size and interface of a mobile device affects the willingness of information seekers to delve more deeply – or broadly – into online sources to verify the information they find. I suspect that people who read email on mobile phones vs. laptops / desktops tend to read less of the messages and read / skim them more quickly, and suspect that mobile phone access to other information sources would promote shallower and/or quicker processing.

A short while later, Dennis expressed a different experience and projection:

I think your suppositions about mobile use of resources are unfounded. I hardly ever read email on the laptop anymore. I write all of my longer letters there, but I read most of my email on my iPhone. Why would phone reading and research be any quicker or more cursory than on a large screen? I’ve read whole novels on my phone. Whether I read or look up information on the phone or laptop is more a function of where I am and which tools are available than of the thoroughness with which I intend to study.

In searching for larger-scale studies (at least N > 2) comparing mobile Internet use with use on laptops or desktops, I came across a few reports that may help inform the discussion ... of course, with the caveat that all studies are wrong, but some are useful.

One is the recent Pew Internet report, Mobile Access 2010:

image from

The Pew study breaks down wireless online access into separate activities, and notes that 34% of cell phone users send or receive email via their phones, up from 25% in 2009. The most recent Pew study I know of that investigated email use - Generations Online in 2009 - showed that 91% of online American adults use email, and 81% do research online (though these numbers vary widely based on age group).

Given that 82% of American adults own cell phones (in 2010), and 34% of them use email on cell phones, approximately 28% of all adult Americans send or receive email on cell phones. The 2009 Generations Online study reported that 74% of all Americans go online, and 91% of them use email, so as of a year ago, 67% of all Adult Americans were sending or receiving email through some device. The 2009 report did not break out the use of different devices, but I would estimate that more than 91% of wireless laptop users use email. The 2009 report also noted that 89% of online adult Americans went online to search for information, but I don't see any breakdown of mobile search in the 2010 report.

image from Maryam Kamvar and her colleagues at Google and Stanford published a peer-reviewed paper at the WWW 2009 conference on Computers and iPhones and Mobile Phones, oh my!: A logs-based comparison of search users on different devices [PDF]. The study was based on over 100,000 English language Google search queries issued by over 10,000 users during a 35-day period during the summer of 2008.

The results suggest that search usage is much more focused for the average mobile user than for the average computer-based user. However, search behavior on high-end phones resembles computer-based search behavior more so than mobile search behavior.

Among their findings were that average query lengths and diversity of query topics were nearly identical between desktop and iPhone users, and both were very different from users of other mobile phones. However, the differences in average number of searches per session was more evenly distributed across the three types of platform (i.e., iPhone users were less like computer users in the number of searches per session than in other measures), leading the researchers to speculate that

Perhaps users on mobile devices are more likely to query topics which have a “quick answer” available ... Taking this hypothesis a step further, we suggest that perhaps users are simply unwilling to explore topics in depth as the barriers to exploration (text entry, network latency) increases.

image from Another interesting and relevant study, corroborating the Google study though limited to a U.S. sample population, is the Mobile Intent Index by Ruder Finn. Among the findings:

Mobile phones are not a learning tool. Mobile users (76%) are much less likely than all users (92%) to go online to learn. Learning requires time and patience, something mobile phone users are in short supply of.

  • They (64%) are 1.5 times less likely than the traditional user (96%) to go online to educate themselves
  • They (64%) are 1.4 times less likely than the traditional user (94%) to go online to research.
  • They (95%) are more likely than the traditional user (86%) to go online to keep informed.

I'd mentioned this study in a comment on the aforementioned e-Patients post, but could not find information about the data and methods it was based on. Christina Fallon, a Senior VP at Ruder Finn, was kind enough to send me a copy of the executive summary and fill in some of these details:

Ruder Finn’s Mobile Intent Index is the first study of its kind to examine the underlying motivations or reasons – intents – people have for using their mobile phones. The representative and Census-balanced online study of 500 American adults 18 years of age and older who “use their mobile device to go online or to access the Internet” was conducted in November 2009 by RF Insights among respondents who belong to Western Wats’ large consumer panel, Opinion Outpost. The margin of error is +/- 4.4% (95th confidence interval).

image from The Google and Ruder Finn studies help shed some light on how the use and affordances of different devices affects search behavior with respect to research and learning, but does not address the affect of devices on email use. Another international study, the Epsilon Global Consumer Email Study 2009, offers some additional insights into this dimension of mobile Internet access. The Epsilon study was conducted in conjunction with ROI Research in April 2009 with over 4000 consumer respondents in select countries in North America, Asia Pacific and Europe. One of the interesting regional differences it found was that the proportion of people who use PDAs for Smartphones for email was more than 3 times higher in the Asia Pacific region (32%) than North America (9%) or Europe (7%):


[I suspect that part of the reason for the discrepancy between the numbers in the Pew study (as of 2009, 25% of 74% = 19%) and the Epsilon study (9%) was the focus on smartphones in the Epsilon study; email is accessible on phones that are not smartphones.]

image from Another study was referenced in a June 30, 2010 press release reporting on People More Likely To Spend More Time Reading Email On Mobile Devices. The study was based on an analysis of 14 million email messages tracked by the email marketing analysis firm, Litmus. Among the more interesting findings:

  • Users of iPhones or Android-equipped devices are likely to spend 15% more time reading emails than people using Microsoft Outlook
  • Over 50% of email recipients delete messages within two seconds after opening

I spoke with Paul Farnell, the CEO, earlier today, and he told me the data was based on approximately one month's worth of email sent by the firm's clients; and so it should be noted that the sample is primarily made up of marketing-oriented email rather than a more general set of messages and message sources.

When we discussed the possible explanations for longer reading times, he agreed that it was more likely due to the small screen and extra scrolling required on mobile devices than a reflection of extra care and attention being devoted to email when read on an iPhone or Android. He did not know the breakdown of what I might call the 2-second rule of email across different devices, but I think it would be very interesting to know more about differences in relative propensity toward action (or inaction) when reading email on mobile vs. laptop or desktop devices. For example, are people more or less likely to click on links, reply to and/or forward email when they read it on a mobile device? Paul said he'd look into this, and I'll post an update if / when I find out more ... but I think I've taken sufficient action on my intent to find out - and share - more about mobile Internet use for one day.

Update, 2010-08-09: Paul followed up with a breakdown of email access and action on a mobile vs. desktop computer, based on a larger data set: 54 million email messages sent via the Litmus application. In his data set, 69.87% of email messages were read on a mobile device (e.g., iPhone) vs. only 58.37% of emails read on a desktop device. Other actions were also somewhat more likely on a mobile: 0.42% of emails accessed on mobile device were replied to or forwarded, whereas 0.33% of those accessed via a desktop computer were replied to or forwarded.

Update, 2010-08-02: Nielsen released a report on What Americans Do Online: Social Media and Games Dominate Activity, which shows that email is still the most popular mobile Internet activity. Users spend 41.6% of their mobile Internet time using email, up from 37.4% a year ago, and compared with spending only 8.3% of their total Internet time - across devices - on email.

Update, 2010-08-05: Jeff Pierce, manager of the Mobile Computing Research group at IBM Research Almaden, gave a presentation on Triage and Capture: Rethinking Mobile Email at the Web 2.0 Expo SF 2010 in May. I'd earlier written a post on serendipity platforms, unintended consequences and explosive positivity at Web 2.0 Expo based on some of Day 1 keynotes I'd watched remotely. Jeff's presentation on Day 3 - a video from which is embedded below - appears to be based on two recent tech reports from IBM Research:

Jeff and his colleagues found that there are substantial differences in the patterns of use of mobile email vs. desktop email, in particular, they observed that "mobile email users primarily triage messages (identifying which to delete, which to handle immediately, and which to defer) and defer handling most messages until they reach a larger computer". They also propose guidelines for - and have prototyped - a new approach to integrating mobile email, desktop email and web services to better capture the intended actions and support the "triage" mode in which mobile email is typically processed.

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