May 14, 2014

Q&A with Michael Björn, head of research, Ericsson ConsumerLab

Posted by: in North America

In his role at Ericsson—the Stockholm-based provider of communications technology and services—Michael Björn studies global consumer trends, as well as the process of assimilating this technology into consumers’ lives. We talked to Björn while researching our new mobile trends report, discussing some of the consumer-driven trends that Ericsson outlines in its 2014 forecast and how fast change is happening in the mobile sphere.

It seems that mobile is starting to rewire the consumer’s brain or cause a major shift in mindset—do you think we’re entering a new phase in this regard?

We are very much in a phase where people are changing their view on how to use the Internet. We had one trend last year that we call “computing for a scattered mind.” The point was that our ways of using computing devices are extremely different these days. Everything we’ve done with computers in the past has been built on an idea of, you sit down and you’re task oriented. Whereas, smartphones and tablets and so on, they are adapted to a lifestyle where we do all our computing needs while doing something else. The important computing we actually perform as individuals, it happens while you’re waiting to pay for your groceries or while you’re on the bus or you’re doing other things in life, and that’s where all the computing power happens.

One of your trends for this year is “Apps change society.” Can you describe what you mean by that?

We went to 27 major cities in the world, and we asked people what they thought was really positive about living in those cities and also what’s really negative. We realized that a lot of people saw that ICT [information and communications technology] could probably help them to increase satisfaction with things they thought were already good but also to remove some of the frustration with things they thought were really bad—such as the traffic situation or child and elder care and such areas.

So we realized what’s happening now is that the expectation in more consumers is that the positive experiences they’ve had with apps is going to continue into all sectors of society and all walks of life. The expectation is that this will happen very quickly. 

There are many sectors in society that you don’t really have all of that [app utility], if you think about elder care or child care or communication with authorities or stuff like that. There’s many areas where this is not really happening at the pace that people are expecting. So we’re seeing a lot of demand-driven thinking from consumers rather than just the pure technology push. 

Another big mobile trend is that a lot of content consumption has moved to mobile, especially video viewing. Your trend report for this year included “Play, pause, resume elsewhere,” looking at how consumers are switching devices to suit their location.

This new mobile content consumption is happening across devices and very much, of course, in mobile situations; kind of in the “scattered mind” situation. You’re doing a lot of things, but then you also want to watch a bit of video while you have a few minutes. And you pause it and you do something else maybe and you move to a different situation and you continue watching it there.

Your report also found that people see the benefits of connectivity as outweighing the concerns. But do you think people are getting anxious about the privacy and security of their mobile devices?  

We haven’t really seen any sort of division between mobile devices versus other types of devices. We do see that people have reasonably high concerns. But at the same time they realize there is a lot of benefit in using the Internet, of course. So even though people have high concerns about some of these issues, very few say this would actually cause them to use the Internet less.

We’ve asked people, for example, if they would be concerned if email apps targeted advertising toward you. People say they would be concerned, but in reality this has been available for a long time. So on the one hand people say, yes, that would be a concern. On the other hand, they don’t really seem to notice it when they are using email, for example. So one of the things we have talked about is that people don’t really connect all those thoughts very clearly.

Another new topic this year is wearables. Do you think we’ll see a lot more consumer interest or do you think they need to evolve a bit before most people get interested?

What’s interesting with the wearables right now is that the interest levels are very high at the moment. I think it goes back to this idea that people are realizing you can download an app and do things because the smartphone has a couple of sensors that you can do things with. For example, all of a sudden it becomes a pedometer without you having to think about it.

So the question is then, Will there be products that actually can live up to those expectations or not? Right now this interest is there as an extension of the overall interest in smartphones too, which will hold on for a time, but eventually, of course, if nothing new comes along that’s really grabbing attention, maybe that can change.

This whole industry [of wearables] is only beginning. But normally you wouldn’t see this very strong consumer interest around something that hasn’t really gotten to market yet. There’s a couple of products out there. But what’s surprising to me is the big interest comes before the big product are really mainstream in the market.

We even asked about a ring—maybe there is some ring out there, but we tried to use fictitious products to see what the response would be, and people are quite interested in that as well.

Another big topic this year has been WhatsApp and the messaging apps. There are so many social tools on mobile, a bit different from what we have on a desktop. Have you done any research around that topic?

There are two aspects. The social connection has been important for quite some time. This year we look specifically at video, but we can see the same things for other types of media—it’s the fact that there are fewer people that are the recommenders of things in your social network. A lot of people say they have been recommended to watch things or read things or look at pictures or whatever. But always around half only are saying they themselves are actively recommending to other people.

So of course the whole media landscape is changing. And a lot of that goes on on mobile, of course, because mobile is a very heavily used media consumption device.

The other aspect is, we looked at the overall messaging situation. We still see that there’s an overall rise of total communication volume. So yes, all of these mobile messaging apps and channels are becoming very important, but at the same time, what people seem to be doing is  increasing the overall volume of communication they do. And partly this is because of, of course, the proximity of your mobile phone. You can easily respond to a couple more messages than you could in the past, when you had to find a computer to do some of that communication.

It seems like people are continuously in touch throughout the day, especially when you look at the volume of messages.

That brings us back to the importance of the social dimension for a lot of other activities we do in everyday life, not the least on our overall media consumption. That would be heavily influenced with our constant keeping in touch with our social network.

And when we say social network, we have to distinguish a little bit. It’s not only Facebook and Twitter that help us maintain our social network. We use all of our communication channels to maintain this social network. When that overall volume goes up, then of course the impact on other activities will also rise.

Another theme your report covers is reducing the digital divide and the phone becoming the primary Internet device for many people, especially in the developing world.

For us who are in these markets the change will be lower than in some of the developing markets where this is of course a leapfrog effect. So if you think from a Swedish or an American perspective, if you want to launch a service in a developing market, you may have to take the product that was designed for the cutting edge of our own market, because they can skip a step.

Every year at the Mobile World Congress, the theme seems to be that change is happening so fast. Do you see substantial changes from year to year in consumer expectations and behaviors?

ConsumerLab was formed back in 1995. So we’ve been doing this type of research for quite some time. And I have been with ConsumerLab for quite a long time myself. We have had a lot of years where not a lot really happened, back in the years when mobile Internet was first launched. We spent quite a number of years with not a lot of big change in the consumer market.

It wasn’t all that many years ago when we thought the U.S. was a reasonably laggard kind of marketplace when it came to mobile phone use. For example, talking about youth culture and mobile phones in the U.S. was not very popular at all, because mobile phones were something that businesspeople were using. And this was not all that long ago, if you put it in perspective.

So I would say that during the last three to five years, the pace of change has been much, much quicker than it was the previous three to eight years. There’s probably some kind of pattern, because in the early days with the ConsumerLab work, there was a lot of change when the traditional mobile phone was spreading every quickly and SMS became the new platform for communication among young people. And now we’re back into this phase where there is a very, very fast pace of change.

I would say it’s not so much the device perspective that is the big change area. It’s actually the apps and how they’re spreading into a lot of new areas of life. You don’t think about it while you do it, but you kick up a new app and try something new and then you’re connecting yet another human activity into your Internet life. So that’s where I see the big, big change right now.

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