Yeah, There's An App for That: Finding the Mobile User's 'Point of Need'
As a way of touting the success of the iPhone's content economy, Apple is fond of rolling out regular updates about the massive number of applications in its growing App Store. Having 200,000 downloadable programs is supposed to be a sign of progress. For developers and brands, however, 200,000 is as much a mountain to climb as it is a milestone.
With all of that clutter being merchandised through the small spout of a phone interface, getting an app noticed in this busy system has become difficult and costly. The same is true now for the Android marketplace, with tens of thousands of apps. And now the carriers are joining in and offering their own smartphone app stores. And for the user, it is simply impossible to locate reliably the best app for the task at hand. No digital platform is more in need of behavioral analytics that can drive personalized recommendations than the exploding app market.
One company taking a crack at this is Globys, a longtime telcom analytics firm that has been helping major carriers worldwide analyze the torrents of raw usage data they have on how people interact with their handsets day to day and even minute by minute. According to Cullen Davidson, director of product management, one of the fundamental problems of mobile content discovery for consumers is not just the clutter of offerings but understanding what their phone is capable of doing. "What is unique about mobile is that people right now aren't always prepared to use their phone, or look at their phone and understand how it might help them," he says.
With hundreds of thousands of mobile programs in the wild, most mobile users really don't know that in many situations there probably is "an app for that." Do most of us know that there really is an app that will help figure out how the five ingredients in your refrigerator will make a family meal in the next ten minutes? "We know that one of the most stressful times of the day is when you have to plan a meal," says Davidson. "If we can put that utility into people's hands at their time of need, they will find it really valuable. But that right time, that window of opportunity when you want to deliver the app, may be 15 or 30 minutes, and it will be different for various groups of people."
Globys is analyzing the usage records from carriers to identify patterns of behavior in order to find the main "points of need" that an app might serve. The data is all anonymous when it comes to the Globys system, but it is also specific to the user. "We will know when someone might wake up, when they arrive at work, when most likely to use the phone -- and along with that, determine their purchase and usage patterns to determine what they might be interested in during their day," says Davidson. While the system is not using location-based information, it is employing algorithms that take specific data points from users, compare them to similar groups of people, and predict what kinds of tools the user might need at a given point in the day.
Globys is looking for what it calls the "mobile occasions," the times of day for a person that can act as triggers for messaging. In the early pilot programs running with some overseas carriers, the system is tied into SMS messaging, in which a carrier might send users an app recommendation or link at the right point in the day when they are most likely thinking about dinner preparation or out shopping. In these early tests, the service is focusing on carriers' own app stores. But it can also be used as a back-end recommendation engine for the major smartphone app stores.
Right now, Apple's App Store has its less-than-genius "Genius" recommendations to help surface new programs to iPhone owners, but it is a rough recommendation engine that has no push mechanism. One of the inherent problems with mobile apps is that people forget they even have them. A recommendation engine that reminds users of what they already have installed -- and what they may not even know is available -- would be the ideal mechanism for carriers and app stores to drive both content sales and usage.
As with all behavioral approaches to mobile media especially, Globys has to work closely with carriers on the best use of data and ensuring user privacy. On the one hand, highly personalized mobile services driven by a user's own behaviors can be very useful if packaged properly and with all of the obvious opt-in safeguards. On the other hand, sensitivities about privacy and feelings of surveillance are heightened on this most personal of media. Mobile media may well be the best real test for behavioral technologies' ability to demonstrate to consumers that they can turn personal devices into a concierge rather than a nosy creep.