Comparing Mobile Internet User Behaviours in Beijing

Authors: Guido Grassel, Virpi Roto, Nokia Research Center, Helsinki, Finland, {guido.grassel, virpi.roto}

Position Paper for the W3C Mobile Web Initiative Workshop on the Mobile Web in Developing Countries, 5/6 December 2006, Bangalore, India

We have run several studies about the behaviour of end-users using the Internet from their mobile devices (Roto 2006). Our latest study was made in Beijing, which is an emerging market for mobile Internet access. We were especially interested to see if there were differences between users in Beijing and those in our earlier studies in Tokyo, Boston, London, and Helsinki. We report the key commonalities and differences in this document.

For all studies we used contextual inquiry method (Beyer, Holzblatt 1998), which uses in-depth interviews of a small number of users to reveal their usage patterns and motivations deeply. This method is widely used in user-centred design processes, because it helps identifying the sources for good user experience. We have run 43 interviews altogether, 8 of which in Beijing.

Our findings when comparing the Beijing study to those done elsewhere:

  1. Cost has been the main issue for users in all our studies. Operators of mobile cellular networks (e.g. GSM, WCDMA, CDMA, CDMA2000) use many different methods for charging users for the data traffic generated by browsing, messaging, and other Internet applications or for service usage. Users frequently do not understand how they are charged for Internet access. Many users are afraid of unpleasant surprises and caution their mobile Internet usage as a result. Users understand flat fee charging, but have difficulties dealing with upper limits of data included in the flat fee. Users with flat fee make much more use of the mobile Internet than users who are charged based on the data traffic volume or the time spent online.
  2. In Beijing, we were surprised to see that some interviewees used a mobile browser for very long periods, even for several hours. This is different from the earlier studies, where a mobile browser was typically used for relatively short periods. The reason for this difference was the unavailability of a PC connected to the Internet. In other countries, the interviewees often postponed longer browsing sessions until they got onto a PC, but in Beijing, there were no PCs available as commonly as elsewhere.
  3. Blogs and discussion forums were more popular with mobile device users in Beijing than in the other studies. We are not quite sure about the reason behind this finding. It could mean that blogs and discussion forums are indeed more popular in Beijing. Since our studies were made over a time span of 1.5 years we might have also just documented a general increase of popularity of blogs and discussion forums that is not specific to Beijing.
  4. A mobile phone is typically a personal item, but in Beijing, the importance of a mobile phone for the family as a whole was emphasized more than elsewhere. The family members affected the decision about which phone model to buy, and the old one often got inherited by another family member.
  5. Mobile users in Beijing were even less worried about security issues than mobile Internet users in our other studies, even though phone viruses seem to be more common there. Instead, hygiene was an issue for them. For example, one interviewee commented that she prefers using her mobile browser over reading a newspaper because the public newspapers are dirty.
  6. The main reason to Internet connection on a phone was e-mail, and web browsing came second. This is in line with the findings from our earlier studies.
  7. Half of the interviewees in Beijing did have access to the full Web from their mobile device; the other half owned a device that supported WAP only. Most WAP users commented that there was not enough WAP content. The Beijing study shares the same finding than the earlier studies that the difference of full Web and WAP is not clear for users, but they try to access the same URLs both on PC and on phone.

To address the findings of our study, we suggest the following recommendations for mobile Web browsing in emmerging markets should be followed. More studies will be needed to verify our results:


Beyer, H., Holzblatt, K. (1998), Contextual Design: Defining Customer-Centered Systems. Morgan Kaufmann, USA.

Roto, V. (2006), Web Browsing on Mobile Phones - Characteristics of User Experience. Doctoral Dissertation, Helsinki University of Technology, Finland. To appear at