It’s About People, Not Devices

February 8th, 2011
Published on
February 8th, 2011

We live in exciting times. Times of innovation, invention, and rapid change. Technologies that were unthinkable years ago are now commonplace. Close to 1.5 billion people worldwide use a computer, but that figure pales in comparison to the 4.2 billion (75% of the planet) who use or have access to a mobile phone.

If you’re new to mobile design (and most people are), you may be looking for guidelines or best practices to inform your work. When you find them, they will most likely sound something like this:

  • Mobile is different from traditional (primarily desktop) computing.
  • The desktop is about broadband, big displays, full attention, a mouse, keyboard and comfortable seating. Mobile is about poor connections, small screens, one-handed use, glancing, interruptions, and (lately), touch screens.
  • You may spend hours seated in front of the same computer, but mobile context is ever-changing. This impacts (amongst other things) the users’ locations, their attention, their access to stable connectivity, and the orientation of their devices.
  • Desktop computers are ideal for consumption of lengthy content and completion of complex interactions. Mobile interactions and content should be simple, focused, and should (where possible) take advantage of unique and useful device capabilities.
  • Mobile devices are personal, often carrying a wealth of photos, private data, and treasured memories. This creates unique opportunities, but privacy is also a real concern.
  • There are many mobile platforms, each with its own patterns and constraints. The more you understand each platform, the better you can design for it.
  • And then there are tablets. As you may have noticed, they’re larger than your average mobile device. We’re also told they’re ideal for reading.

Designing for mobile without an understanding of these key differences can lead to all sorts of problems, including clumsy interactions, high latency, poor usability, and more than a few missed opportunities to create that “long wow.” The problem however is that while these unique mobile characteristics are correct, our very concept of what constitutes a mobile device (and therefore mobile behavior) is constantly evolving.

The evolving mobile device

Of course, mobile devices are still smaller than a traditional computer—but some now barely so. Sure we use mobiles on the go, but is that our only (or even primary) behavior? Mount an iPhone on a MoviePeg, and you can comfortably watch a full-length feature (possibly even still “on the go,” in a train for example). Pair an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard, settle in with a cup of coffee, and, depending on the task, your experience can be strikingly similar to that on a Netbook or desktop computer.

How you interact with a mobile device is also changing. Manipulating a touch screen one-handedly isn’t nearly as simple as tapping physical keys or using a navi-pad or joystick once was. Glancing is now interspersed with moments of full attention as you perform a succession of gestures with little or no tactile feedback. And if it’s cold, remember to pack some sausages. Not surprisingly, some people just don’t want a touch screen. Conservative estimates indicate close to 100 Android devices were announced or released in 2010. All included a touch screen but about 30% of them also sported some sort of keypad or trackball.

As marketers and designers, we readily group products into categories—tablet, smartphone, eBook reader—but are these devices as similar as they first appear? Even the choice of materials can impact your perception of a device—and therefore its usage. The Kindle is larger than your average mobile phone but small and thin enough to fit into the back pocket of your jeans. Both the device and the screen feel weightless, with a texture reminiscent of velum or fine paper stock, while the iPad, Galaxy Tab and countless other ‘tablets’ are coddled in cases and shields—carrying the Kindle feels effortless.

And what happens to behavior when the “mobility” of a device is a mere technicality? If many mobile platforms develop as their creators intended, we will soon see them on all manner of devices including cars, televisions, and home appliances.

“RT @opera Overheard at #CES: “I’m pretty sure my coffee maker doesn’t NEED apps.”

Even more potentially disruptive are products that mediate between one device and another using combinations of software, sensors, and technologies such as Bluetooth to create new and unique experiences. Snapstick for example, enables you to instantly stream web pages and video from your phone to your TV. According to the demo, “you don’t need a mouse, keyboard, trackpad, or remote control.” I’m not completely sure how interactions designed for desktop computers translate when streamed through a tiny touch screen proxy into a widescreen TV, but you can bet the experience will be affected in unexpected ways.

“A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.”

Douglas Adams

Changes in behavior are rarely obvious or dramatic. Products enter the marketplace destined for one use, and are gradually adapted for another. These new behaviors combine and spin off products of their own. And these in turn affect future behavior once again. This has always been the case, but technology both amplifies and distorts the process. Technologies are adopted by one group but completely leapfrogged by another. Changes happen in weeks instead of years, and are replaced just as quickly by “the next big thing.” Mature behaviors eventually emerge, but they rarely resemble the blue-sky thinking and marketing copy of the early days.

“Technological revolutions have several interesting properties. First, we tend to overestimate the immediate impact and underestimate the long-term impact. Second, we tend to place the emphasis on the technologies themselves, when it is really the social impact and cultural change that will be most dramatic.”

Don Norman

Does the device even matter?

It may appear contradictory to the guidelines described at the beginning of this article, but we are approaching a time where the actual device will no longer matter. Many of these devices have already stopped being phones—nor do they resemble what we traditionally think of as computers. Instead, they are a blank canvas, connected through networks and APIs to endless other users, devices, and possibilities.

“One of the interesting estimates is that there are about 35 billion devices connected to the Internet. Soon, there will be so many that we’ll stop counting.”

Eric Schmidt, Google

When designing products for these devices, observe user behavior, follow emerging best practices, but don’t be afraid to question current assumptions around use cases, context, and behavior. Create opportunities for your product to live beyond the device, context, technology or form-factor it may have been intended for.

Remember as well that the most ubiquitous of technologies, the common thread throughout many connected devices, is the browser. Browser-based experiences may not always be as sexy, but they are often far more capable of adapting to different contexts. In times of rapid change, adaptability—rather than features—may be your product’s greatest ally.

“Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions.”

Pablo Picasso

About the Author

Bryan Rieger

Stephanie is a designer at Yiibu, those crazy people behind Rethinking the Mobile Web. With a diverse background and passion for the many ways people interact with technology, Stephanie’s expertise lies in marrying design, tech, and business goals to craft simple, elegant experiences. A compulsive researcher and closet anthropologist, Stephanie is always keen to discover and share insights on the intricacies of cross-platform mobile design, the cultural impact of mobile devices, and mobility trends from around the world.

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