UX and Mobile Design: 2012’s Challenges and Opportunities

by Jared M. Spool

In the five years since the iPhone’s game-changing introduction, the world of mobile design has quickly evolved. Today’s applications are pushing boundaries that we couldn’t imagine in the days before the modern smartphone.

For user experience professionals, this provides some fascinating opportunities. The landscape for innovation has never been so bright. It seems that every day, someone has a new application that just bursts with wow. Mobile is where the hottest action is.

However, quick evolution presents real challenges. The old rules and processes are not sufficient any more. We often find ourselves improvising where once we had well-practiced, sound techniques and solutions. We are often far outside our comfort zone, which is simultaneously exhilarating and scary.

Here are four areas where we’re seeing big challenges and opportunities for UX professionals exploring mobile design in the coming year:

The Rules of UX Have Changed

What we thought was true on the desktop is now all up for grabs. Taking our desktop designs and simply transferring them to the small screen doesn’t work. The megapixel real estate of the desktop screen allowed us to get a bit sloppy, permitting us to fill up the emptiness with confusing and cluttered functionality.

Mobile applications refuse to tolerate that sloppiness. We need to think differently, looking at just the essentials of a great mobile experience. The best mobile applications cut down the functionality to just what makes the users successful.

At the heart of great mobile applications is taking advantage of the users’ context. The mobile user can be anywhere, not just at their desk. (61% of smartphone users report they’ve used their phone in the bathroom, which, as Luke Wroblewski likes to point out, means 39% of smartphone users are liars.)

On the surface, it feels like all the rules have radically changed. However, it’s the case that we’ve been preparing for all along. The commonality between desktop and mobile design is placing the user in the center.

Mobile is a harsh mistress. She’s no longer putting up with what we’ve gotten away with on the desktop. However, that makes our job interesting. It’s that same harshness that helps us argue to the powers-that-be why what we do is important. It’s because the rules have changed that we now get to reinvent how we do what we do. And this time, we get to do it with the full knowledge of where we’ve been. This time, we can do it right.

Constraints on the Interaction Model

Most applications comprise of a dialogue with the user—a back-and-forth where the application asks questions and the users provide answers. While this doesn’t change in mobile, the way we conduct these dialogues has shifted.

Small screens and touch-screen keyboards are a radically different way to get input from the user. With the disappearance of the mouse, we lose the power of the hover event. Long-winded forms, begging for encyclopedic data entry, don’t fly. We need to hone our designs to keep the interaction at the right scale, only asking of the user the most essential items.

With touch technology comes a new language of gestures. Because everything has been evolving so quickly, no single standard has emerged. Instead, every platform and application creates their own vocabulary. Today’s mobile users struggle as they try to transfer what they learn from one application to the next.

All of this provides constraints that we haven’t previously had to work within. Fortunately, great designers thrive on constraints. Establishing a common gestural language and driving effective user dialogues are challenges we can sink our teeth into.

As a bonus, look at the new toys we get to play with. Mobile devices are filled with new input sensors and devices. Gyroscopes, GPSs, accelerometers, and cameras give us new ways to interact. Instapaper lets users scroll through a document simply by tipping the phone slightly down. Walgreens pharmacy app can refill a prescription simply by taking a picture of the barcode on the label.

We can design exciting new interactions for mobile devices, but it doesn’t stop there. What’s happening in mobile is moving back to the desktop. For examples, users can use pinch-zoom on their laptop touchpad. We’re seeing camera-based interactions finding their way into desktop applications. Everything is now up for rethinking and that’s fun.

Revisiting the Design Process

Many designers, approaching their first mobile project, suddenly realize their old desktop-oriented process makes for clumsy results. The old approach of wireframes and design documents doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

The mobile application experience should appear early in the design process. It doesn’t work to wait until the end to see the result anymore. We need a highly iterative process, one where we try out what we’re building.

Rapid prototyping is now an essential design skill. We have to reinvent these techniques for the small screen, producing ways to test-drive the experiences we’re proposing.

We’re seeing new methods evolve. For example, Rachel Hinman recently showed us a technique of strapping phone-sized paper sketches to existing phones with rubber bands, then interacting with them as if they were digital applications. These simple, easy-to-create application prototypes let us get instant feedback on what’s working and what still needs development.

New Life for Empowering the Enterprise

Until recently, it felt like our inside-enterprise applications were the uncared-for orphans of the user experience world, always left behind for those sexy commercial applications. Users of these internal apps always suffered through miserable experiences because nobody made the investment of doing a good job.

Because so many employees are now walking around with their own high-powered smartphones and tablets, IT organizations are looking to build mobile applications. And because these internal applications will live side-by-side with well-designed state-of-the-art commercial applications, IT now wants to be seen on the cutting edge. Suddenly, this challenge is now an opportunity to showcase our work.

Enterprise mobility applications give UX professionals a chance to re-establish a foothold in the IT process, pushing their organizations to the leading edge of great design. IT can deliver focused, well-executed solutions that solve real business problems and increase employee contribution.

Mobile Will Make 2012 Exciting For UX Pros

Despite its scary façade, mobile design is an exciting frontier for the user experience professional ready to accept the challenges. Because we’re still at the beginning, there’s lots of opportunity for innovation. Every project builds on our skill set, making us more valuable with each day.

We’re looking forward to how the user experience landscape will change this year.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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