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Designing for Mobile

Designing for mobile is different, and it will continue to change as modern mobile technology progresses at a pace that’s hard to imagine. As technology enables new ways of engagement - and culture shifts in response -  keep the following principles of design in mind, to help steer you in the right direction.

#1 Pick opportunities best suited for mobile

Ask yourself what are the uniquely mobile opportunities that can exploited to meet real needs for a real person. Consider the recent uptake in voice-based interactions. Mobile devices have microphones and speakers built-in. Phones are primarily a communication tool and people are comfortable speaking their way through interactions like an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) menu, or leaving a voicemail for friend. This combination of technology and established behaviour creates an opportunity that is fairly unique to mobile. You can see it in the devices, SIRI for iOS and Google Voice for Android are baked-in seamlessly with the operating system. This allows people to do more, in a simple and intuitive way. Apps like Evernote have built in dictation features for their mobile apps – but not on desktop or web – taking advantage of the mobile opportunity.

#2 Don’t assume

We often make big assumptions about how people use mobile devices. We assume they’re “on the go” with partial attention and “snacking” on bite-size chunks of the most relevant information. This was probably true of the pre-smartphone world, where tiny low-resolution screens reigned supreme, data was slow and expensive, and browsing the Internet was generally painful. Modern mobile device hardware and browser technology enables new ways of engaging. Smartphones and tablets are increasingly a device of preference, even when a laptop or desktop computer is within arm’s reach.

For instance, over half of adult Australian’s owns a smartphone1 and more than one third of all Internet sessions are generated from mobile or tablet devices2. With nearly 80% using their phone to get information, three quarters browsing the Internet and over half carrying out banking activities3, there is a strong argument that users’ needs and context of use aren’t neatly contained by these old assumptions. The only thing we know about user’s intentions and context is that we don’t know.

#3 Pay attention to social and economic context

Decades of technology innovation converged in smartphones and we responded by behaving in significantly different ways. In western developed nations, you see it in our addiction for connectivity, which has changed the way we communicate with each other, how we coordinate our lives, and how we access information. In places like Africa, where GSM network coverage outstrips access to grid electricity, $10 feature phones enable banking and micro-finance services to those who’ve never had a bank account, using very simple technology like SMS. Success for mobile is subjective and highly sensitive to social and economic context. Pay attention to the environment your application will be used in.

Longer term, I think we’ll see ‘mobile’ essentially disappear. We’re beginning to see the post-mobile world as vast networks of objects with embedded sensors and Internet connections - The Internet of Things. Forward-thinking businesses are moving their information systems to an architecture that is fully device agnostic and flexible enough that any kind of device can easily access information that can then be used in meaningful ways on the device.

For more thoughts on mobile considerations for social and economic contexts, check out this talk by me and Nag Kandakuru: https://speakerdeck.com/jonnyschneider/designing-mobile-solutions-for-social-and-economic-contexts.

#4 One approach does not fit all

No, you can’t simply ‘adapt’ your desktop websites for mobile, in all cases. Content management and creative control are together complicated issues because of huge variety of screen sizes, screen orientations, display densities and other device variations. It is increasingly difficult to reuse content across all platforms (e.g. online, mobile web, tablet, and apps) while maintaining a consistent content experience across all devices. To successfully ‘Create Once, Publish Everywhere’ some serious thinking is required on content strategy, and the required publishing systems to enable the level of control and flexibility needed.

The same principle applies across mobile hardware and operating systems. Device manufacturers and operating system providers tailor their ecosystems to behave in particular ways - and customers essentially learn the interaction model over time. The differences between platforms are sometimes nuanced but critically important in the way they affect customer expectation and interaction. For example, Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system uses a ‘hub and spoke’ interaction model which is radically different to the more linear models used by Google Android and Apple iOS. When comparing the three popular ecosystems, there are many differences - and this is why you may hear a friend or family member complaining about how painful it is to switch between systems. It’s also a reason to specifically consider the design patterns and customer expectations of each ecosystem when designing products to be used across platforms.




Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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