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UX and Mobile Design: 2012’s Challenges and Opportunities

by Jared M. Spool
on January 31, 2012

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

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.

Share your thoughts with us

How are you dealing with the challenges of mobile design? How have you taken advantage of
the opportunities? Leave your thoughts on our UIE Brain Sparks blog.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems. You can follow Jared on Twitter at @jmspool.