6 Myths about the Mobile User Experience

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6 Myths about the Mobile User Experience

About myths and mobile devices

Myths are wonderful things. They encapsulate the human experience in engaging and exciting stories. But they have their downsides. They are a product of the times and cultures that produced them; they can perpetuate out-of-date cultural norms and outlive their usefulness. They can stop us from thinking.

Myths about technology have a particularly short shelf-life, yet are very strong at stopping us thinking. They emerge as we struggle to explain and predict the impact of ever-more rapidly-changing technology on every corner of our lives. Yet the language we use is 20th-century and older, based on very different times, and is inadequate to the task.

To seize opportunities in mobile user experience, we need to critically examine evidence. Anyone involved with user experience (especially someone looking to innovate) must constantly disprove the current myths, critically examine the accepted world-view, and improve the concepts and language that explain things. Especially when myths ‘explain away’ evidence! If not, then we will miss opportunities, we will apply outmoded thinking to new situations, and probably not even recognize important changes as they take place.

Mobile devices are proliferating, and are already creating a huge market disruption. Rapid improvements in power, together with astonishing reductions in size of components and cost, have given us amazingly powerful devices that we can take with us everywhere. And this is creating changes in our behaviour that have only just started.

To help us understand and predict changes, we create myths. There are already myths about mobile devices and the mobile user experience. And it’s already time to examine them and throw some away for good.

Here are six myths about the mobile user experience that should just get mobile and go!

Myth #1: Design for ‘The Mobile Context’

Desktop computers are used in limited environments, whether at home or in the office. Mobile devices are not. The context of use of a mobile device has a Adroid in space - with iPhonehuge impact on what the user will do with it. For example, there are only certain kinds of work-related activities you can do on a smartphone, while you’re standing up on a crowded, noisy bus, holding on for dear life.

So designers have recognized the importance of context for mobile devices, which is a huge step forward in appreciating the user experience. However, this has given rise to the myth of ‘the mobile context’.

There is no single ‘mobile context’. As Josh Clark says “Because our designs are mobile, that means they can be used anywhere… mobile doesn’t just mean ‘on the go’ ”. We use them on the couch, we use them in bed, we use them on the bus, and we use them in the office, too. We often have a mobile device with us while we use our desktop computers and our laptops.

There are multiple ‘mobile’ contexts, including some very immobile ones. Design needs to take this fact into account, and not assume that mobile use is always the same.

‘The mobile context’ is a myth—mobile can go into every context.

Myth #2: The Mobile Killer App Is ‘Killing Time’

The first significant mobile devices grew out of portable music and have evolved rapidly ever since, eventually converging with phones and computers in the smartphones we see today.

Just because people can consume media on smartphones does not mean that it is a key task. People expect media consumption to drive new technologies. It has been a key driver of technologies from portable cassette players and the Sony Walkman in 1979, through portable CD players, then MP3 players, then portable video players. After all, that’s where the big media companies make their money. More recently, these media capabilities merged with mobile phones and – even more recently, general-purpose computing capability.

A number of things have led to the myth that the ‘killer app’ for mobile is ‘killing time’. Media consumption is easy to observe. The smartphone application market is still immature, and is still dominated by media consumption applications and functionality. The myths about a single mobile context and about mobile users’ short attention spans have probably also contributed to this myth.

‘Killing time’ is at best a temporary ‘killer app’ for mobile, but is probably already a myth.

At best, the domination of small time-intervals by media consumption behaviour is a temporary phase, while our behaviour and expectations go through changes, supported by changes in technology. Eventually, mobile devices will be integrated into our ecology of devices, at work, at play, and everything in-between. We will discover that desktop applications are big, clunky monoliths, and that what we want to do can quite successfully be spread out over time, over places and over devices.

For example, we might dictate notes on a mobile device, arrange the structure of a presentation on a tablet, and format the final document on a desktop computer. And not sequentially, but intermingled.

As mobile devices become more and more integrated and more and more useful, ‘killing time’ will no longer be the mobile ‘killer app’.

Myth #3: Mobile User Attention Deficit Disorder (MUADD)

A side-effect of characterising ‘the mobile context’ is the assumption that someone using a mobile device is in a hurry, not paying full attention, and prone to distraction. There’s an assumption that the mobile device user suffers from a kind of Attention Deficit Disorder.

While that is true in some contexts, it is not true in all contexts. It will also become increasingly less true as we are able to do more useful things in small gaps of time, as more useful applications are developed for mobile devices, and as mobile devices become integrated into our ecology of devices and data.

If you produce a mobile application that requires attention, then users will take their mobile devices to a context that enables attention. We use mobile devices on the couch, in bed, in a park, and in the office, too; these can all be contexts that enable attention.

Mobile users will find contexts where they can pay attention, if it matters to them.

One clue about attention Josh Clark notes is if interaction requires two hands. Once people are using two hands, you’ve certainly got a lot of their attention.

To assume that users always suffer from ‘Mobile User ADD’ would be to miss out on key mobile design opportunities.

Myth #4: Mobile Devices Are Constrained Desktop Computers

There’s a feeling we get sometimes that designers consider smartphones to be nothing more than small desktop computers, and so constrained that they are not very interesting to design for.

But mobile devices have many capabilities that desktop computers do not have. These capabililties enable new kinds of behaviour, and allow for new variants of users’ tasks to be supported, for example location-specific variants. Some of the capabilities of smartphones include:

  • Location detection
  • Multi-touch sensors
  • Device positioning & motion: accelerometers
  • Orientation: direction from a digital compass
  • Gyroscope: 360 Degrees of motion
  • Audio: input from microphone; output to speaker/headset
  • Video & image: capture/input from a camera
  • Dual cameras: front and back
  • Device connections: through Bluetooth between devices
  • Proximity: device closeness to physical objects
  • Ambient Light: light/dark environment awareness
  • NFC: Near Field Communications ( RFID etc)

Mobile devices have unique capabilities and characteristics that enable new user behaviour and allow for innovation and differentiation.

In addition, there are more subtle qualities of mobile devices that change the nature of users’ behaviour. For example, smartphones tend to be shared less with other members of the family than do desktop computers, laptops and tablets. Also, mobile devices allow for privacy of location. In other words, with a mobile device, a user can go to places where they are not likely to be seen or interrupted by co-workers, by family, by friends, or by others.

Myth #5: Mobile Devices Are Peripheral to Business

OK, it’s early days yet, so it’s understandable that we don’t yet believe just how central mobile devices will become in our lives. But look at how much of our data is moving to ‘the cloud’ already; that’s an inexorable trend that will enable better integration of mobile devices. Services like Dropbox, Sugarsync and Apple’s recent iCloud announcement are just the beginning.

Mobile devices are actually becoming central – not peripheral at all. We will come to wonder how we ever lived in an era when the ‘desktop computer’ acted like a ball and chain, preventing us from leaving the office, even from moving away from a desk! We will discover that we are able to—and will want to—do work wherever and whenever it is best or is needed. In the park, at home, on the beach, in the office, in the countryside. Our office and building designs will change to accommodate this.

Mobile devices enable people to do significant things. We assume that, because of the constraints of mobile devices, people are not willing to do complex things with them. But Luke Wroblewski amongst others has pointed out that people try to do all kinds of unexpected, complicated things with their mobile devices. It’s natural for people to take the capabilities of a new enabling device and explore the limits. Exploration also represents latent needs and opportunities for innovation.

Mobile devices will move from the periphery to being central to the way we do work, play and everything in-between.

Also recognize that organizations take a while to adapt to a new status quo. People are already taking their mobile devices into workplaces. They are using them for personal activities, but also for work, and to circumvent security and social media policies. This is because they are valuable to people, can enable them to get work done when policies stand in the way, and provide them with power and autonomy.

When the PC was introduced, it enabled first managers then workers to be able to wrench computing power from the hands of the IT ‘priesthood’ who patrolled the clean rooms that contained the business computers. Eventually, PCs became integrated into the organization, and IT departments developed processes and policies to recognize that fact and to manage it cost-effectively. Mobile devices will do the same.

Myth #6: Mobile First

OK, let’s fess up here. ‘Mobile first’ is not really a myth. From our perspective, ‘mobile first’ is a close approximation to something even more important. Let’s explain.

‘Mobile first’ is an approach to design proposed by Luke Wroblewski (see, for example, his book ‘Mobile First‘). Luke says lots of great, insightful things about designing for mobile devices, and we love his attitude and approach.

The ‘Mobile First’ approach has real value – because a focus on user tasks has real value. Most organizations are very poor at managing, designing and maintaining websites. And incredibly poor at designing websites that support users’ tasks well. In part, this is because the traditional desktop web has very few constraints. Disk space seems infinite; publishing on the web seems to be free; and people’s displays are (increasingly) large. And organizations reward people for publishing.

The constraints of mobile devices force an intense focus on users’ tasks and on the interaction.

But mobile devices come with constraints – especially display size, lack of keyboard (or size of keyboard), and no mouse. So display space is at a premium, user keyboard effort must be minimized, and targets must be finger-sized and within reach when the user is only using one hand. The great thing about designing for mobile devices is that these constraints force an intense focus on users’ tasks and on the interaction.

Take a look at some good mobile apps and websites. Marketing fluff and imagery, including branding imagery, is at a minimum. There is no ‘welcome’ text. There is little space for most of the competing interests that you see on a typical website home page. The top things you want to do on the website or with the app are right there on the first screen.

Similarly, with respect to mobile intranets, Martin White says that mobile “…forces organizations to focus on tasks and on the integration of business-critical information contained in many different applications.”

‘Mobile first’ is a good close approximation to ‘user experience first’.

Fundamental to ‘mobile first’ is to understand the ‘user experience first’. The users’ tasks are the primary consideration – what they came to your website or app to do.

Only by focusing on the user experience first can you make decisions that cut across devices and channels and across your own organizational silos. Only by focusing on user experience first can you make well-informed decisions as to what channels and modes of interaction (email, mobile app, website, telephone, face-to-face interaction) are best suited to meet users’ task needs and to ensure quick and accurate task completion.

But, if your organization finds it hard to understand ‘user experience first’, then do use the close approximation ‘mobile first’. Design first for mobile, and then apply the same rigorous focus on the user experience and user tasks to your main website.

We can help your mobile user experience

We can help you design mobile apps, test your mobile apps and devices with users and – even better – help design great user experiences that include mobile aspects.

Email us or call Mike Atyeo on (613) 599-7470 if you’d like us to work with you and create great mobile user experiences.

Mobile myths: some resources


Download or view the ‘Mobile: Extreme Top Tasks’ webinar

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Mobile quote of the month

“Losing 80% of your screen space forces you to focus. You need to make sure that what stays on the screen is the most important set of features for your customers and your business.

Luke Wroblewski

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