Don’t Design For Mobile, Design For Mobility
Just when we were starting to get used to the tools, frameworks, and methodologies needed to design good mobile apps, we find the device landscape is changing again: smartwatches and other connected wearables, sensors, and everything under the “Internet of Things” umbrella are bringing new complexity to our field, and makes it very difficult to tell where “mobile” or an “app” really starts and ends. And we designers are having a hard time getting used to it. Given that many of us first approached mobile design through responsive web design, it’s been much easier to approach mobile design as if it were some kind of “smaller web with touch support and camera access”.Rather than a focus on a specific device, designing for mobility is a broader approach to design; one that delivers value because it can be transmitted by any combination of devices. Mobility forces us to think broadly and zoom out from specific devices to look at the ecosystem in which we will be designing.
Mobility is about the context, not the device
Technology has been gaining awareness of what we do, where we go, and who we relate to. For a while, it seemed like mobile phones would be the single point of contact for technology to learn about our context, for they were the only “smart” device we were carrying with us. This, of course, is no longer true; smartwatches, fitness wristbands, and other wearables possess sensors (like heart-rate monitors and pedometers) that wouldn’t make sense for a mobile phone. Context-awareness also implies designing for cases when the amount of information available is limited or non-existent. This is true even if we are designing for a single, known device: under certain conditions, data access or location services can be unreliable or cease to function entirely. This is, for instance, what happens when location services can only rely on GPS.
Let’s redefine “responsive”
We want to know better the context of our users in order to better satisfy their needs (or get more money from them, depending on our motivation). In that sense, obtaining information from them is just the first half of a transaction: users give us information in exchange for the value obtained from that information. The way we give back said value to users is by responding. A truly responsive interface is actively listening to an unpredictable environment. This may involve everything from being aware of a lost Internet connection to responding to a sudden heart rate change, and everything in between.
Waze, for instance, automatically switches its color scheme from light to dark based on sunset time. This is good because it avoids blinding the user at night, but it could be improved, for instance, by detecting the environment brightness using the phone cameras. This way, the UI would adapt in real-time if the car enters a tunnel, or if it’s going out of a dark parking lot to a bright street.
Screens are slowly reducing their presence
For one side, visual interfaces are no longer tied to glowing glass rectangles; for the other, the availability of auditive and haptic feedback gives us more options to communicate with our users and reinforce messages. In this context, mobility equals unobtrusiveness; our systems should adapt to users, not the other way around. Smartwatches, for instance, aim to reduce the amount of time we stare at screens, in order to consume only the bits of information we really need right now. In most cases, this is done through notifications.
The variety and unpredictability of media through mobility which our information can be delivered forces our communications to be reduced to their lowest common denominator: notifications. There are three key things about notifications: one, they are simple and brief; two, their ability to be designed is quite limited because they have to fit radically different form factors; and three, they actively interrupt the user (push) rather than waiting for them to request something (pull). So, the true value of most apps resides in the content that it’s able to provide in a given moment. The UX of what happens inside the full-sized app is secondary to the notification (the prime example being chat apps). Indeed, for many use cases, a good notification doesn’t even require you to access the full app — this is especially true in Android, where notifications are much richer, better designed, and actionable.
Design around bits of value tied to the context
The above can easily be read as an invitation to throw more notifications, but we probably need fewer notifications these days, not more. Notifications are abused by most apps, which selfishly consider appropriate to interrupt the user to deliver content that they haven’t requested or even expect. Technology provides us with data from which we can infer context, but we still need to understand the context to make sense of it; if not, we end up with random, useless raw data obtained from sensors. Proper user research, then, is more important than ever, both to conceptualize better products and services and to infer properly the context to which we will respond.