Friday, July 6, 2012

Lessons From Mobile

People don't use desktop computers any more. That's because people can't sit still, liberated by their pocket-computers that double as a mobile phone. An exaggeration, slightly — people still sit at their desk and accomplish something using laptops from time to time. We must offer mobile UI support to stay relevant. The intricacies of several mobile platforms that suit the likes of these users may be a learning requirement. That isn't so bad. These technologies are improving at an impassioned pace. Probably in part due to the increased number of eyeballs scrutinizing the quality of these mobile systems. So unless you're a start-up company as of the last couple years, you've probably got user interface assets that are essentially worthless in the mobile realm.

What can we do with these clunky UIs, designed for devices that offer better resolution than they should? Can we keep our die hard desktop user base — the ones who prefer to type using more than two thumbs and an index finger — happy with our software? My take on this is that when it comes to production systems we've poured effort into, we shouldn't submit to the mobile mentality so easily. Instead, we should borrow some UI ideas from the mobile space and run with them in our more traditional UI space.

Mobile Downsizing
The obvious difference between a mobile user interface and one that runs on a larger device is the lack of space in the former. We simply don't have enough room on a phone to place widgets that would otherwise work well together. If you've ever tried using a site from a mobile phone that doesn't support these types of devices, the site is essentially meaningless. You have to constantly zoom in and zoom out for an aspect ration your eyes can handle. This experience for mobile users is so frustrating that they'll likely never return to the site — using their phone or their laptop.

Mobile user interfaces have grown to encompass more than simply offering a better user experience than your competitors. The mobile market is still an emerging phenomenon — but a fast growing one to say the least. Therefore, you cannot, as a company, afford to drive users away from your application. With any new technology, it seems as though the early adopters take anything that doesn't align exactly with their new found love as an insult. In other words, it's important to get your mobile UI right. It's important to get any UI right as that is the face, the first impression of your software.

Not offering customers any kind of mobile gateway into your company is the epitome of a missed opportunity. Of course, there is the notion that you're really not catering to that kind of crowd, but that's a difficult statement to make with any sincerity given the momentum mobile has at the moment. It doesn't take much to anger a handful of people glued to their phones. You don't want that because if you're providing a bad experience from their perspective, or no experience at all, it won't be long till that number grows. People aren't saying they've had enough with the small screen — they've had enough with software that doesn't work properly in it.

Such is the new personality dynamic we're presented with for our user interfaces. I think we need to stop and think for a moment what mobile really means. We tend to use mobile as a label to categorize applications that run on a certain kind of device when really, we ought to start focusing in on the shifting needs of the person who is mobile. What are these people doing while simultaneously interacting with your UI? What mistakes is the user likely to make because of either mobile input devices or the fact that the user isn't sitting down. Your mobile UI doesn't not have the user's full attention.

Such factors make for an interesting design challenge. At the same time though, it's a problem that becomes simpler due to our lack of real estate. There are less choices, less information, less things the user needs to hone in on and burn extra mental cycles. As a result, when we look at a mobile UI that has a minimal set of moving parts, we don't actually look — we glance and act. Glance and act. A pattern that fits nicely, I think, with someone making their way to a train platform.

Moving Back Up
Do we ever really think about taking the lessons from developing mobile user interfaces and applying them to our desktop displays? Mobile is relatively new — desktops have been around for a while, and so it seems only natural that we want to take our existing applications and port them. Our user interfaces are packed full of goodies, how can we make them work on a phone?

The problem is, I don't think we should necessarily try and move everything onto a new platform. It often results in creating a new UI anyway — one specifically targeted for a particular device, or class of device. Not because we've recognized the mistakes in our layouts, that our UI is somewhat bloated, but because we simply can't fit them. When you cannot fit everything your standard desktop UI has to offer onto a phone screen, it isn't a travesty. It's an opportunity. You don't need to carry forward mistakes from the past.

The opportunity extends in the backward direction too — from mobile to the desktop. Successful delivery of a mobile application means that you've probably experienced some of the interesting problems that go with that flavour of development. The need to consider extreme attention deficits, combined with a lack of real estate. Perhaps some of these lessons apply to your legacy software. Maybe the desktop UI doesn't need that widget that you assumed you couldn't do without. Use your mobile application as a guide in simplicity. If you're getting positive feedback, and the user can get done what needs doing, that can well indicate what your larger user interface doesn't need.