Mobile is all the rage these days, and for good reason. The way we interact with our favorite brands, our closest friends, and the world around us is in a state of extreme flux. This landscape of "glowing rectangles" has only just begun to be revealed and show us what we may expect in years to come.
The Design For Mobile conference, which took place September 20-24 in Chicago, brought together a wide range of professionals, educators, and thought leaders, all interested in the current state of mobile—how to design, sell, research, and push this rapidly evolving technology. I took many notes on the sessions, but I think some of the more important discussions took place beyond the slide decks about mobile devices and adoption graphs.
Trends of discussions that carried on throughout the conference seemed to be pretty consistent. Each person had his or her own take, but the overarching takeaways were fairly clear. How do I design for this device? How are people adapting to new forms of input? What can mobile do in education? Where should I invest my efforts? What does the future hold? There were many questions and I think the majority of people were able to cull the answers they needed from the wide variety of speaking topics that were fanned out over the five days of the conference.
Every successful mobile project goes through some kind of process. There was a lot of interest in what this "magical" process looks like. In reality, everyone executes differently, but through the discussions and presentations it was clear that there are common elements across each process variation. Nick Finck described the process as an sequence of discovery, planning, design, building, and evaluation. Suzanne Ginsburg described the design process as comprising definition, exploration, and refinement. In addition, Albert Shum took the time to walk us all through what it took to arrive at the final direction of the Windows Phone 7, which was just released on October 11.
Every presenter described a clear application of his or her process, whether through slides or in workshop format. The workshop given by Suzanne Ginsburg allowed people to get their hands dirty and get a great understanding of how they might execute on or create a solid process for mobile application design. It was clear that without some kind of framework to formalize your thoughts, you can end up with a tangled mess of ideas without any clear way to continually move forward. This underscores the importance of developing a solid process you can evolve over time.
Throughout the conference, I couldn’t escape a hallway without hearing questions about user research. It’s something that I would argue is one of the most important parts of any process meant to create something useful. Many people are still skeptical of the value of upfront research, but when executed well there is so much that can be learned. Seeing first hand the results from Dan Mauney’s What Gestures Do People Use?, Nika Smith’s Smartphone Text Input Methods Compared: Which is Best?, and others magnified the importance of really getting to know users. If you have a chance, do user research. Even the smallest investment in research can save significant amounts of time in the long run, and help ensure a product will be useful and high-quality.
The new mobile devices on which we’re all becoming so dependent are also ushering in a new way of interaction through touch and smaller screens, and constrained by shorter attention spans. The days of "Next" arrows and magnifying glass icons are leaving us, replaced by direct manipulation of content using swipes and double-taps. A new interaction language is being born, and these gestures are just the beginning of the new global vocabulary. With smaller screens and miniature bursts of interaction, content needs to be adjusted accordingly.
But as Josh Clark stated, when it comes to this new vocabulary "we as a community need to be talking to each other." There’s a chance for this vocabulary of new interactions to come together in a way that severely confuses our users, and it’s already heading that way. Anyone building a touch-capable app should think of how gestures can enhance an experience on top of well-formatted content that is optimized for quick-glancing interactions.
Many attendees felt it is important to look beyond native mobile apps and not forget the mobile Web and other means (such as SMS) of reaching mobile audiences. Native applications, whether for Android, iOS, Blackberry, and others, are only part of the whole picture of the mobile customer experience. What about users who try to interact through the Web? Not everyone has a smartphone, so how do they access your brand? As Jason Grigsby put it, "There is no mobile strategy, just THE strategy".
Investing in native applications is important, but we shouldn’t forget the other channels through which people reach out for information from their mobile devices. Detecting devices, optimizing content for smaller screens, responding to touch, and building for speed should all be on the top of the list for catering to mobile audiences, regardless of which channels they use. Executing well can mean the difference between satisfying a customer and losing one.
The potential impact of mobile devices and applications goes beyond commercial products into the area of education. Nancy Proctor talked about how cultural institutions need to think beyond audio tours and focus on creating a collaborative environment for learning. While education has historically taken place in the classroom, Corey Pressman asserted that mobile can break down the walls of a classroom and content can be more broadly distributed to people in remote locations.
Nothing really brought home how powerful these devices are more than hearing how remote African villages use their Nokia 1100 to send photos to distant physicians to diagnose illnesses, or how augmented reality can be used to engage a museum patron, and how, in general, mobile can push the boundaries of learning. It was clear that there is plenty of opportunity but an unfortunate lack of funding. In every case it was clear that the days of traditional textbooks are numbered.
While the general focus of the conference was on the current state of mobile, there was no shortage of future thinking on where mobile experiences might go. Barbara Ballard, the conference’s organizer, challenged the crowd to think about "how can we move beyond these glowing rectangles." While our lives seem to revolve around these little screens, what’s next? Will we continue to run into light poles while texting, be alerted to an incoming call via vibration, or search a sea of apps to find content that’s relevant to us? I certainly hope not.
To get the attendees into a forward-thinking mindset, Barbara recruited Jonathan Brill, Product Futurist at Implied Sciences, to share his thoughts. From his examples, it was clear that there are already groups looking to solve "the problem of the glowing rectangle" and inventing new ways for us to interact with information. Jonathan was quick to point out that in many ways the Minority Report visions of waving our arms around have downsides as well.
In the end, it was clear that designers, now more than ever, have the ability to shape the interfaces of these devices in extreme ways, as well as to push the evolution of mobile through the interfaces they create. The constraints of what’s possible are slowly being lifted, which means there are more design problems to solve and greater responsibility for designers to champion user needs. There are many ideas of what the next five years (an eternity in the mobile space) might look like, and at the rate things are going it’s safe to say an investment in mobile now, whether you’re a designer, developer, company or educator, is one that will pay back in a big way.