Raising the Bar for Mobile Standards
During a break in a long research day, I was speaking to a client about a project I was working on to develop iOS standards for a global financial company. Their initial response was, “What, you’re creating something beyond the Apple iOS Standards? What else is there to it?” We ended up having a lengthy discussion about mobile standards—what they are, what they are not, and what they should be. Apple, for instance, does a great job of explaining their touch interaction model and the individual UI elements of iOS, giving examples of when and how they are used. But there’s more to it than that.
From this conversation and other experiences I’ve had with creating standards, I realized that most companies approach standards from a branding perspective. Some may even approach them from an interface design perspective. But there’s more to creating standards, especially for mobile devices. . Mobile platforms differ from traditional computing, for which you can make certain assumptions about the work being performed and the people performing it. And modern mobile devices are different from the phones of the past with T-9 typing and text-based layouts that limited the breadth and variety of interactions you could design.
Mobile is amazingly versatile, and design for mobile is about the culture of your audience, the tasks they are trying to complete, and the context in which they are completing them. Design for mobile and therefore mobile standards need to be approached from a human perspective. The primary purpose of mobile standards is the same as if they were created for a more traditional interface. From a business perspective, they are created for two reasons:
- Standards save time and money by avoiding duplication of effort by developers and designers across projects and interfaces.
- Standards enable the creation of interfaces that are efficient and familiar to users, thereby increasing usability and decreasing the learning curve.
These two benefits should be fulfilled in any guidelines documentation. But with the advent of standardization of mobile interfaces, there are so many other ways guidelines can be expanded to serve the audiences they affect: the developers and designers who implement solutions based on the standards, and the end-users of the products being created.
Standards Present an Opportunity to Teach Designers and Developers about Mobile Platforms
The primary audience for mobile standards is the team of developers and designers who will be applying the standards, and therefore the standards should be designed to fulfill their needs. When designers and developers create a new product for a laptop or desktop environment, the design process is somewhat straightforward. They already know the platform, the common interactions, and the terminology. But the most common smartphones and tablets on the market now (at least in North American and Europe) are comparatively new: iPhones, Droids, iPads, new Blackberry models, etc. As a result, many designers and developers are new to creating products for these mobile platforms. A standards document can help educate developers and designers by framing guideline content with information about the platform, interactions, and interfaces. What is the difference between trackball interactions and touchscreen interactions? What are some key considerations when constructing an information hierarchy? These are examples of questions that can be answered in a standards document, enabling designers and developers to better understand the guidelines, interpret them accurately, and create optimal designs.
Mobile Standards Need to Identify the Tasks that Are Well-Suited for Mobile
The secondary audience for mobile standards is the group of people who will be using the products derived from the standards: the users of websites and apps. The first step in designing any interface is to understand the audience of that interface, their needs, their perceptions, and their behaviors. This will help the project team identify the tasks that their audience is trying to complete, and the contexts for user tasks. Having interface-level specs and guidelines is important, but it won’t matter how standardized an interface is if the workflow and task it supports is not suitable for mobile. There are two primary considerations for whether something will be successful as a mobile task:
- Does your audience need this product/task in the context of mobility?
- Is it feasible for them to complete the task on a mobile device in a mobile setting?
The answers to these questions are highly variable depending on the audiences of the product, where they’re using mobile devices, the types of devices they have, and what they want to accomplish on each type of device. Based on this level of understanding, one can determine audience’s high-level tasks and then prioritize what is suitable and important on mobile devices.
For instance, audience research may determine that a primary task for a sales person is “data entry” when recording conversations with customers, but data entry is not suited to mobile because of the keyboard size or the amount of time it takes. On the other hand, a sales person might also have “viewing content” as a primary task when viewing their team’s weekly numbers, and that task could be highly valuable on a mobile device. By identifying appropriate mobile tasks and documenting them in a set of mobile guidelines, the standards can help define what types of products are really important for a mobile device, and what is unadvisable. These will serve as higher-level guidelines before delving into the interface aspects by filtering concepts and products for whether they’re right for the mobile platform.
Mobile Standards Should Define Interaction Models, Not Just the Flat UI Elements and Branding
Apple, Android, and Blackberry all do a great job of sharing standards with their developer communities. They share detailed guidelines on standard UI elements, the associated terminology, and their behaviors, and give usage examples for the UI. However, what they don’t do is string them all together into patterns. What happens after you click this button? How should these messages change in context of the task? If you’re opening a document online, should it open in a new window or in the current window? When and where do error messages appear in a form? Is that different or the same in a wizard or series of forms? These are the questions that designers and developers spend most of their time toiling over—the little things that pull UI elements together into a full interaction. And these are also the questions that the OS standards do not cover. This is a key gap in standards for designers and developers that can be filled by a new custom set of guidelines, which further save money and time in development efforts and add value to the existing, basic OS standards.
Mobile Standards Should Be Infused with Best Practices and User-Centered Design Methods
Not everyone is a UX expert; it’s not their job to be. Many people who create interfaces within a company are creative designers or developers. Their focus and expertise is not on UX design principles. But regardless, everyone wants to create the most usable product possible. A standards document is an opportunity to arm them with basic knowledge and skills in UX research methods and best practices. UX design is a broad topic and set of skills; some people go to graduate school just for this discipline. But there are some basic things that can be conveyed in context of standards, such as:
- When in the design process is it best to perform different types of research.
- What questions should people should ask themselves when designing an interface to ensure they’re keeping the user in mind
- Common flaws in a design that a developer can easily overcome.
Aside from leading to better interfaces overall and educating the people making them, this information will also help guide designers and developers when they have to diverge from standards. For instance, if a designer knows that a specific use case isn’t covered by the standards, they will need to diverge and create a unique interface. But at least now they can employ the UX best practices and design methods in the set of standards so that the new interface is usable, useful, and well designed.
All of this content should be supplemented by a point of contact for a UX professional so when questions arise or research needs to be conducted, the developers or designers are supported in their needs.
A Standards Governance and Maintenance Team Needs to be Created
This is true of any standards model, not just mobile standards, but it is frequently overlooked. With the rise of new platforms, developers and designers are less familiar with how to design for scenarios that the standards either do not cover or are just not tailored to. Because of this, there will often be questions about how to implement the standards in specific circumstances or unique interfaces. Therefore while a governance team is important for all types of standards, they are critical for mobile standards. A person or team needs to be designated within the organization and empowered by senior leadership to oversee implementation of the standards. One primary responsibility of this person or team is to make sure that the landscape of standards is not changing within the organization. Did someone unknowingly create a different set of standards in another department and now there are two potentially conflicting set of guidelines? Are people making independent changes to the guidelines and recirculating them? These types of situations arise frequently, and if they are not monitored and resolved there will be redundancy and confusion in the company. Similarly, a person or team needs to be made a point of contact for when people need to diverge from the standards. It’s going to happen, it always happens. But it can be controlled so that the interface experience is still optimal.
Finally, this team needs to maintain standards. Mobile is changing every day with new versions of an Android phone, an iOS update, a new tablet, or a new feature that changes a basic interaction. Because of these factors, mobile standards are not a one-and-done deal. Guidelines need to be maintained by a person or team that is always looking on the horizon, reevaluating the standards, and updating what is needed to keep the standards relevant and current.
And always remember your audiences’ points of view. With mobile standards, your audiences are likely sub-groups of your company, creative designers, or developers. Each one has their own perspectives on what an interaction should look like and what the priorities are. Depending on the culture of your audiences, the standards should be more or less prescriptive, more or less governed, more or less interpretive. Only by accounting for your company’s culture will your standards—mobile or otherwise—be well-adopted and achieve the goals of streamlined, usable interfaces created at minimal cost.