It’s a common misconception that UX for mobile is all about creating something for users on-the-go—users with little time, checking in on their mobile on the train or at the bus stop waiting for a bus.
But today’s mobile user is so much more than that, with the rise in tablet usage further contributing to the growth and variety of their needs. No longer can UX practitioners expect to satisfy the mobile user with added pinch-and-zoom functionality or bigger call-to-action buttons; these things are expected, and don’t improve UX.
So as mobile use continues to grow in popularity and capability, how can we better appeal to a mobile audience?
Understanding the Audience
It makes sense to imagine that mobile users are busy, checking their phones when they have a spare minute, and that everything they do during their journeys will therefore be about quick wins and easy finds.
Yet have we not all, at some point, used our phone at home to browse the Web much like we would on a laptop? And with the evolution of mobile websites and apps creating far more practical and usable functions on the phone, is it beyond the realms of possibility that we might actually prefer to use our phone to perform a task or fulfil a need?
The mobile user is no longer limited, and mobile experiences are just as key as the desktop counterparts. Understanding how our users behave and how we might engage them is therefore imperative.
Understanding the Device
The most basic level of information UX practitioners need to bear in mind when designing for mobile is the functionality of the device on which they will work. Whether the phone is a touchscreen is the first question to consider, and it will require audience research to understand who’s using what. A Blackberry user, for example, will be using a mouse-style function and will thus respond well to hover states, whereas iPhones and many other smartphones don’t support such a function.
Speed is also a contributing factor in UX. From an SEO and UX perspective, a fast-loading page is far better than a slow one. This becomes even more important on mobile devices, where users are typically even less patient than they are on desktop computers. Many will conclude that a slow-performing site simply isn’t working, or that they don’t have the right level of connectivity. Pages that are too content-rich will download slower and use more memory, so ask yourself: “Is this really going to enhance the user’s experience?”
Longer Pages… Is More Better?
Whilst desktop websites are still trending toward multipage site structures, mobile is far more ready to embrace fewer, longer pages. The act of scrolling on a mobile is, for a lot of users, more intuitive and easier to do than on a desktop computer.
But this doesn’t mean every piece of content should be condensed onto one static page. This could be overwhelming for users and actually be detrimental to their experiences. Instead, consider how best to structure content to present it in a manageable, engaging way, utilizing functionality such as drop-downs or accordion panels to make content easily available but not necessarily immediately in view.
What Nielsen Says
Ed. (7/26/11 1705 GMT): Changes made to this section in response to Jakob's comment on 7/25.
Jakob Nielsen has long been at the forefront of information architecture innovation, and his interaction elasticity theory (December 2008) is arguably his most influential in terms of mobile journey design.
Nielsen's theory states that UX is optimized by clear, easy-to-follow journeys. An easy three-step flow is preferable to an easy five-step flow, but a longer journey is far preferable where shortening it causes confusion or complexity. UX practitioners in recent times have put less emphasis on this guideline because Internet users have become more comfortable with longer site navigation, but because of factors such as longer load times, sticking to Nielsen’s theory is a smart move for those designing mobile UX. Keep journeys short and focused to allow users to reach information quickly and easily; anything less and they’re going to go elsewhere.
Stripping Back Is Not the Answer
A common misconception when architecting the UX for mobile is it needs to be a ”stripped back” version of the desktop web page. Some practitioners take content back to its bare bones, removing “nonessential” images, videos, text blocks, graphics, and so on, to leave just the “essential” stuff.
An example of this is the refactoring of Wordpress sites for mobile. The standard Wordpress mobile plugin removes all multimedia content and instead provides a long list of articles for the user to click on. Whilst this is clearly a very usable version of the site, is it providing the user experience the user deserves?
Much of the content we provide to users, though not essential to their journey, adds to the experience because it gives content and visual diversity. That means videos, images, and other media should be included; it’s just that use of screen real estate and page layouts require additional, careful thought and design.
The Future of Mobile
There are better ways to engage the mobile user, ways that do not differ greatly from the methods we follow on the traditional web. Far from simply labelling the mobile user a “user-on-the-go,” UX practitioners should afford the mobile user the same level of diligence as they do for desktop experiences.
And as the understanding of the mobile audience continues to grow, so does the technology and functionality around it. Recent updates to JQuery, which offer far more flexibility for a more native-app-like experience, provide an excellent example of how development on mobiles is evolving (take a look at Google’s mobile homepage for examples of this in practice). Many developers are already suggesting that the uptake of HTML5 and the implementation of the canvas tag on mobiles will also enhance experience by allowing more adaptability and faster speeds.
Mobile isn’t a fad. It’s here to stay and it’s continuing to grow. But its staggering popularity shouldn’t lead us to rest on our laurels; we’ve now moved past the “I’ll use mobile because it’s cool” user to the mobile savvy, technologically aware users who won’t settle for a bad experience on mobile anymore than they would on their laptops or PCs. As UX practitioners, it’s our responsibility to ensure they get great experiences.