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Designing for Mobile Superpower

by Joanna Proulx
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Calling the future of mobile “bright” is an understatement: the possibilities are endless, provided designers keep users at the center.

The world is almost entirely inhabited by mobile users, individuals who move through a multi-dimensional network of digital threads linking people and machines. U.N. Global Pulse reports that mobile is transforming the unlikeliest corners of our world and being used for good.

Arrayed against the beige boxes and bricks of past decades, the glowing lozenges we carry today are practically indistinguishable from magic. Their pocket-scaled gadgetry out-functions all that came before. Today’s mobile device is not an anonymous means to accomplishing tasks, left behind until the next time it’s useful. No, our gadgets are an intimate, ever-present extension of ourselves. They give us superpowers that can affect events remotely, move objects without touching them, and pull information out of thin air.

But with power comes responsibility. Modern mobile experiences must answer to steep user expectations with rich and secure interactions regardless of context. As designers, we negotiate a razor-thin margin between too little (restricting features and content to fit small screens) and too much (complicating interactions with irrelevant web-legacy elements). Yet our users’ horizons are vast beyond a single screen. The experience we build has to inhabit the multiple touch points within their daily digital ecosystem. Content is the central component.

Josh Clark, UX advocate and author of Tapworthy, observes that a great experience isn’t made of “presentation moments” but of content that morphs across channels: “What’s important to the user is how we design, structure, store, transport, and create content to let it flow into all mobile devices to deliver the same rich user experience.”

To exceed expectations, mobile strategy must include UX strategy as a peer (not merely a deliverable) at the foundational stages of every project and the two must keep in close collaboration well past delivery. UX should also partner with marketing to share mutually relevant information about their common audiences. Designers must first get in deep with their users to understand their perspective but then step away to translate acquired insights into usable workflows; all while never forgetting that every mobile interaction begins and ends with a human being.

Design to Idiom

People don’t “leverage resources” at breakfast with their family. Nor are they likely to conclude an important report with a :). The person, passing from situation to situation, stays the same, interactions within each context change. Personas aren’t static: They shift as context requires. They have facets. An individual user may shade through several personas in the course of a day, each adapted to its context and possessing its own idiom of words, gestures, interactions, and expectations.

The inference engines that watch our every move and suggest what “shoppers also purchased” as we trawl Amazon or eBay can adapt to the behavioral nuances between Janet, the M.D., Janet, mother of two, and Janet, the avid 5K racer, even though all three are the same person. Mobile UX must follow suit, starting with a faceted persona, then shaping experiences to match each idiom as the persona crosses from personal space, to family-time, to work and duty, logistics or leisure, and then back to an intimate realm.

This is the essence of user-centered design and true omni-channel reach will be difficult without it. Apps that deliver concise content and clean experiences will rule what the builders of Summify call the “relevance layer” and will have an upper hand in the struggle for adoption.

Support Graceful Workflows

In the daily deluge of data big and small, the mobile device is a checkpoint for incoming communications and curator of output. But the attention users can grant it is fragmented. Deep interactions force a break in flow and anything that contributes to this disjuncture risks a brief lifespan on a user’s device. Anticipate staccato connectivity and bristling topography, so that your users can get through a turnstile without dropping the groceries or the call.

Consider it from their perspective: having to hunch and tap confers none of the straight-backed grandeur of a device unfurled in a continuous sweep, flourished before a sensor, and stowed away without breaking stride. Build for flow, build for grace under deadline. There is a shade of Walter Mitty in all of us. Enable him to have 007 moments and you’ve made a friend.

Empower but Protect

The ubiquity of mobile demands always-on access and content portability. Users want to continue on their devices what they began at home or office. UX designers have a stake in keeping the thought “that’s not how it works on my laptop” from glowering at the back of a user’s mind. It’s incumbent on us to deliver experience equivalence along with mobile-specific enhancements. In effect, mobile UX has to outdo the web and desktop.

Feature richness is worth the effort: the best apps untether users from their desktops, from having to work on “real” computers. Mobile can deliver in-the-moment workflows with no deference to devices higher in the feature chain. Forget the browser (half of this article was edited in the Google Drive app). Fidelity’s app lets you exercise stock options from the company picnic, and who reads Facebook or LinkedIn on their desktop anymore?

Mobile feeds freedom while enhancing control. This is not a contradiction. It empowers citizens with choice-enabling information and a means of altering their health or their careers. It does this with a set of attributes that excite most and frighten some: pervasiveness and transparent connectivity on lightweight, powerful, easy-to-use devices. By setting individuals at the center of a microcosm of sensors, UX designers can create a meta-layer of knowledge for users to access and act upon at will. QR codes (though often reported as dying off) are being deployed from hotel lobbies to cemeteries and NFC stands to fill remaining gaps, notably in healthcare, mPayments, and security.

Remember the true horizon beyond the screen and be magnanimous in your error management too: catch your users before they make mistakes, and allow them to revoke errors already made. The world with a glowing “undo” button is friendlier.

Presume to Lead

Keeping close to users doesn’t mean getting behind them. Individuals like Benjamin Robbins test the boundaries of mobile and are worth following, but design-by-crowd usually only makes some users happy some of the time. Not every project is a problem to solve. Some projects present opportunities to pursue; some offer questions that need answering; others can be blank slates.

Take advantage of devices that “know” when they’re falling, which way is up, and when it is dark. Designers who exploit this spatial awareness, along with input modes miles beyond tapping, can offer users entirely new ways of interacting with devices, with each other, and with the world through which they move.

Get Out of the Way

Like any disruptive technology worth its salt, mobile has naysayers. Critics perceive an end, not an enhancement, to great swaths of social life. But a backward glance at past disruptions, from the advent of printing to the arrival of the automobile, suggests that for espousers of such views, the world has been ending for some 5,000 years.

This doesn’t mean that mobile is infallible. And the further it strays from augmenting human interactions in favor of playing with technology, the less credible it can become. Don’t add tangents, interrupt, interpose, stop short, or prevent your users from getting to their goal.

I go to Facebook to catch up on my social ecosystem, not to shop. The ad banners now injected into my feed are driving me to Google+. I open Flud‘s app to get a customized news feed on the go, so the fact that its updated version wouldn’t allow me to log in unless I uploaded an avatar got it deleted. And Apple‘s maps, which informed me that in order to get there from here I should stop by the App Store and get a second app that would tell me how, was left for dead.

The next generation of successful mobile apps will know what users want before they do and will discern how they feel. Next-gen interaction models will make huddling over a screen as obsolete as using a mouse. The key will be content that is not only flexible but transformable, including searchable video and text-to-voice-to-gesture and back. Holograms, micro-gestures, wearables, ingestibles, and implants are in the realm of possibility as gateway interfaces to experiences of the future.

Designers will succeed as these kinds of developments emerge by keeping the focus on humans, not technology. Individuals at the center of user-centered design change much slower than their technology. The process of designing their experience should acknowledge this and run parallel, keeping to the foundations: study, synthesize, interpret, create, and validate. Then evaluate and adapt. Yves Béhar calls this “holistic making”—being thoroughly enmeshed in every project.

Be the first ones in the door at strategy sessions, early in the trenches with users, and last ones to turn off the well-designed lights.

Image of power burst courtesy Shutterstock

post authorJoanna Proulx

Joanna Proulx, Joanna Proulx is Senior Experience Architect at Mobiquity. Before joining Mobiquity Joanna held senior UX roles with Oracle, ATG, and MIT. Outside of UX Joanna pursues her fascination with the human "sentient variable" through Polish poetry translation, support of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and service as Vice Chair of the Board with L'Académie, an extraordinary, Boston-based Baroque orchestra. She holds an M.A. in International Studies and Literary Translation from Boston University.

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