Just when we were starting to get used to the tools, frameworks and methodologies needed to design good mobile apps, we find the device landscape is changing again: smartwatches and other connected wearables, sensors and everything under the “Internet of Things” umbrella are bringing new complexity to our field, and makes it very difficult to tell where “mobile” or an “app” really starts and ends.
And we designers are having a hard time getting used to it. Given that many of us first approached mobile design through responsive web design, it’s been much easier to approach mobile design as if it were some kind of “smaller web with touch support and camera access”.
But the upcoming products and services are meant to live fluidly across a range of devices, sensors and network connections. So I believe that mobility, rather than mobile, defines much better the kind of environment we will have to design for.
Rather than a focus on a specific device, designing for mobility is a broader approach to design; one that delivers value because it can be transmitted by any combination of devices. Mobility forces us to think broadly and zoom out from specific devices to look at the ecosystem in which we will be designing.
Mobility is about the context, not the device
Technology has been gaining awareness of what we do, where we go and who we relate to. For a while, it seemed like mobile phones would be the single point of contact for technology to learn about our context, for they were the only “smart” device we were carrying with us. This, of course, is no longer true; smartwatches, fitness wristbands and other wearables possess sensors (like heart-rate monitors and pedometers) that wouldn’t make sense for a mobile phone.
So in reality, how much of our context an app or platform can capture doesn’t depend on a single device, but rather a combination of several touchpoints—think about how Facebook determines if you are logging in from an “unusual” location. We need to consider how much we can know about a user’s environment given all the devices that they might have available at a given time.
Context-awareness also implies designing for cases when the amount of information available is limited or non-existent. This is true even if we are designing for a single, known device: under certain conditions, data access or location services can be unreliable or cease to function entirely. This is, for instance, what happens when location services can only rely on GPS.
Let’s redefine “responsive”
We want to know better the context of our users in order to better satisfy their needs (or get more money from them, depending on our motivation). In that sense, obtaining information from them is just the first half of a transaction: users give us information in exchange for value obtained from that information. The way we give back said value to users is by responding.
The meaning of “responsive” has been badly spoiled. It’s reduced to no more than being able to adapt to different screen sizes. We need to bring back the concept of “responsive” to its fullest meaning: being able to respond, and thus establishing a communication with the user.
A truly responsive interface is actively listening to an unpredictable environment
A truly responsive interface is actively listening to an unpredictable environment. This may involve everything from being aware of a lost Internet connection, to responding to a sudden heart rate change, and everything in between. Waze, for instance, automatically switches their color scheme from light to dark based on sunset time. This is good, because it avoids blinding the user at night, but it could be improved, for instance, by detecting the environment brightness using the phone cameras. This way, the UI would adapt in real time if the car enters a tunnel, or if it’s going out of a dark parking lot to a bright street.
We are heavily underusing what we are already able to know about our users’ context. Analytics, for instance, tells us a lot about who is visiting our site or using our app, but we mostly use that information in a passive, post-mortem way, just analyzing what’s happened. What if we leveraged Analytics data to respond in real time to our users?
Embracing mobility forces us to think much harder about our users’ environment and try to serve them better by establishing a richer, smarter communication.
Screens are slowly reducing their presence
It’s no news that screens are getting both smaller and more capable. But the notion of a screen itself is being put into question by new technology: is an Oculus Rift a proper “screen”? What about the projected interface in car windshields? Or what a Holo Lens does to our room’s wall?
For one side, visual interfaces are no longer tied to glowing glass rectangles; for the other, the availability of auditive and haptic feedback gives us more options to communicate with our users and reinforce messages. In this context, mobility equals unobtrusiveness; our systems should adapt to users, not the other way around.
Smartwatches, for instance, aim to reduce the amount of time we stare at screens, in order to consume only the bits of information we really need right now. In most cases, this is done through notifications.
The variety and unpredictability of media through which our information can be delivered forces our communications to be reduced to their lowest common denominator: notifications.
There are three key things about notifications: one, they are simple and brief; two, their ability to be designed is quite limited, because they have to fit radically different form factors; and three, they actively interrupt the user (push) rather than waiting for them to request something (pull).
So, the true value of most apps reside in the content that it’s able to provide in a given moment. The UX of what happens inside the full-sized app is secondary to the notification (the prime example being chat apps). Indeed, for many use cases, a good notification doesn’t even require you to access the full app — this is specially true in Android, where notifications are much richer, better designed and actionable.
The app-centric paradigm that is the center of our current mobile experience is slowly starting to give way to a stream of timely content and information delivered by the providers of your choosing— something like what Google Now is starting to become. Who is able to offer the best restaurant recommendations? The best weather data? The best traffic info?
This puts a strong emphasis on the value delivered to users by service and content providers, rather than how beautifully designed an app is.
Does that mean that apps are going to dissapear or become utterly irrelevant? For valuable service providers, of course not. Apps, for one, are the user endpoints through which data is input; for Yelp to be the best review provider, you still need to leave a review using the app. Secondly, apps offer detailed views (you wouldn’t use Instagram only through notifications) and immersive experiences that are best suited for several use cases.
But bear in mind that notifications, cards and other bite-sized units of content will drive user engagement and interaction for many, if not most, apps. Designing “notification-first” enables your app’s value to be delivered through a much wider range of media and forces you to think on valuable information first and transitions, layouts and color palettes second.
Design around bits of value tied to context
The above can easily be read as an invitation to throw more notifications, but we probably need less notifications these days, not more. Notifications are abused by most apps, which selfishly consider appropriate to interrupt the user to deliver content that they haven’t requested or even expect (an example of this that never ceases to annoy me is Twitter’s “tailored for you” notifications, enabled by default and mostly a poor guess on what content might interest me).
Technology provides us with data from which we can infer context, but we still need to understand the context to make sense of it
Notifications should be a way of delivering value rather than an opportunity to constantly buzz users into coming back to our apps.
Which brings us back to the need to be context-aware. Designers need to be connected with our users’ environment from the conceptualization phase. So techniques like contextual inquiry, shadowing and field research are more important than ever, as increased mobility means that the environment is less and less predictable. If the environment for a web user in the 90’s was a desk, a chair and a room, now it can be anywhere, anytime.
Technology provides us with data from which we can infer context, but we still need to understand the context to make sense of it; if not, we end up with random, useless raw data obtained from sensors. Proper user research, then, is more important than ever, both to conceptualize better products and services and to infer properly the context to which we will respond.
It’s a bad time for lazy designers
UX design just got a lot more complex. Well, “just” is misleading; we are “just” noticing it. More than ever, UX designers need to be broad-minded, collaborative, thorough and careful about who they are designing for. We need to deepen our knowledge of available technology just as much as we need to ensure our users aren’t stunned by it.
Featured image, mobile image via Shutterstock.