The user experience (UX) sounds pretty personal, right? Well, yes and no. In general, most users will experience and consume data in slightly different ways. What might be meaningful to one may mean very little to another.
From a UX practitioner’s perspective, our utmost challenge is identifying similar patterns and use cases that apply to the broadest spectrum of users as possible. Why? Because our goal is to appeal to a broad audience so we sell more of whatever it is we’re developing that UX for. Building and developing with UX in mind means finding what works, what pleases, and what applies to the most people.
But sometimes developing with UX in mind also means uncovering the needs of our customers before they themselves realize them, suddenly exposing them to a void only to immediately fill that void with the perfect product solution. Here at Monster, we conduct exhaustive usability research, create lots of variations of the same experience, and test them against users to figure out what use patterns work for the broadest range of people.
This has become increasingly important as it relates to developing for mobile with a much smaller form factor. The challenge of creating meaningful user experiences for a range of use cases and audiences is paramount. The mobile UX caters to the on-the-go lifestyle of a mobile users who have a very short attention span given how polluted their environment is by nature.
Just take a typical use case as an example. Joe Mobile is in the park on his lunch break in New York City. He has his mobile device in hand, let’s say it’s an Apple iPhone, and he’s busily flicking through his e-mail while eating his lunch. He’s distracted by the people around him walking their dogs, engaging their lunchmates in conversation, and whizzing by him on their lunchtime jog around the park. His attention is all over the place, least of all on his mobile device, which he’s minimally paying attention to at best.
So, how do you design for that? You want to draw the distracted mobile users into purchasing the apps and user interfaces that you are developing. Minimal attention span and an on-the-go persona is one thing. But the most basic, but very real, problem with the advent of mobile is that the inputs have changed.
Changes In The Technological Experience
The way users experience their desktop is quite different from their mobile experience. Rather than using a keyboard to type an e-mail, clicking a mouse to launch an application, or opening a folder to search for a document, you have nothing but your own fingers as the “input.” Sure, there’s a technicality to that to work out, but the degree of precision becomes the issue. You’re reduced to a tiny screen and your big finger to navigate with and to manipulate the data within the device itself.
It’s also a mindset shift. With mobile, you’re using an extension of your body to manipulate the data versus using a representation of the physical world (the cursor arrow), which you cannot touch but must learn to maneuver to navigate and manipulate the data and apps housed on your favorite mobile device.
While I’ve just illustrated one example here, this is an important dynamic to bear in mind—the “human” interface that exists with mobile, something that does not come into play with desktops. There is a real-life aesthetic to the mobile experience that didn’t exist before. And by and large, Apple was one of the first to address it.
So where does that leave us? Well, we have to become industrial designers in a sense, thinking like them by identifying and addressing problems that we need to solve as part of the digital experience. For instance, if you want users to touch a certain object on the screen, you need to make that object inviting. Don’t use sharp edges, which will detract users from touching that object, but rather use softer, rounded edges. If the objects on the screen look accessible, users feel invited to explore and manipulate the objects on that screen.
Another example is if you want users to follow a certain path as they navigate through the user interface (UI), it’s important to keep the surface type in mind, since touch is incredibly important to the mobile experience. For users to follow the path you’ve created for them, it needs to invite touch, so make the surface soft or smooth rather than rough or ridged.
If you make something that should be as simple as a button hard to navigate, your user will grow frustrated, and ultimately, you’ll lose money on the product you’ve worked so hard to design. This poses constant design challenges. To make the user experience truly inviting and engaging, you have to consistently put the users and their mindset first.
As we developed our own Apple iPad application, for example, we spent a lot of time on the experiential aspect of job searching. We started with the real-world aspect of job hunting and tried to translate it for mobile. Imagine a typical job seeker scenario. Maybe he’s unemployed. He settles in at the local coffee shop, coffee in hand, along with the latest job listings featured in the local newspaper. Yes, this is a throwback to job searching of yesterday, but it has that inviting, warm feel we were aiming for.
Now let’s look at that scenario again. This particular job seeker is still at the coffee shop with coffee in hand, but this time he’s settled in with his iPad. He can still experience the flip of the newspaper page—we designed our iPad app to “feel” like a newspaper, with edges that have the subtlety of an edge of a newspaper. The background looks like wood, as if sitting at a table, while reading through the job listings in the paper. We wanted users to feel invited in to the application, to touch and flick their way through the app. So we incorporated design elements that are warm: the wood, the coffee cup in the corner, and the newspaper—all warm and inviting to touch. We wanted the experience to feel like an extension of the real world.
Facing The Challenge
What has the advent of mobile done for UX experts more than anything else? It has challenged us to stay one step ahead and to accelerate our thinking. While mobile devices have been around for quite a while, smart phones are relatively new—new in that from a design and development perspective, they’re constantly evolving and are a far less standardized a platform than, say, a desktop is.
For example, there is a slew of smart-phone operating systems to design for, including BlackBerry, iPhone, Palm, Android, and the Windows Phone. All are unique and require different design elements to work. Smart phones are also not uniform in form factor, as some have large screens and some have small screens, and some have touchscreens and touchpads, while others have the more traditional tactile buttons to navigate with.
Beyond form factor, though, a unique challenge in developing for mobile devices like smart phones is that they live in context with the user. Just think about it: when you buy a mobile device, it already comes with a camera embedded, maybe even two. It also includes a GPS and mapping tools that can “sense” where you are in the world, whether it’s day or night. It understands the environment and context you are in.
All of this opens up infinite possibilities, and now more than ever, it forces you to question, to consider and reconsider, every design choice you make, ensuring that every decision is meaningful. The mobile user experience is about trust and credibility within the environment. Users want to be charmed and to be drawn into their mobile device. Tackling that is, by far, the biggest challenge we face in designing the right mobile user experience today.
There are three important factors to consider when designing a UX that will work for a mobile environment like a smart phone or a tablet:
- Design for simplicity and easy navigation. Bear in mind that mobile users are on the go and their context is continuously changing.
- Design for the “human” interface element. The touch and feel of a button, folder, or navigation path is even more important when designing for a mobile user than for a desktop user. Gestural interfaces require more thought than your standard UI. Plan textures, the materials you are mimicking, the lighting, and the physics of your interactions very carefully.
- Design as an extension of the real world. Ensure that the UX feels genuine and honest. This will promote trust and credibility in the user for your products and services.
Above all else, stay on your toes. The world of development for mobile devices and experiences is one of constant evolution.