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Mobile UX: no smartphone is an island

April 15, 2010

One of the issues with designing mobile user experiences is that too often people focus just on the individual mobile device. While the mobile device is obviously the primary focus, in the developed world people typically interact with more than just a single device. They have laptops, desktops, netbooks, tablets, and other devices that complement their smart and feature phones. While “digital convergence” was a buzzword in the late 90s and early 00s, we’re actually headed in the other direction: more, and more heterogeneous, devices.

So why are those other devices relevant to the design of mobile user experiences? Simple. Many activities that users engage in actually span their devices. Email? People will check it on their phones, but they tend to handle actions around particular messages on their desktops and laptops. Feed readers? People skim summaries on their phones, but defer reading articles to desktops and laptops. Shopping? People check prices and availability on their phones, but defer making purchases from e-commerce sites until they reach a laptop or desktop. And I could go on.

In short, it’s important to think about how the mobile application or service you’re designing will fit in with (and potentially change how you think about) the desktop version of the application or service. There are implications for how you design your mobile interface (e.g., how will people mark items they want to follow up on / complete once they reach their desktop?), how you design the backend (or cloud service, if we must be trendy) to capture state about suspended or interrupted activities, and how you rethink the desktop interface to account for work people have already accomplished on their mobile devices.

A former colleague summed up this idea with the pithy “no smartphone is an island” bumpersticker, and we’ve seen it again and again in our work. Thinking just about the mobile device is insufficient; to be really effective a design needs to consider how the mobile interface fits into the larger ecosystem. That’s one of the reasons I’ve started to prefer talking about “mobile user experiences” rather than “mobile user interfaces”. A mobile user interface is tied to the mobile device. A mobile user experience, by contrast, fits the mobile device into a larger user experience where a user’s activities span devices.

From → Design, Mobile, Musings

One Comment
  1. Great post Jeff. Reminds me of the semester we worked on understanding how users shared or accessed files across various devices. I think the single most important thing I took away from that is users even back then didn’t view convergence as something they’d necessarily use. Context drove their use of devices and consumption of information. User contexts are transient, and thats really what mobile user experiences should focus on. The interface should only communicate that experience.

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