Just as we’re getting used to the various tools, frameworks and methodologies required to design excellent experiences, the landscape is changing again. Hyperconnected wearables, complicated sensors and the Internet of Things bring fresh complexity to the field – making it difficult to tell where mobile starts and apps end.
Given that many approach mobile design through responsive web design, it could be easier to view mobile as if it is some kind of “smaller web, but with touch support.”
But these products and services should work fluidly across multiple devices and networks. So, mobility, rather than mobile, will better define the environments we design for.
Rather than focusing on a specific device, designing with mobility in mind requires a much broader approach to design: one that delivers tangible contextual value from a combination of devices. Mobility forces us to think broadly and zoom out in order to look at the ecosystem we are designing for.
Mobility is about context, not devices
Technology increases 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 context, as they were the only smart device we carried with us. This, of course, is no longer true; smartwatches, fitness bands and other wearables possess sensors that mean we need more than a mobile phone if we want to glean additional context.
In reality, how much context an app can capture doesn’t depend on a single device, but rather a combination of several touch points. We need to consider how much we know about a user’s environment across all of the devices that they might have access to at any given time.
We want to understand user context in order to satisfy their needs. In that sense, obtaining information is just the first half of a transaction: users give information in exchange for value. The way we give back value to users is by responding.
The meaning of responsive has been muddled. It has been reduced to to adapting designs to different screen sizes. We need to bring the concept of responsive back to its true meaning: being able to respond quickly, thus establishing a communication with the user.
A truly responsive interface should actively listen in an unpredictable environment. This may involve everything from being aware of a lost connection, to responding to a sudden change.
We are under-using what we are already know about context. Analytics, for example, tells us a lot about who is visiting our site or using our app, but we mostly use that information in a passive way – analysing what’s happened after the event. What if we leveraged 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 richer, smarter communications.
Designing around value tied to context
Technology provides us with the data required to infer context, but we need to understand context to truly make sense of it.
Designers need to be connected with users from conceptualisation. Techniques like contextual enquiry, shadowing and field research are more important than ever, as increased mobility means that the environment is considerably less predictable. If the typical digital environment for a user in the 90’s was a desk, a chair and a room, now it can be absolutely anywhere, at any time.
Step out of your comfort zone
It’s safe to say that UX design is a lot more complex today than it ever has been before. Designers need to be broad-minded, collaborative, thorough and careful about who they are designing for. We all need to deepen our knowledge of technology just as much as we need to ensure our users aren’t completely overwhelmed by it.