Designing the Mobile User Experience

By Richard F. Cecil

Published: October 9, 2006

“People use their mobile phones in environments in which there are hundreds of distractions competing for their attention. In such environments, services that require complex interactions fail.”

About a decade ago, the World Wide Web was just taking off, and people spent a lot of time trying to determine just what it would be useful for—other than online chat rooms and personal Web pages. Though it took us a while to figure out how to use the power of the World Wide Web, the Web has since revolutionized communications and commerce in modern society.

Today, we’re trying to understand how mobile devices—and by extension the mobile Web—can fit into and even enhance our day-to-day lives. As we do so, we should endeavor to avoid the mistakes we made before we understood the opportunity inherent in the Web.

When companies first decided to venture onto the Web, their sites merely comprised repurposed content from their print collateral and did not fully exploit the advantages of the new medium. Unfortunately, many companies are already repeating this mistake on the mobile Web. They are repurposing their Web content without any consideration of the differences in the mobile Web user experience. Even worse, companies are applying desktop GUI (Graphic User Interface) idioms to mobile devices. People use their mobile phones in environments in which there are hundreds of distractions competing for their attention. In such environments, services that require complex interactions fail.

Currently, mobile devices provide a lifeline to our social lives. We use mobile devices primarily as social connectors, because of the immediate access they allow. Calling someone and sending a text message have become relatively easy things to do—at least, we’re willing to suffer through the bad user experiences that let us do these things, because we value connecting with our friends and family.

“Achieving simplicity and speed of access is the key to expanding people’s perceptions of the mobile Web to include information, entertainment, and commerce services.”

In contrast, most information and entertainment services on the mobile Web have failed to create compelling offerings that integrate with our lifestyles. Sometimes, by the time we’ve figured out how to load an application or WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) site, the opportunity for use has passed. There is no sense of immediacy in the experience. And therein lies both the opportunity and the challenge inherent in the mobile Web: the promise of immediate access to information and entertainment. When we fail to live up to this promise—and, more often than not, we do fail—we layer one frustrating experience—using an application—on top of another frustrating experience—deciphering the phone. That doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in obtaining information using a mobile device. They’re just not interested in jumping through all the necessary hoops to get to that information.

Achieving simplicity and speed of access is the key to expanding people’s perceptions of the mobile Web to include information, entertainment, and commerce services. If people are to use these services while they are on the go, we must avoid cramming as many features as possible into them—just so we can claim to have the biggest and best service. Instead, we should focus on offering the features that actually help people accomplish their goals—especially when those goals are time sensitive. For example, if you’re not sure what exit to take off the interstate, you need an answer now—not five minutes from now.

What does this mean for interaction designers and information architects? If we are designing for user experience, we must understand the place the mobile phone holds in the ecosystem of our lives as well as the unique challenges and strengths of mobile devices, so we can design products that connect with people in meaningful ways. We can do this by following a user-centered design process to

  • understand the contexts within which our customers use these devices
  • select the technologies that best integrate into these contexts
  • design systems that are as simple as possible

If this approach sounds familiar, it is in many ways. UX professionals have advocated user-centered design approaches for years, with varying degrees of success. However, there are some key differences between designing products and services for the mobile Web and designing user experiences for Web browsers and software on the desktop.

Understanding the Contexts of Use

“Your first step is to determine the contexts in which people will be using your mobile service.”

Your first step is to determine the contexts in which people will be using your mobile service. No longer do people sit at desks, staring at 19-inch monitors, seemingly isolated from the hubbub of day-to-day life. Now, people chat with friends while eating dinner, with the TV blaring in the background, and while sending text messages or instant messages to other friends on the Web.

The best method of understanding contexts for a mobile user experience is to conduct some form of user research. At the very least, you should document your assumptions. Field studies are the most effective form of user research. Regardless of your method, you should become aware of the following aspects of your customers’ contexts of mobile-device use:

  • Environment—In what environments will your customers be using your service? In a restaurant with friends? Sitting on a couch, watching TV? In a car? The answer to this question is important, because it determines the appropriate design for user interactions with your service. The needs and expectations of someone who is in a noisy bar are very different from those of a person who is at his or her local library—and the user experience should differ accordingly.
  • Time—How much time do your customers have in which to perform interactions? Will your service support an interstitial activity, which people conduct between their primary activities, or a primary activity to which your customers will dedicate time? You must also be aware of how environment affects time: The more distracting the environment in which your customers use your service, the less time you will have their focused attention.
  • Culture—What are the social influences on the context of use that your customers’ family and friends bring to bear? How do those influences affect your customers’ decisions—from the types of products they purchase and the qualities they value in the products they buy to the amount of money they're willing to spend.
  • Device—How sophisticated are your customers’ mobile devices? Are they simple mobile phones, smartphones, or PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants)? How much money have your customers already spent on these devices? What is their average screen size?

Choosing the Right Technology

“What you can’t overcome is choosing the wrong technology for a particular context of use.”

Once you understand the contexts in which your customers will use your service and how your service will fit into those contexts, you can choose the best technology for your service. Should it be a thick-client application, a WAP site, or an SMS (Short Message Service)? Each technology has its own challenges, but you can overcome them. What you can’t overcome is choosing the wrong technology for a particular context of use.

  • Thick-Client Applications—Because thick clients provide the richest interactive experience and may be most like a desktop user experience with which your customers are already familiar, they are a seductive choice. However, choosing a thick client may be short-sighted, because on a mobile device, richer often doesn’t mean better. On many phones, thick clients can take a while to load—anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. What’s more, many phones don’t have a lot of memory, so even after an application starts, it might perform sluggishly. So, if your customers need something fast, a thick client is not the way to go, but if your service requires complex GUI interactions and you know the types of interactions will not be time-senstive, a thick client is probably the best solution.
  • WAP—Applications that use the Wireless Application Protocol provide an alternative to thick clients, because they support some visuals and interactivity. However, because of bandwidth constraints, you need to keep page load times to a minimum, which means your site will most likely feel like something out of 1994. You might be tempted to create a graphics-heavy user experience, but remember, many people don’t have data plans with their mobile service providers, so they’re paying for every kilobyte you send to their phones. The size of a single image might not seem like much, but they add up quickly. The combination of a tiny screen and a linear interface that allows only vertical movement—on most mobile phones, you can change focus in a WAP application vertically, but not horizontallypresents a design challenge. The biggest challenge on WAP, though, is the need to prioritize content in such a way that customers can obtain adequate information scent within a one- to two-inch-square area. If you lead customers down the wrong path, you alienate them—just as on the desktop, but here the challenge is greater.
  • SMS—Simple Message Service implementations allow fast interactions with your customers. There’s no software or Web site to load. Customers can simply send a command to which your service sends a response. However, there are two challenges with SMS services:
    • Such interfaces are like command-line interfaces, in that people have to remember the commands. Depending on the complexity and number of commands, this could be challenging.
    • Each interaction is limited to 160 characters, so whatever you communicate must be brief.

Keep an eye out for new technologies. These technologies make up the landscape of the mobile Web today, but the mobile ecosystem is continuing to evolve. Tomorrow’s mobile Web may look nothing like today’s.

Meeting Universal Design Challenges

No matter which technology you choose, there will always be two major challenges that you should address when designing services:

  • Device Usability—The device itself presents the first challenge. In most cases, it was designed for voice communication. The keypad, screen size, everything about the phone screams that its primary purpose is to make phone calls. Research labs in both universities and businesses are scrambling to evolve mobile devices to accommodate their new uses as commerce, information, and entertainment devices, while maintaining their small form factors, but so far, nothing truly innovative has caught on. For the time being, we are stuck with badly designed operating systems, small screens, linear interfaces, and numeric keypads.
  • Discovery—How will people discover your service? Will you advertise it alongside your Web site in your print collateral and television spots? Unless a carrier’s portal incorporates your service, customers will have a difficult time finding it. This issue is certainly not unique to the mobile Web, but given the slow uptake of the mobile Web—particularly in the United States—mobile services present greater challenges.

Designing for Simplicity

“Keep all interactions as simple as possible.”

Once you understand where and how people will use your service and the technology you’ll use to implement it, you must design it to keep all interactions as simple as possible. That doesn’t mean your service can’t be complex, but it shouldn’t be overly complicated. Two major reasons why people do not now use mobile devices as more than social connection tools are excessively complicated services and devices.

When you think about designing for the mobile Web, keep John Maeda’s Laws of Simplicity in mind, particularly his tenth law: “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.” More of the wrong features means less value and more frustration for your customers. The mobile Web is too new, too raw, and too constrained to allow for any excess. While your customers might tolerate excess in other media, lack of simplicity will render your mobile products impotent.

Recognizing The Real Challenge and Opportunity

“We should do the user research that’s necessary to understand what users need and deliver meaningful, valuable products and services that integrate well with and enhance our customers’ lifestyles.”

One of our biggest challenges in designing mobile services has been our inability to connect with our customers. We’re making the same mistakes we’ve made when designing for other media, but the constraints inherent in mobile devices exacerbate those mistakes. We can overcome this challenge by following the user-centered design process we’ve been advocating and using all along. We should do the user research that’s necessary to understand what users need and deliver meaningful, valuable products and services that integrate well with and enhance our customers’ lifestyles. Put simply, the opportunity for the mobile Web is huge, and UX professionals are the right people to help companies realize this opportunity. It’s yours, take it.

Further Reading

Chipchase, Jan. Future Perfect. Retrieved October 9, 2006.

Experience Mobility. Retrieved October 9, 2006.

Jones, Matt, and Gary Marsden. Mobile Interaction Design. London: John Wiley & Sons, 2006.

Kim, Amy Jo. Musings of a Social Architext. Retrieved October 9, 2006.

Little Springs Design. Retrieved October 9, 2006.

Maeda, John. The Laws of Simplicity (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life). Boston: MIT Press, 2006.

MEX: The Strategy Forum for Mobile User Experience. Retrieved October 9, 2006.

Weiss, Tom. Mobile Strategies: Understanding Wireless Business Models, MVNOs and the Growth of Mobile Content. London: FutureText, 2005. Retrieved October 9, 2006.

White, Gabriel. Small Surfaces. Retrieved October 9, 2006.

1 Comment

I just want to design one of these mobile chat experience systems to be used in mobile companies in my country. I need your support and advice as to where I can start to gather the required information for the right system.

Regards, Rajabu Kinyaga

Join the Discussion

Asterisks (*) indicate required information.