Mobile UX at Lightning UX
A look back at my talk on user experience for mobile.
I was lucky to speak at August’s Lightning UX, excellently organised by Lee McIvor. Our subject was ‘mobile UX’, a theme that drew five very different lightning talks from myself, Jonty Sharples, Tim Caynes, Matt Lindop and Helen Morris.
My own somewhat grandiosely-titled contribution took a quick skip across how mobile helped disrupt an increasingly settled landscape for designers and push the scope and focus of what user experience can and should be about these days.
Here’s what I had to say.## ‘I don’t know’ The thing I’ve come to love most about designing for mobile is its uncertainty, and a sense of ‘not knowing’. What mobile has done in a very short space of time is to combine of all the knowledge that we’ve accumulated over the years, the stuff we already know, the learning we’ve developed but… with layer upon layer of uncertainty on top. We’re still only beginning to grasp what’s possible. ## The way we were By contrast, if you think about what’s happened on our desktops over this period and longer, it’s largely been a tale of consolidation and stabilisation. OS X, as we know it, is over a decade old now, Windows - until its very recent re-incarnation - a similar story. ‘Browser wars’ are now something to ask your grandparents about. And tellingly - whether it’s Mac or Windows - the pattern is for innovation feeding from mobile _back_ to desktop not the other way round. ## Glowing rectangles We’d perhaps got too used to narrowly considering what happened directly within the confines of a glowing rectangular screen. The variables are narrow: our input devices - keyboard, mouse - were pretty much consistent, and we (mistakenly) cared ever less about connection speeds. However with mobile, we’re having to think about so, so much more. What’s happening ON the screen AND around it too. And more than this, the interplay between devices, how we respond to context and to need. The variables are huge. ## The new landscape As those old comfortable certainties are being removed, and the pace of what our devices are capable of, and our appetite for utilising them continues apace, so the ground upon which we design remains soft and changeable. We’ve now got three mature, well developed mobile platforms, distinctive in feel and behaviour. iOS might still be recognisable to our 2007-selves, but Android and Windows Phone as they exist today are quite shockingly new: Matthias Duarte’s re-imagining of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich, only appeared in November 2011, Windows Phone has been with us for little longer. Aside from the design of a specific application interface, we need to consider a range of other interconnected aspects. Including: * **Form factor** - how we interact with the hardware, its orientation, its affordances. * **Ambience** - the conditions that surround us: weather, lighting, connectivity, location * **Platform** - iOS, Android, Windows Phone (and the rest), from high-end all the way down to, as Scott Jensen memorably described it, [the coming zombie apocalypse of low-end devices](http://designmind.frogdesign.com/blog/the-coming-zombie-apocalypse-small-cheap-devices-will-disrupt-our-old-school-ux-assumptions.htm) * **Device hierarchy** - where a mobile device sits in relation to other nearby devices, 2nd screens, communication between devices ## Passive/Active, Visual/Aural, Invisible/Visible, Physical/Verbal But its even more than that… so much of mobile’s distinctive user experience lies in how it plays out _over time_, across our senses. How we use it in moments of urgency and need; to explore and create; to entertain and distract. Mobile can be a uniquely intimate technology. ## Our new challenge And what I think I’m learning from this is the following: * that we need to stop thinking merely about screens and understand interactions in their messy totality, considering ambience, form factor and more * that it’s not enough simply to test narrowly for what’s happening on a screen (so much of our interactions with our devices happen when we’re _not_ looking at them) * and that we need to spend time: observing and thinking, really thinking, about people as much as their interactions ## The importance of time, the value of immersion, the opportunity for growth It feels to me like this places an ever greater onus on us - UX designers - to make sure not just that we’re getting this research time, but doing the right type of research. This takes time - and we too need to find time as designers too - to immerse ourselves in these different contexts, platforms and build a deeper understanding. To mix and match iOS with Android, with Windows Phone. As Matt Lindop said in his own talk: ‘we all need to become multi-lingual’. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity in this most intimate of technologies. To stretch the beyond the limiting notions (of others) of UX as mere usability. There’s proper, deep, ethnographic research to be done here. To re-focus on the relationship between people and technology, but particularly on the former. And I think this is all to the good - mobile is making us better, more rounded, more empathetic designers. * * * **Video** * [Lightning UX, part 2](/journal/lightning-ux-video) **Photo credit** * [Say goodbye… by Cheo70](http://flickr.com/photos/cheo70/3191700100/) **Inspired by** * [Seymour Templar’s Social Lights project](http://www.behance.net/gallery/Social-Lights/2150645)