Think Again: Assumptions About Mobile To Reconsider

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The popularity of mobile has skyrocketed over the past few years. We’ve seen six generations of iPhones, five iPad models, hundreds of Android phones and thousands of different devices being manufactured. Design and development have gone all the way from static and desktop-centric to responsive and device-aware. And it has been a very exciting journey.

The field is relatively young — we are all learning (usually by mistakes). Because of that, we are also struggling with generalizations and even stereotypes. Let’s have a look at common myths associated with the mobile universe.

Myth: Mobile Is Well-Defined

It has become widely accepted that “mobility” refers to handheld devices, which you can easily use on the go, for Web browsing or anything else. Following that thought, we could easily make an assumption that even a remote control or MP3 player could potentially be a mobile device. But are they?

Barbara Ballard, author of Designing the Mobile User Experience221, does a great job explaining the idea behind mobile:

“Fundamentally, ‘mobile’ refers to the user, and not the device or the application.”

Mobility is strictly connected to the user and situation they’re currently in, not to the piece of hardware they’re using. This easily leads us to the conclusion that what really matters is the context, not the device. Some mobile industry luminaries have stated that the idea of context has been overblown2. Indeed, it can easily lead to many unfortunate decisions and false assumptions which can drastically affect the end product.

As Jeremy Keith, author of HTML5 for Web Designers3 and mobile specialist, has said4:

“We have once again created a consensual hallucination. Just as we generated a mythical desktop user with the perfect viewport size, a fast connection and an infinite supply of attention, we have now generated a mythical mobile user who has a single goal and no attention span.”

By defining mobile as a set of circumstances, a setting, we are in danger of making some sweeping generalizations. We analyze, we study reports and use cases, but mobile interactions are far less trivial than we think.

As studies show5 (PDF), over 70% of Americans use their phones while in the bathroom. In some countries, the percentage of people with Internet access that is solely provided by mobile exceeds 50%. According to ComScore’s Mobile Metrix6, Facebook’s mobile app accounts for 80% of their traffic. These facts prove that assuming short attention spans and oversimplifying interfaces are not solutions to addressing the problem space.

People tend to use their phones or tablets at home while sitting on the sofa or in a cafe. What’s even more important is that they’re willing to perform complicated tasks and actually spend money. Rather than guessing what the user is trying to achieve on a mobile device, we should assume they want to do everything and try to better understand the constraints of each device. We should be concerned about the content that we’re trying to serve while bearing in mind the context is continuously changing.

As developers, we need to ditch our desktop-centric thinking which taught us to prototype for a certain set of conditions, and aim towards more flexible content. Instead of focusing on a single platform, we should create reusable copy and assets, which will serve as a base for multiple scenarios.

Myth: Mobile Is iOS

We have already established that we cannot take network speed, screen dimensions, operating system or browser for granted. The mobile market is hugely diversified. Yet it’s still sometimes identified with iOS devices only.

Apple products are high profile. Their brand is hyper-consistent and instantly recognizable. But iOS represents less than half of the mobile market. And favoring iOS (or any one platform in general) might lead to poor user impressions.

Within the US, Google owns roughly 53% of the smartphone market7. That basically amounts to a huge number of wildly different Android devices.

Let’s have a look at market share:

Both Android and iOS are growing while other platforms are slowly loosing more and more users.8
Both Android and iOS are growing while other platforms are slowly loosing more and more users.

These numbers mean that we have thousands of resolutions ranging from the first phone with Internet access, Nokia Communicator (640 × 200 pixels), up to Samsung Galaxy S3 (1280 × 720 pixels). While some of the models are discontinued, it still gives us a greater picture of the market’s diversity.

When talking about screen size, it would be a crime not to mention pixel density. The real boom with higher-density screens started when Apple introduced retina display along with iPhone 4. But what does it mean for us? It’s one more factor we need to take into account. Because we are dealing with more pixels per inch than usual, we need to supply higher resolution graphics9 or else rely on SVG, which isn’t always a solution we can use.

We not only need to consider the diversity of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), operating systems and screens but also the multitude of browsers. Some of the most well known and widely used are:

  • Opera Mobile,
  • Opera Mini,
  • Safari,
  • Chrome,
  • Dolphin,
  • Internet Explorer Mobile,
  • Blackberry,
  • WebOS browser.

Some of these are default browsers, provided by vendors, and some are user-installable. This is only a small fraction of available browsers10, though. Taking this even further, all of the aforementioned browsers have a rendering engine11, and while they are usually built upon WebKit, the distributions vary12 which introduces us, developers, to a whole new range of cross-browser issues.

That leaves us with a few factors to consider: type of device, such as smartphone, tablet, personal digital assistant (PDA), etc.; resolution; orientation; pixel density; and the browser with its rendering engine. All these limitations define how the implementation process will look. It would be a crime to assume device uniformity.

Myth: Mobile Means Less

Imagine you’re reading the delivery menu for your favorite American restaurant, and you want to order a steak. To your utter shock and dismay, you find that it’s not on the menu. You’ve had steak before when visiting the restaurant in person, so you wonder why you’re not seeing it on the delivery menu.

Someone in charge decided that Americans have poor eating habits, and if they are not willing to come to the restaurant in person for the full experience, then they are likely to be sitting at home on a couch in front of the television, and are not fit to have the meal. You enter into absolute food rage and never return to the restaurant again.

When you think about this situation, you should quickly notice that it’s not that different from daily decisions developers and designers make.

Having too many features may be just as harmful as cutting them down, as you can see when viewing The New York Times website on mobile.13
Having too many features may be just as harmful as cutting them down, as you can see when viewing The New York Times website on mobile.

You decide what set of features and interactions are necessary for a perfect user experience. It’s especially important on mobile, when you try to cut features to make the interaction as easy and seamless as possible, basically making assumptions and decisions for your users. Nothing is more frustrating than being deprived of the ability to make your own choices.

It’s critical to put the users’ needs first. If mobile gets less features by default, customers can potentially be left without the means to engage with your actual product. People perform all kinds of actions while using a wide range of devices. 25% of mobile users engage in online shopping through their phones and tablets. Would you ever think that every three minutes (within the UK) a vehicle is purchased using the eBay mobile app14 (PDF)? Tiffany & Co. also noted a significant rise in sales and traffic after launching their mobile app — would you think that people buy diamonds on mobile?

The main focus should go to delivering great experiences within the feature set you’re offering on desktop, not limiting them. While some features appear as unnecessary, you cannot assume that they aren’t without proper testing and real interaction. As Aral Balkan points out15:

“If you’re not involved in building what you’re designing, you’re not designing, you’re assuming; you’re drawing pretty pictures.”

Myth: Mobile-Specific Content Is Mandatory

Stephen Hay once tweeted16:

“There is no Mobile Web. There is only The Web, which we view in different ways. There is also no Desktop Web. Or Tablet Web. Thank you.”

Mobile isn’t an independent creature — it’s an experience we’re creating. We could not possibly accommodate all devices that are currently available. The ideal situation would be to have one, uniform experience of the brand, served according to device.

It all comes down to the most crucial part of Web design — content. Being perfectly aware of goals that you’re trying to achieve and leveraging content strategy17 is essential for creating cross-universe compatible experiences. While we try to tailor, cut and paste content that we think is essential on mobile, again we are trapping ourselves in false assumptions of users’ context (by choosing what’s the most appropriate piece of information they are potentially looking for) and finally ending up making mobile less compelling and bereft of features.

That’s why we should consider designing content out rather than canvas in18. Being focused on content from the very beginning will help keep you from being trapped within visual limitations that come with the wide variety of available devices, and make the copy usable regardless of the platform it is being served on.

Myth: Mobile Means Apps

There are few approaches for serving optimized content for mobile. Having an app is one of them — not necessarily the best, though. An app is just a container for the content we are trying to serve. While some apps bring us delightful experiences (such as Solar19 or Instagram20), we can’t rush ourselves and create an app for every website or product we are working on. Especially if we are planning to give the app a subset of desktop features.

“See, your product isn’t really a product at all. Your product is something called content. It’s a service.”

An app is considered a product by many. As Josh Clark outlines above, the essence of the product is and always will be the content and service or set of functionalities you are giving to your customers. Currently, both App Store and Google Play are each offering over 700,000 apps for download. Are all of them being used? Probably not. Are they all providing the content or features the user would like to see? For sure, no.

Responsive design has been adopted by well known brands such as Tiffany & Co.21
Responsive design has been adopted by well known brands such as Tiffany & Co.

Since having an app isn’t always the way to go — what is? A good alternative is responsive design. It has been a really hyped topic over the past few months, and not without reason. It certainly can be easier to use media queries than to write a native iOS app or play around with PhoneGap. It also gives the impression of cohesion and creates a seamless experience. Development-wise, it prevents you from creating a couple different apps (for different platforms) and code bases.

Instead of creating an app to make the “New & Noteworthy” section within the App Store, and therefore limiting yourself to the container you’ve chosen, try to think about a strategy which will reduce the amount of redundancy in your work and that will serve all users. Before jumping on the bandwagon of apps, be sure that you have good content strategy thought out.

Conclusion

These are exciting yet overwhelming times for Web development. We are forced to rethink the purpose of websites or apps we are creating. We have no ability to predict what will happen next, what constraints and abilities the next devices will bring. What is important these days are back-end systems which provide all the data we are trying to display — it’s not only presentation layer we need to care about, which still somehow remains the most important factor. We are observing robust growth and increasing interest in APIs, which along with content are drivers of layout change.

It all comes down to both knowing the needs of your audience and revolving around content. We tend to acknowledge the constraints of platforms and design strictly for given requirements. Let’s make sure that the data is accessible anywhere, anytime, on any device.

Further Reading

(cp)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.amazon.com/Designing-Mobile-Experience-Barbara-Ballard/dp/0470033614
  2. 2 http://www.lukew.com/ff/entry.asp?1333
  3. 3 http://www.abookapart.com/products/html5-for-web-designers
  4. 4 http://adactio.com/journal/4443/
  5. 5 http://www.11mark.com/download/11
  6. 6 http://www.comscore.com/Press_Events/Press_Releases/2012/5/Introducing_Mobile_Metrix_2_Insight_into_Mobile_Behavior
  7. 7 http://www.comscore.com/Insights/Press_Releases/2012/10/comScore_Reports_August_2012_U.S._Mobile_Subscriber_Market_Share
  8. 8 http://www.comscore.com/Insights/Press_Releases/2012/11/comScore_Reports_September_2012_U.S._Mobile_Subscriber_Market_Share
  9. 9 https://speakerdeck.com/ddemaree/designing-the-hi-dpi-web
  10. 10 http://www.quirksmode.org/mobile/browsers.html
  11. 11 http://www.html5rocks.com/en/tutorials/internals/howbrowserswork/#The_rendering_engine
  12. 12 http://www.quirksmode.org/webkit.html
  13. 13 http://www.flickr.com/photos/scobleizer/4697192856/
  14. 14 http://mobile.ebay.com/wp-content/themes/platformpro/downloads/eBay%20Mobile%20Collateral%206_15_2012.pdf
  15. 15 https://twitter.com/aral/status/231400978161745921
  16. 16 https://twitter.com/stephenhay/status/23350345962889216
  17. 17 http://www.abookapart.com/products/the-elements-of-content-strategy
  18. 18 http://www.markboulton.co.uk/journal/comments/a-richer-canvas
  19. 19 http://thisissolar.com/
  20. 20 http://instagram.com/
  21. 21 http://www.tiffany.com/
  22. 22 http://www.amazon.com/Designing-Mobile-Experience-Barbara-Ballard/dp/0470033614
  23. 23 http://www.abookapart.com/products/content-strategy-for-mobile
  24. 24 http://www.abookapart.com/products/mobile-first/
  25. 25 http://blog.cloudfour.com/on-mobile-context/
  26. 26 https://developers.google.com/webmasters/smartphone-sites/
  27. 27 http://bradfrostweb.com/blog/web/this-is-responsive/

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Karolina Szczur is a UX designer and developer working for Nodejitsu. In the meantime she organizes Meet.js JavaScript barcamps back in her hometown — Kraków, Poland and preaches Node.js. She rambles on Twitter, her temporary blog and designs on Dribbble.

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  1. 1

    Thanks for the article. Good sections, but I’d say you didn’t go far enough. A few brief points.

    In some countries, the percentage of people with Internet access that is solely provided by mobile exceeds *90%*

    Globally, iOS is even less important than in North America, and half the phones in the world are featurephones.

    I tend to say mobile means *more*. Sensors, better network connectivity, and constant availability means mobiles are the jetpack we were promised. We no longer have to work the way computers want us to, but can work (and play and live) the way we do anyway, and the little pocket computer supports us.

    • 2

      “Globally, iOS is even less important than in North America, and half the phones in the world are featurephones.”

      Did you use your mobile to surf the web when you had a featurephone ?
      I didn’t, unless I was really, really, really motivated.
      I launched my first cHTML website in 2004, it was a list of concerts around you, fully mobile optimized. Even its domain name was chosen to be fast to type on a numeric keypad.
      Nobody visited it even if it was backed up by a quite big music websites and had some media exposure.

      Featurephones are just crap, forget about them. They’ll disappear soon anyway.
      Now for the iOS part, here are my website’s stats (mobile optimized, tested on iOS, Android and WP devices) iOS 67% / Android 29,5% / Blackberry 1,6% / WP 1,2% / a few others below 1%.

      Don’t trust the sales market shares. Don’t trust what you read on the internet (Android hardcore fans tend to be very vocal). Look at your own website stats and decide what’s important for YOU (check the bounce rate too, you might find that you website is broken on certain platforms if users leave immediately).
      Especially if you website – like mine – is not written in english or has a local subject.

      • 3

        Exactly, Joey. Don’t always trust what you read on the internet (Apple hardcore fans tend to be very very vocal as well). So that point is moot.

        And stats for your personal website, don’t disprove Steven’s original comment of iOS is even less important Globally, than in North America.

      • 4

        ‘Myth: Mobile Is iOS’ – It is NOT about market share we are talking about (only if you sell hardware) is about your web stats as Joey says above. Check your google analytic data and you will see your traffic coming from IOS devices (iphone, ipad, ipod) 70 – 80%.

        http://techcrunch.com/2012/11/26/smartphone-only-mobile-commerce-up-221-on-thanksgiving-up-128-on-black-friday/

        By the way ‘Myth: Mobile Means Less’ silly example. You choose the content which is more relevant . you don’t deprive content from your audience.

        Look at the data! :)

  2. 5

    Interesting, this article about myth busting is still spreading a quite famous ones:

    Myth: Mobile Means Responsive Design
    Myth: Responsive Design Is The Answer To All Problems
    Myth: Web Technologies Are Good For Any Situations

    I have just the feeling that this article is about busting myths that the author doesn’t agree with.

  3. 6

    Although I agree with most of the post, I think there are some small flaws. “But iOS represents less than half of the mobile market.” This statement however true when counting smart phones, does not ring true when you take into account all the iOS devices that are in the world. When you factor all the iPod Touches, iPads and iPad Minis. Then iOS market share is much higher than Andriod. When it comes to mobile users browsing the internet you need to count total iOS users not just the iPhone users.

  4. 11

    Really good article. As I read it I saw I had been developing some of these assumptions without noticing. Thanks for the reboot!

  5. 12

    Though still prone to change (just nowhere near as frequent as technology), the psychology of the user is an important aspect of web design that can help transcend the issues (though not replace) we have with “mobile” web development. Tech may change as we march forward, but great interface design stems from not only knowing our technology, but knowing the user too.

    The problem is (and even to this day) people are teaching others old, outdated methodologies. Many people in modern web development are working hard to break these lines of thought, but at the same time, as the article here points out, these are OVERWHELMING times for web developers.

    Everyone and their grandmother wants to coin the next text, phrase, etc, and it results in little more than unnecessary bloat which confuses aspiring developers. I feel dirty saying it, but WE NEED STANDARDS. Sure, those standards will evolve, but rather than people have those mired in the past ways of developing, or have people with great intentions, but no training, try to find these things on their own, there’s just no binding standard for people to go directly to and maintain.

  6. 13

    Really excellent points – I was particularly struck by the mobile use assumptions, as I am guilty of it, and you make such a seemingly obvious point! Heck, I’m posting from my mobile now ;)

    Steven Hoiber’s point about mobile Internet is very true – I know in South Africa many people own mobiles with internet access before computers.

    It’s exciting and overwhelming times alright. I can’t wait till we have this is nailed down, and it becomes a subconscious part of the process.

  7. 14

    1) Myth: Mobile Means Less

    You pointed out that car purchases happen on Ebay mobile and diamond purchases happen on Tiffany & Co, but how do these numbers compare to traditional desktop or in-store purchases? Maybe there’s much more purchases being made on the traditional platforms. Perhaps there is a stigma that mobile purchases are less reliable or harder, so people trust the traditional ways to purchase more.

    2) Myth: Mobile Means Apps

    People think of a company through its app, not its website. It’s much faster to tap an icon to open an app than to fire up the browser and type and address, wait for it to load, and suffer the consequences of poor javascript performance. Yeah, yeah, you can create a website shortcut icon, but that’s an advanced feature that only geeks know about. Creating a website instead of an app may sound nice to developer, but what really matters is the end user’s mindset.

    • 15

      Regarding your comment on the second item (Myth: Mobile Means Apps), I tend to disagree. If I’m a user that’s already downloaded an app for the company in question, yeah, it’s much easier to scroll to the app and tap it. But if it’s a brand new company, if I wish to download the app I have to (1) go to the app store, (2) search for the company in question, (3) find the company’s app in the search results (if it even exists), (4) download the app (and possible provide credentials to do so), (4) wait for the app to download, (5) scroll to the app and tap.

      Now, compare that experience to visiting the company’s website: (1) fire up your browser, (2) in the search bar type in the name of the company you’re looking for, (3) click the link in the search results.

    • 16

      Norbert Sienkiewicz

      January 19, 2013 2:59 am

      So I should have like 30 apps to read daily blogs, news and other stuff instead of just type www address, or better – choose it from favs. Not everyone can afford soo much time & money for that. RWD website have more global approach, also for still big group of future phones. When someone just finds out for exmaple company name, rather he’ll type www address, than look for it in store & download.

  8. 17

    Great article… I needed this information from a professional to shut many others … thanks

    Thanks for sharing this

  9. 18

    Great article. It is mind boggling how far the web (to include mobile devices) have evolved over the past few years.

  10. 19

    Brilliant article and some great points that I agree with.

    What I find really interesting is how often we’re told Android has a bigger market share than iOS so if anything they should be more important. But on not one of the many websites I work on is Android traffic higher. iOS devices always provide more traffic. I’m talking 50-60% iOS and 20-30% Android.

    This then makes me question why is there such a disparity between all these market share figures and then actual usage figures. Could it possibly be that users of Android devices have different goals or mentality when it comes to using there mobile devices. Are iOS users more immersed in the smartphone experience?

    Love to know if anyone has any thoughts or ideas on this one.

    • 20

      @Shaunt
      Small anecdote: I own an Android device. Got it from free from my phone carrier – it’s a crappy HTC.
      1. It is severely underpowered for the android OS it uses – the whole thing feels sluggish
      2. it is buggy – either the cyanogenmod install I put on it or the android kernel are not quite stable enough for a device I mostly use to phone and text. The browser crashes regularly
      3. while screen real estate is bigger than any other phones I owned before, it is still not enough for a satisfying web browsing experience
      4. I’m still not comfortable with a virtual keybaord (I am by now probably as fast as typing on physical keyboard of smartphones, but dislike the experience)

      I also own a battle-worn nokia e71, sporting a real physical keyboard and Opera mobile. Never crashes. Fast enough. Layout of web pages is wonderfully resized for restrained viewport in a way that works 75% of the time.

      Guess which one device I use for web surfing?

      It’s not only mentality of users. It’s in large part the hardware that dictates the smartphone experience.

    • 21

      I’ve done a bit of searching around and found another conversation about this same topic going on over on Branch:

      http://branch.com/b/android-vs-ios-usage

      Which spans from a great article on Asymco entitled: “The Android engagement paradox”:

      http://www.asymco.com/2012/11/26/the-android-engagement-paradox/

      The conclusions and theories coming from both of these sources seems to agree with my initial idea that Android users have vastly different levels of engagement with there devices compared to iOS users.

      Just to be clear I am in no way trying to suggest we should just be designing for a single platform – the way I see platform/device doesn’t matter to me as I want my websites to look great regardless. I just find this really interesting.

      (I logged in with the wrong email – gutted)

    • 22

      I don’t think there is any disparity or different levels of engagement in people using internet on Android or iOS. We all hit refresh button on facebook with the same passion.

      It’s simpler. There are more people who buy £50 Android with no internet, than those who buy iOS for £450 and not using internet on it. I can easily name five people over 60 with Android phones who don’t know how to start the browser, for one me with 500Mb monthly allowance (and never really using it all).

  11. 23

    Norbert Sienkiewicz

    January 19, 2013 3:07 am

    Great article! Its always nice to see an article which is written by a Pole ;)

  12. 24

    Great article and great responses in the comment section. As a mobile strategist I find that the marketing piece is often overlooked.

    Creating an App won’t increase sales or traffic – you still need to market the App, something that no one seems to do properly. It comes down to the user needs .

    We had to come up with a mobile solution for a solution and were told by the dean that they had to have an app. We suggested that we should ask the students what they would want. Turns out that a mobile web solution was better than the app.

  13. 25

    Great thoughts. Experience really wider than mobile devices. We can not boundless beauty and enormous scale solutions jostle in a small box.

    • 26

      Great thoughts. Experience really wider than mobile devices. We can not boundless beauty and enormous scale solutions jostle in a small box.

  14. 27

    Tiffany’s website is not responsive. They have a desktop and mobile version. The smartphone screenshot you have provided even says m.tiffany.com…

  15. 29

    Great article. By the way, responsive web design was not adapted to Tiffany, they have a mobile site (m.).

  16. 30

    One more voice to add. I am in charge of a relatively large professional services company website and we take a look at these trends every month. Over the last month a bit less than 10% of our traffic was from “mobile”.

    iOS accounted for 7.49%
    Android: 1.19%
    BB: 0.17%
    WP: 0.03%
    Symbian: 0.01%

    Digging deeper of the iOS devices almost 60% was iPad which is not necessarily “mobile” in this discussion.

    So there you have it, I don’t know how this translates to other industries we are primarily a BtoB company but if we do invest in more refinements for mobile our target will be iOS.

  17. 31

    nice article, shows how fast technologies gets changed. kgntechnologies.com

  18. 32

    Thank you Karolina for a great reading (actually came to it through a nice translation in French on blog.lunaweb.fr)
    Looking at the latest evolution of the mobile browsers share, e.g. since Firefox came out for Android, I think it just illustrates further the author’s point: you better develop and design for the people, than for the app!

    Also Steven is right about « the percentage of people with Internet access that is solely provided by mobile can exceeds *90%* in some countries. »
    And Joe « I didn’t use my mobile to surf the web when I had a featurephone , unless I was really, really, really motivated. » Well, when the nearest computer is 20 miles away and totaly crowded, plus accessing it is way too expensive for me just like 90% of the people there, I go mobile, and that’s it.
    Regards,
    Cyrille – http://web.lliseil.fr

  19. 33

    The article is good with good info….i do agree that developers needs to be extra careful…They just cant cut the apps ….they must put themselves in customer shoes and think of what is necessary and what is not necessary..top iphone app developers know that very well but still its a very hectic job

  20. 34

    Great article and one that continues to play itself out significantly in e-commerce as in the Tiffany example. In a recent study by Kentico Software, 85% of shoppers use their mobile device to comparison shop, and 44% percent of shoppers won’t return to a site if it’s not mobile friendly.

    Like it or not, there are always multiple options for any given product or service. The products and services that are not meeting the needs of mobile users today are going to lose users and revenue in the future.

    It’s something that, at COPIOUS, we have to consider every day when we’re working with all clients, but especially those in the e-commerce space where transacting on the web is core to their brand. We’ve got a few examples worth considering here: copio.us/

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