New mobile form factors, new mobile user experience

Marek Pawlowski, founder of the MEX conferenceThis article by Marek Pawlowski, founder of MEX, is part of an ongoing series exploring each of the 15 MEX Manifesto statements at the heart of the 7th international MEX User Experience Conference in London on 19th / 20th May 2010.

MEX Manifesto statement No. 5: “We believe the increasingly diverse range of wireless form factors leads to increasingly diverse behavioural patterns and usage environments, where the established rules of mobile user experience must be rethought.”

New form factors with embedded wireless connectivity are prompting a re-evaluation of the traditional wisdom that mobile user experiences take place during short bursts, in motion and under the duress of time pressure.

If you listened to the typical usage scenario cited by most mobile industry executives, you could be forgiven for imagining the human race spends its entire time jumping on and off trains while trying to email presentations from their phones. These situations do of course exist, but they do not properly reflect the increasingly broad range of customer behaviour as wireless devices transition from being single purpose communication handsets to multi-puropose consumption tools.

This lack of understanding is perhaps best summed up by the phrase ‘mobile is different from a PC’, something which has been a constant refrain at every conference I’ve attended during my 15 years in the industry, so much so it has become cliche and is increasingly irrelevant.

One of the Manifesto areas we’ll be exploring at next week’s MEX Conference is how mobile user behaviour differs with devices such as tablets, e-books and among certain types of smartphone user. The usage patterns are very different from the traditional scenario of a busy person wanting to access information on the move.

There are users who are spending substantial amounts of time with their mobile devices in bed, on the sofa and even in the toilet. These environments, and the way in which devices are used within them, will impact the way all companies in the ‘mobile’ industry – from operators and handset manufacturers to OS providers and content developers – need to think about design.

It also raises an issue of semantics. What do we actually mean by ‘mobile’ user experience? Is a wireless device which never leaves the confines of the lounge or bedroom really a ‘mobile’ user experience? What about a car dashboard? The device itself is fixed, but the car to which it is attached is not.

Perhaps ‘untethered’ would be a more accurate term to describe these scenarios?

This is an issue of growing importance for two reasons: firstly, companies which provide content and services are realising the most engaging experiences are those which span multiple platforms, allowing customers to interact with a product or brand through several channels, such as phones, TVs and PCs. From the customer perspective, the mobile phone may be just one part of an overall branded service experience.

Secondly, there is significant convergence occurring with operating systems, with the same underlying software platforms powering numerous different devices classes.

Apple are already doing this, using OS X as the core software for their iMacs, MacBooks, iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches. Google’s Android is also being using in this way, finding a home in TVs, netbooks, tablets and phones. It appears HP will pursue a similar strategy with Palm’s WebOS too.

All of these companies are very keen to ensure the maximum number of applications are available on all their platforms as quickly as possible, leading to a situation where the app you optimised for a busy, on-the-move commuter may be made promoted on devices designed for immersive, sofa-based browsing. Will your user experience still be appropriate in this context?

There are a number of strategies which can be adopted to make the best of this increasingly diverse range of user scenarios.

One option would be to bring greater contextual awareness to services, allowing them adapt depending on the observed conditions. The growing number of sensors on mobile devices could help with this: gyroscopes can tell us how mobile the user really is, light sensors can give us a clue as to whether they are inside or outside and orientation might help us understand whether the device is being used in one or two hands.

This approach could perhaps be bested summed up as: ‘We think we know what you want and we’ll adapt to provide it.’

However, while the theory of this strategy is attractive, there remain significant issues over how you interpret contextual data and what happens when your software isn’t smart enough to make the right guess about what the user is doing or where they are. One of the biggest failings of these kind of contextual awareness approaches is the inherent arrogance of the designers, who presume they can anticipate every nuance of the user’s needs and adapt accordingly.

It is simply impossible to guess correctly every time, so it is important to ensure that no matter how intelligent you think your software is, you always give the user simple ways to correct the system’s mistakes and make his or her true wishes apparent.

An alternative, and perhaps more sustainable method, is to adopt a strategy of designing for connections. Instead of focusing solely on the experience which happens within the boundaries of your own product or service, you build your information architecture, interaction flow and interface to be ‘neighbourly’. In doing so, you recognise that much of the overall experience will be determined not by how good your own design is, but how well it connects with the other devices, services and contexts in the user’s life.

We can summarise this approach as: ‘We know a little about what you want and we’ll design to allow you to extend, adapt and subvert the product for your own needs’.

It is an approach which recognises the challenges of continuous partial attention, where several devices are being used simultaneously, each demanding a different percentage of the user’s cognitive capacity. It also recognises the growing variety of form factors and environments in which a ‘mobile’ application might be consumed.

Some follow-up points for discussion (I’d love to hear from you by email, Twitter or by posting a comment on the blog):

  1. Is there a core set of interface principles which can be adopted to ensure good usability in the majority of new usage scenarios?
  2. Will tablet devices blur the boundaries between in motion communication experiences and stationary consumption experiences?

This article by Marek Pawlowski, founder of MEX, is part of an ongoing series exploring each of the 15 MEX Manifesto statements at the heart of the 7th international MEX User Experience Conference in London on 19th / 20th May 2010. Further information and conference registrations are available for GBP 1499 on the MEX web-site at

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    I have been observing UX/UI advocates paying too much thought on differentiating the conventional web browsing experience and browsing via mobile devices. I personally believe instead of spending all these time to do so, maybe we can concentrate on “why” users need to get to your page. It really doesn’t matter if they are at home or on the road. If the information they need must be obtained quickly, the UX would be very different from the info they need to sit down and read. Why should we get caught up by (at least in usability stand point) the piece of hardware when we should pay more attention on the motive of usage?

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