Designing for Uncertainty in a Mobile World

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by Jamie Myrold, Vice President of Design at Adobe

Designing for mobile is a shifting target. When the only mobile devices were smartphones and tablets, the idea of a mobile strategy made sense. Then the Apple Watch and the iPad Pro were released, and the definition of mobile design began to crack at the seams. No single design strategy can be applied to devices as small as a watch or as large as a laptop, or to apps that are as likely to run on a desktop as they are on a smartphone.

Closeup of designers creating mobile app prototype

As my team works on fitting mobile into end-to-end workflows, we’ve grown away from categorizing design as “a thing that runs on a desktop” or “a thing that runs on a phone.” The surface doesn’t matter to users—the experience does.

Expectation and Desire Converge

Many mobile design projects start with the question, “What do users want?” but a better question is, “How might users push the limits of their devices?” When the first handheld PCs were released, no one thought people would read War and Peace on a 4” screen, but they did. Today, we don’t assume people will draft their novels on Apple Watches, but those devices have dictation capability so maybe the next Great American Novel will begin its life on somebody’s wrist. Why wouldn’t it? Users leverage every tool they get their hands on in unexpected ways.

But as designers, we have to work with what we know now. We know users have different expectations for different devices. On a wearable device like the Apple Watch, people expect to get little chunks of information, like notifications, and perform some essential functions, like making payments. They don’t expect a keyboard. On a hybrid device like the iPad Pro, they want to do everything they can do on a phone and a desktop. To give them less would create a frustrating experience that would feel incomplete. Users understand intuitively that not every device can support the same features, but they want as many features available to them as a device will support.

Our challenge isn’t to squeeze an existing experience onto a smaller screen; it’s to create an experience that is delightful, usable, and consistent across every device.

Fear, Uncertainty, and Design

As hardware becomes more sophisticated, so do users. And as users become more sophisticated, they’re more eager to grab up state-of-the-art devices. Likewise, as experiences across the device spectrum become better, users expect their experience on a new device to be great right out of the gate.

UX used to be predicated on the 80/20 rule—focus on the needs of 80 percent of the user base and don’t worry too much about the other twenty. That line has blurred because the early adopters in the twenty percent tend to be the most vocal about their expectations… and their disappointments. The voice of the minority can no longer go unattended by companies that don’t want their momentum halted by a social media uprising.

More pressure comes from the ever-accelerating pace at which devices and operating systems are being released. Designers are always trying to catch up, while still serving the needs of users working with devices on the low end of the innovation spectrum. There’s a tension between knowing when to push an experience and when to wait. Designers naturally want to address all shortcomings and opportunities immediately, but there has to be a balance that aligns with a broader strategy. User feedback has to be evaluated for criticality and decisions made based on incomplete knowledge. Sometimes, decisions will be wrong. That’s not failure. It’s iteration.

Designers need to be confident in their skills and willing to move forward with incomplete information. When a designer can work with ambiguity, the design process becomes a learning experience driven by the users.

The Experience is the Strategy

Focusing on what a user is doing rather than the device they are using creates efficiencies for businesses; it is not only possible, it is desirable to use a single design team for an app instead of devoting one set of designers to the desktop design and one to the mobile. One team can also deliver consistency across screens, which is important as users become accustomed to starting a document on one device and working on it through another as they move about their day. The whole idea of mobile design is becoming outdated. All apps are mobile now.

When people on the product side ask me to define our mobile strategy, I try to change that conversation to a discussion of our mobile experience. Users don’t care about strategy. They care about whether the experience they have with the software fulfills their goals and desires. When design ties together the features and functions that users want, the experience is the business strategy.

Jamie Myrold is VP of Design at Adobe. Myrold has led large-scale design efforts at Adobe for more than 11 years, touching nearly every product in market today in some capacity. Most recently, she led the redesign of Adobe Acrobat and created the all-new Adobe Document Cloud.


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