Open for business

XIII.4 July + August 2006
Page: 14
Digital Citation

Driving devices

Brian Frank

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Developing interfaces for mobile devices has become big business as companies have begun to realize that the number of mobile devices in the world easily eclipses the units of traditional desktop computers. In the mobile-phone space, in particular, you can pick up books written by the likes of the Nokia User Experience team (Mobile Usability: How Nokia Changed the Face of the Mobile Phone). However, with the landscape of mobile user experiences changing so quickly and the technology advancing at such a rapid pace, no single reference can encompass all the relevant information for designing mobile UIs.

In come the "experts" to help your company understand the complexities of designing for the different screen sizes, interaction methods, and contextual experiences required for great products. The new breed of designer can be weaned off the comfort and ease of designing for a fairly consistent desktop platform, but many challenges face them as they try to become familiar with the problems of designing for the "gadget" world.

back to top  Meet an Expert

On the third floor of Adobe Systems Inc.'s San Francisco offices, protected by the old-world brick façade and inspired by the modern interior design of one of the city's architectural landmarks, sits the Experience Design (XD) team of Adobe Systems Inc. (formerly Macromedia). The team, consisting of top-notch designers and developers, applies their skills to forward-thinking problems and challenges that aid in the development of Adobe's business of bringing engaging experiences to users worldwide. As of late, mobile and consumer electronics has become one of the hottest fields in technology, and Adobe has adapted its business to encompass a wide range of products and services targeting this growing market.

This is where our protagonist appears. Josh Ulm, a former Web marketing designer and creator of interactive educational pieces, began the transition to mobile designer two years ago. As part of the XD team, he has developed a new class of "experiences" for the small screens of cell phones, personal media players, and other mobile devices. What follows is the product of a conversation with Josh on the factors facing the designers and product teams trying to a) learn the challenges related to mobile design, b) understand the relationship of environment to mobile user experiences, and c) contribute to a successful business leveraging these skills.

back to top  Notice Differences and Design for Entertainment

Brian Frank: What is the first thing that someone new to the mobile industry should realize about the products?

Josh Ulm: Mobile devices have limited capabilities in comparison to desktops, and the designer must get creative with how to enable user interaction with the device. There's also a different relationship of the user to the device, with the mobile device experience being more "personal." Finally, the state of mind is very different when a user is working with a mobile device, and specifically a mobile phone, because they are generally focused on short-term tasks that can be performed quickly.

BF: How would you characterize the tasks a user is dealing with on mobile devices and mobile phones specifically?

JU: Designing for mobile phones is about designing around two primary tasks: communication and entertainment. The main function of the device is to enable communication, but there's always a game-like, pleasurable aspect that should be designed in as well. For example, Instant Messaging on mobile devices has become a game-like experience where you can have multiple participants in real-time communication.

back to top  Understand Interaction Issues & Build for the Environment

BF: What specifically do you find limiting about the mobile environment? How did you learn about the differences?

JU: You always have to experience the differences firsthand, so get in and try working with many devices to understand the differences and complexities that each new system introduces.

One of the key limitations of mobile phones is the input devices, and primary keypads used on the vast number of products. Even if the phone has a keyboard, it's very different than on the desktop. Some of the more advanced interaction methods, like voice activation, are still very limiting at this stage as well. The key is to use these technologies appropriately to get the "right amount" of interaction required for the user to complete their tasks efficiently.

The visual display also presents a challenge. The screens are limited in the amount of information you can display at any given time, so it's best to limit designs to having three to five primary pieces for interaction with the user. Designers must also look to secondary interaction methods to present additional data or transition to new screens for more information. It's also important to update content often to keep the available information "fresh" for the user and align information with the last, most recent element at the top or prominently featured.

BF: How has this learning changed the way you design experiences for mobile devices?

JU: For mobile, it's not about designing for the capabilities anymore, but more about designing for the environment, or what I call "situation design." Also, time is an important interaction factor, and "NOW!" is a pretty critical function to design around.

BF: That's an intriguing statement. So can you elaborate more on what you mean by "designing for the environment" and "situation design?"

JU: This is where the question "where am I using the device?" becomes a primary issue a designer must think about when creating the desired user experience. It also touches upon the length of time the user will focus on interacting with the device in different circumstances. For many mobile devices, they're always with the user and they're using them in short bursts, so the interfaces must be glance-able and the interactions must be quick and efficient for the majority of situations they will be in.

back to top  Succeeding in the Diverse Mobile Market

BF: For other people or companies looking to make the transition from the desktop world to the mobile world, what design direction would you give?

JU: Don't look at the desktop and try to make a smaller version of that experience for the device world. Look at the environment in which your product will be used and try to adapt a design for that context.

Also, decisions can happen at any time in the mobile world, so make sure the user is able to act on them quickly and easily.

As mentioned before, the diversity of the devices themselves presents a challenge, so understanding the differences and taking them into account in the design [i.e., screen size] can improve designs dramatically as well.

Finally, don't go into the mobile business! I'm kidding, but it is incredibly challenging and the products change so rapidly it's hard to keep up. To succeed, you must be a dynamic and adaptable company.

back to top  Conclusion

While the conversation continued, my mind wandered to all the challenges we face in the ever expanding world of devices and gadgets that will constantly be calculating, updating, and informing you of things going on in your world. We're beset on all sides by things that want our attention, and it becomes more important as product creators to make solutions that can subtly influence and improve our immediate work and entertainment experiences in a variety of settings and under different conditions.

Sometimes we must respond to the products, but many times, the products should be very responsive to us and to our needs. To build a successful business around mobile devices means understanding the unique factors that go into the context of the user experience for mobile and applying the best design techniques as outlined above to reach a desired goal for the consuming populous.

For more information ...

Read more from the Adobe XD Team:

Check out the Nokia S60
User Experience team's blog:

back to top  Author

Brian Frank
Adobe Systems, Inc.


A senior product manager for Adobe Systems Inc., Brian Frank can be found living and working in San Francisco on the next generation of mobile technology. Brian's past work experiences include stints at small startups, growing industry leaders, and large Fortune 500 companies where he drove the design and development of many successful software products, such as Microsoft Excel and Palm OS. Brian graduated from Cornell University with degrees in computer science and science & technology studies, focusing on human-computer interaction.

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©2006 ACM  1072-5220/06/0700  $5.00

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