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Designing Social Interfaces for Mobile

by Billie Mandel

People often ask me how I can stand designing for mobile - how can you do anything on those tiny screens? When you add in all the weird industry rules - hardware constraints and differences, carrier requirements - it sure can seem daunting. I tend to think of these less as annoying constraints and more as just skeleton or structure. Mobile design to me is like writing sonnets - or better, haiku - as compared to writing free poetry. The structured nature of the mobile environment can lead designers directly to what I think is the number one guiding principle of design decision-making for this medium - thinking critically about which end-user tasks to optimize/which features to include in our mobile applications or web sites.

My “Do’s and Don’ts” for designers getting into mobile (or those who already live here):

Do

  • Use the 10-minute rule. Or maybe 5 minutes. Mobile users are, well, mobile - they’re going to use your application while standing in line at the Chinese takeout/standing at the bus stop/sitting on the couch waiting for the commercial to be over. Make sure that whatever your mobile app or site’s raison d’être is, it breaks down easily into short bursts of activity. Even better if those bursts of activity are super-entertaining or super-useful.
  • Some focused research. Figure out what your user is really going to use your app for in those 5-10 minutes - and make sure your designs do that well.
  • Make sure it works out of the box with very little setup. Sure, your engineering and design geek buddies might have fun tinkering with the guts of the settings on their phones, but this is the global consumer mobile market we’re talking about. (Oops, here comes a don’t in my do’s!) You don’t have to dumb it down, but don’t rely on settings or setup flow wizardry, either.
  • Get familiar with the mobile ecosystem. Take a field trip to a local shop or three and play with the display models. Develop a habit of watching people texting and playing mobile games on the train, reading their email in the elevator. Immersion can quickly make you a local in Mobile-landia, rather than a tourist.

Don’t…

  • …think that shrinking a desktop app down to mobile size is going to work - especially on a touchscreen. Most mobile designs that fail, do so because the designer (or engineer) who built them assumed that a mobile phone was just a very small computer. Ever tried to click that little “X” to close a window in Windows Mobile without a stylus?
  • …pare down the feature set too much. If you’re converting a successful desktop app to mobile, it’s not only important to determine which features to take out, but also to figure out what are the key features to leave in for the mobile context. I mean, mobile Gmail without search? Even if it’s technically hard to do the right thing in mobile-landia, I say work with the engineers to figure out what it takes.
  • …do stuff because it’s always been done that way. Just because every mobile phone you’ve ever seen has an application launcher full of icons/options menu/ton of pop-up confirmation windows, doesn’t mean you have to design that way. Sure, if you’re designing “on-deck” applications to be shipped with the phone (rather than sexy app-store downloadables), you might have to worry about carrier requirements. But if cutting-edge mobile designers weren’t challenging those requirements, all of our phone UIs (rather than just some of them) would still look like it’s 1999.

Speaking of mobile carriers, being a successful designer in the mobile space also requires an understanding of the industry and its business models - maybe even more so than design work in other media. Not saying that business acumen doesn’t always help a designer, but in mobile-landia you need to be thinking about the business aspects of the designs-- especially when it comes to social networking apps. For instance, if you’re building a new social network (“people interested in X can download this app and connect with others who have it”), you’ll have to think about how your users will find each other. You can’t have a community of two - and you can’t rely solely on viral marketing. If you’re designing an “on-deck” application that the nice sales people at your company will be pitching to carriers, you have to think not only about how great your design will be for the actual people who end up using the phone, but just as much about how that improved experience will make money/increase sales or subscribership for your customer.

Designing social interfaces for mobile is its own unique opportunity. Contextually speaking, mobile phones are by definition social networking devices. Breaking out of the classic phone/phone book mental model and transforming that experience to include 21st century-style social networking, though - that’s where the fun challenge is for designers. Asking ourselves some mobile-specific questions can lead us as a community to create some exciting, disruptive social interfaces for mobile. I’ll leave you with a few to think about:

  • What can I do with all of my friends’ contact information, a GPS and a relatively high-powered computing device in my pocket, that I couldn’t do before?
  • What social experiences are enabled by the power of a global population with increasingly ubiquitous connectivity?
  • What does the intimacy my user has with his/her phone mean for how s/he experiences mobile social networking? (Think about the difference between the majority of the people I follow on Twitter, as opposed to the ones whose updates I set to vibrate in my pocket)
  • How can I work with this intimacy to further shape my users’ experience?