So you just missed the last plane home because you’re stuck in traffic in an unfamiliar city. It’s late. You’re tired, cranky. You need a hotel—fast. Fortunately, among your smartphone apps is Hotel Tonight, which claims to provide easy mobile booking of same-day unsold hotel inventory. With one eye and one thumb on your phone screen, you launch the app and secure a last-minute deal. Time elapsed: seconds. Effort required: no more than a few taps.
Welcome to the world of “mobile-first” design, in which apps are primarily and uniquely tailored to the mobile medium, versus being shrunken-down versions of Web apps. It’s not exactly a new trend, but with more businesses realizing that success or failure in the modern economy may be tied to their mobile engagement strategy, it’s gathering momentum fast. Some industry experts say 2013 could be the year it takes off.
“We’re finally at the stage of companies designing software uniquely for modern mobile devices,” says Luke Wroblewski, CEO of a San Francisco-based Internet startup called Input Factory and author of the book Mobile First. “They’re using the mobile medium to challenge ingrained mindsets and assumptions about how their products, business and software have to work.”
A Different Animal
Until recently, most mobile apps have been like that StairMaster or Bowflex machine in the garage—everybody has one, but few are using it to its full potential. That’s because most companies have responded to the rise of the mobile Internet by trotting out a dumbed-down, small-screen version of their website and porting it to the mobile space with little regard for the medium’s peculiar constraints and opportunities, Wroblewski says.
“The companies that have been successful in designing for mobile are the ones that have really thought about it differently,” he says.
Take Hotel Tonight. Unlike its competitors in the hotel space, the three-year-old company was built entirely around the mobile use case. With its streamlined checkout flow, and bare bones user interface and user experience, it is hyper-focused on one objective. By contrast, incumbents such as hotels.com, expedia.com and priceline.com offer a slew of features and functions that tired travelers who just want a room now don’t care about, Wroblewski says.
Other companies that are heeding the mobile-first clarion call include such giants as Google, Facebook and Intuit. GoDaddy now offers businesses mobile commerce services and tools for building mobile websites. Last year, eBay saw its revenue shoot up 15 percent largely as a result of its willingness to embrace mobile platforms, with downloads of its suite of mobile apps surpassing 100 million globally, according to a press release.
One Eyeball, One Thumb
When it comes to designing for mobile, Wroblewski says companies need to drastically shift gears. While desktop users are usually seated in a comfortable position with a mouse, precise use of a cursor, a full keyboard, full power and a good network connection, mobile users are often in real-world situations that require short bits of partial concentration and one-handed use.
With this in mind, Wroblewski says, the mobile interface needs to accommodate and optimize one-thumb/one-eyeball experiences. (Click here to see how his company tested for this in designing an iPhone app.) Designers can use visual cues and other techniques to manage what he calls “perceived performance”—where an application’s interface seemingly responds instantly to users’ actions.
Designers also need to take into account the ergonomics of fingers and thumbs—for example, by having larger controls and “touch targets” than are found on pointer-based devices. They also need to consider how people actually hold and interact with palm-sized devices. And designers need to be able to expose otherwise hidden gestures, like taps and swipes, so that they can bring in relevant controls to the user when needed—versus relying on an excessive amount of training, Wroblewski says.
Moment of Need vs. Everywhere and Anywhere
Technology research company Forrester defines mobile engagement as “helping people take the next most likely action in their moments of need.” For example, the American Airlines smartphone app changes its interface as you move through an airport based on your context—lighting up action buttons like “check in” and “boarding pass” based on what time it is and what your next flight is.
But Wroblewski says Forrester’s definition overlooks how people really use their smartphones. According to a Google survey, one-third of smartphone owners use their phones while watching TV (the so-called “second-screen” experience) and nearly 40 percent admit to using their phones in the bathroom.
“Is that really a moment of need, or are they just idly browsing about?” Wroblewski asks.
“When I think of mobility, I think of designing for anywhere and everywhere use cases. Your canvas of possibilities is actually much wider than desktop and tablet.”
Mobile and the Internet of Everything
Wroblewski predicts that mobile will become even more important in the next few years, fueled partly by a rising tide of users for whom mobile devices are the only access to the Internet—aka “mobile-only” users.
Also, as the Internet of Everything gathers steam, he says companies will increasingly have to think about their customer in a multi-device ecosystem. In that world, he says, mobile will likely still be front and center, but interoperability will be key and cross-device use cases—where content, people and services flow seamlessly between smartphones, tablets, connected TVs and more—will be the norm.
“It’s sort of cool to start playing in that space now before everything gets overly mature,” Wroblewski says. “But you can already see it coming. The writing’s on the wall.”
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