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The Whole of UX Design: Greater than the Sum of Its Parts

Not so long ago, one of the biggest challenges for web application designers was creating intuitive, consistent experiences across multiple browsers. Once smartphones became ubiquitous, the focus shifted to touch-friendly controls and responsive layouts in order to provide similar experiences on PCs and smartphones. Today, however, with the mobile device market exploding to include tablets, phablets, glasses, and smartwatches, the competition to produce software offering innovative, multi-device experiences has reached a fever pitch, and the challenge has become far more vexing.

Today’s UI/UX designers must look at multi-device design holistically—considering not only screen sizes, touch zones, and consistency between devices, but also the who/what/where/when/why/how of device usage. As designers, developers, and product owners we must commit to broadening our focus on user experience. Ignoring the full picture of how users interact with their devices is analogous to deciding at the beginning of a test that you won’t answer the last five questions – producing an A+ isn’t even a possibility.

As Google’s Senior User Experience Designer, Michal Levin, points out in her bookDesigning Multi-Device Experiences, 86% of consumers use their smartphones while using other devices. Because smartphone use is often rushed and subject to interruption, users are likely to perform shorter tasks or stop in the middle of their tasks and try to resume them later. A good phone-oriented design will give priority to tasks that users are most likely to perform on phones, and offer ways to save those tasks for completion in the future, on that device or another.

I was fortunate to attend Nielsen Norman Group’s Usability Week in San Francisco this past June, and during the “Scaling User Interfaces” session, presenter Raluca Budiu mentioned that users often admit during usability testing that they would never perform certain tasks on certain devices. I thought it was a powerful statement. Given the number of factors that differentiate devices—from screen size to portability to privacy (we know that tablets and desktops are often shared among family members while phones are used privately)—it behooves us to survey our users and analyze data around which tasks are likely to be performed on various devices.

Doing so enables designers and developers to apply energies otherwise spent forcing round pegs into square holes, towards optimizing the experience on each particular device, providing users not only what they desired, but delivering it in a way that is better than they could have imagined. Not only does simple responsiveness fall short in facilitating the device specific goals of the user, it also fails to address other areas of the cross-platform experience. Serving up all your desktop content to phones negatively impacts load time, even though users are unable to see all the loaded content within the given screen real estate.

Additionally, as Aurora Bedford discussed in Nielsen Norman Group’s “Visual Design for Mobile and Tablet” session, the ideal placement of frequently used controls varies between devices and even between operating systems. For example, since our thumbs are typically near the bottom of iPhones when we’re holding them, it is recommended that commonly used controls be placed at the bottom of iOS mobile applications. However, to avoid accidental taps of the device buttons on Android, it is recommended that frequently used buttons be placed at the top of the screen.

To further complicate matters, the main theme in Levin’s Designing Multi-Device

Experiences is device interoperability; i.e., we must consider how users’ devices interact with one another. She points out that our mental models as designers are often stuck in the “consistent across devices” mode. While consistency across devices is integral to improving usability, increasing usage, supporting brand identity, and boosting the perception of a professional application, it is only a fraction of the whole picture. It’s equally imperative that device designs are also continuous—that users can abandon halfway completed workflows on their phones and pick them up again later on their desktops or tablets.

The game changer, she asserts, is the creation of designs that are complementarythat enable devices to interact and work together to heighten the user experience. She used the example of the Scrabble app, where players sit around a tablet which serves as the game board, while the individual users’ phones contain their letter tiles. So how do application designers tackle the daunting challenge of creating consistent, fast, user-friendly, innovative, continuous, complementary experiences across all devices?

There is no silver bullet. We can, however, make huge advances by analyzing the device specific

data we have today, which leads to informed decisions on which features to highlight on various devices. We can survey our users on their device-oriented habits and behaviors. We can use progressive disclosure to reduce load time and cognitive overload on small devices, while still offering the content available on larger devices. We can perform usability tests at the wireframing and prototyping stages.

Perhaps most importantly, we can open our minds to the big picture of device usage and realize it’s so much more than it was ten, five or even two years ago. If we’re able use research and education to anticipate the needs of our users a few years into the future, we have a fighting chance in the race to develop innovative technology…that’s also delightful to use.

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