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The Challenge of Designing for the Small Screen - And Why it’s Worth it

Mobile devices are all around us. With many countries now reporting over 100% handset penetration by population, mobile phones are now nothing if not ubiquitous. Following in their footsteps are tablet devices, which driven by the success of Apple’s iPad and Amazon’s Kindle are becoming a more and more common sight.

The Challenge of Designing for the Small Screen - And Why it’s Worth it

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's mobile website

Mobile devices are all around us. With many countries now reporting over 100% handset penetration by population, mobile phones are now nothing if not ubiquitous. Following in their footsteps are tablet devices, which driven by the success of Apple’s iPad and Amazon’s Kindle are becoming a more and more common sight.

Beyond new hardware, users are being offered a wider selection of competing operating systems and user interfaces. The release of iOS5 and “Mango” for Windows Phone 7 are two high-profile examples of the battle being fought to be the one device we carry with us. The integration of software, applications, and personalized content is part of an evolution in the small screen experience. Large organisations such as Amazon are even testing tablet-optimised redesigns of their websites. The screenshot below is an example of what all visitors to the retailer’s site might see, whether via phone, tablet or PC.

Let’s not beat around the bush: designing for the small screen is complex. There are a multitude of factors to consider, many of which sit on the shifting sands of technology trends and consumer tastes. This article doesn’t try to posit the definitive “answer” to making a great mobile experience. Rather, it explores some of the main challenges that developers face, and hopes to demonstrate why it’s worth taking them on.

Let’s start with the challenges:

  • There’s a multitude of devices, operating systems and input mechanisms out there. It’s easy to focus solely on Apple devices, but that misses a much deeper landscape of handsets. We also have to consider the interaction of the device: is it touch or tap or maybe both?
  • There is an equally wide spectrum of user confidence and knowledge. If we consider a UI to be like an iceberg, we may imagine that most of what we design is rarely encountered let alone understood
  • How should you test your concept and how will the results be fed back into your development process?
  • Although it feels like a truism, designing for a mobile device means working with limited screen real estate. Not only that, but the space you do have varies dramatically from device to device
  • How do you implement your design? Do you prioritise one platform over another, or try to create multiple versions to appease everyone? Is an app the right decision for your users or would they prefer a mobile-optimised experience? What if it’s both?
  • Can your design be retrofitted to legacy systems and structures? How do you balance the expected benefit against the cost and complexity of implementation?

It’s not all bad news though! Tackling these challenges is a worthy endeavor that can benefit both you and your users. Here’s why you should bother:

  • No one is pronouncing the death of home computers and laptops just yet. However, the post-pc world of mobile phones and tablets should not be ignored. Interactive digital media design needs to keep pace with how and where users want to engage with services
  • Careful planning in the early stages of a project can really bear fruit when it comes to implementation. Not only can this save you time (and therefore money); but it can also provide valuable insight and lessons for the future
  • Embracing the restrictions of working with a small space can be beneficial. It can actually strengthen the end result, acting as a “usability filter” to help you prioritise simplicity and user satisfaction
  • Through our work with the Metropolitan Museum of Art we have first-hand experience of the complexity of designing for mobiles. The knowledge we have gained has been invaluable. It has informed how we design, test and develop for mobile devices; improving outcomes for our clients and their users. It may be exacting but if approached correctly you can create something special, and isn’t that a challenge worth accepting?

 

Source: Cogapp

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