Don’t Panic! UX Methods Apply to Mobile

Everywhere you look, people are talking about “mobile.”
Mobile-first design, mobile responsive design, mobile apps, mobile sites, etc.
“Mobile” is clearly a handy buzzword for all of the new devices, but…

What does “mobile” actually mean?

On the go?
A small screen?
A touch screen?

Unfortunately, the term “mobile” is used to describe many different things.

So how do we design for something so vague?
How do we know whether or not we should even try?

Rather than jump on a particular “mobile design” bandwagon, it’s more important than ever for us to cast aside the generic cure-all solutions, and instead embrace each product as its own unique design problem. This is precisely what User Experience (UX) professionals do best, and there are many proven UX methods that are ready to help us navigate these new, nuanced problems.

Let’s take it one principle at a time…

1. We aren’t our users, so we need to research.

We could listen to our gut, throw darts at a wall, or just start with the problems that we’d most like to solve, but I recommend UX research. UX research aligns teams, removes fear, and improves chances of success.

Talk to your target audience (either in person or using free surveys). Ask them what they do now. Ask them why. Listen. Ask follow-up questions. Give them something to use. Watch them use it. Review analytics. Take lots of notes. Review your notes. Ignore one-off requests. Focus on underlying patterns.

UX research has always been about studying user contexts and mental models. These design considerations must now include screen sizes, input methods, physical contexts, attention levels, and more. With a little bit of research, you might find that you only need to design for a couple mobile devices––or none at all.

(Bonus: Download this free tracking toolGrab a free research tracking tool

2. We have limited resources, so we need to prioritize.

If you haven’t yet faced the cold hard truth, let’s face it now together: we cannot design for every user in every situation. Time and resources are limited. We can’t solve for every device in every context. We need to choose our battles. Make a list of the most likely use cases. Rank them by scope and impact. Separate the must-haves from the nice-to-haves. Decide if enough users are even trying to use your product on a new device.

By throwing out less common use cases, we open up opportunities to better serve our primary ones. If we have to design an app for a smartphone, this fact is amplified; there’s only so much room on the screen, space on the hard drive, power in the battery, etc.

3. We can’t predict everything, so we need to design for flexibility.

Even when we’ve done our research, there is still a lot we don’t know. People and technology will always surprise us with new contexts. There are thousands of potential ways in which a given product might need to work. Try (within reason) to design products so they still work with unexpected constraints. It doesn’t matter if the 320px window is on a desktop, a smartphone, or some new, unforeseen device; it would be nice if it didn’t break.

The Result?

If we follow tried-and-true UX methods, we should end up with a rather obvious product design strategy for all relevant devices. Whether it’s building an iPhone app with 3 features or a responsive website with 900 pages, the decision should be clear. It’s impossible for a product to work on every device, in every context, but it should work for the vast majority of users.

Here at AddThis, we serve millions of websites. So, we don’t get off too light. Our tools have to work for billions of users all over the world. But, if you find that all of your users still prefer a 1070px monitor, keyboard, and mouse, your job will be a bit easier.

But you might want check again in a few months. ;)