Originally posted on The Guardian Media & Tech Network
Mobile user experience is the glue binding us to our digital selves – at SXSW Interactive, Oisin Lunny and his guests investigated its potential.
As a longtime iPhone user I can still remember my delight when my first Apple handset just worked out of the box. There was no need to refer to a manual; the user experience was magically intuitive. This was in sharp contrast to the torturous hours of setup, syncing and updating that had accompanied my previous smartphone purchases. The user experience (UX) design of the iPhone was revolutionary.
UX is something of a discreet and misunderstood art, which we tend to take for granted until it goes wrong. Today’s mobile-first lifestyles necessitate a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the needs of “Phono sapien” – as The Economist christened our smartphone generation. Mobile UX is a deep science that distills incredibly complex processes down to the simplest of end user interactions. The very best mobile UX seems invisible to the end user.
Mobile handsets are now the de facto method for the majority of individuals to live their digital lives. I observed the sheer ubiquity of mobile devices at the South By Southwest (SXSW) conferences recently in Austin, Texas. SXSW Interactive is one of the world’s largest, longest-running conferences for cutting-edge technologies and was used as the launchpad for legendary products such as Twitter and Foursquare.
Most of the delegates I spoke with had booked their accommodation using AirBnB, were arranging their travel using the Uber app and used SMS or WhatsApp to keep in touch. The underlying factor of these mobile solutions is they fulfill a specific function – simply, beautifully and reliably. The resulting user experience is precise, unobtrusive and dovetails perfectly with our busy, mobile-first lifestyles.
I hosted a session at SXSW Interactive entitled The Mobile UX Revolution, which looked at how today’s mobile device dominance creates new challenges and opportunities around how consumers interact with brands, media and each other. The panel, consisting of Eamonn Carey from MHP Communications, Gabe Karp from Siberia and Marie Glad from Royal Sister, examined whether UX design was keeping up with the sophisticated mobile consumer, or just parroting PC experiences and porting them to handsets.
PC sales are flatlining compared to skyrocketing mobile sales, so the consensus was to develop for mobile first and then port to other platforms. We also discussed the demise of the “destination” brand. Today’s consumers like to have their needs preempted by mobile messaging and alerts, with content curated by algorithms and social data, rather then flat websites to browse. There’s a stark contrast between the big-data and AI-driven outreach media model of mobile app BandsInTown to the printed music gig-listing magazines I bought in my teens. An effective and joined up approach to mobile engagement is undoubtedly key to providing a great UX for todays mobile first consumer.
Of course, good mobile UX starts with the user, but today it’s also important for major enterprises. As Gabe Karp said in our session: “I have been seeing a focus on UX being brought to enterprise applications. This is happening for software that previously focused on providing features rather than an overall experience, and it’s happening because of the prevalence of good UX across the mobile devices that employees are using every day. Employees now expect to be met with good UX and companies are listening. Responsive design is starting to show up in places where just a year ago you never would have imagined.”
Successful mobile UX is anything but boring, Eamonn Carey explained: “I’m starting to see a lot more whimsy and humour in apps and platforms. People who use Meerkat may have noticed the way they do the grabbing streams screen.
“It’s a tiny touch, but it’s an emotionally engaging one. Think about the way that Hailo have dressed up their emblem as St Patrick in the past, or how Soundwave changed their music icons to Shamrocks … and you’re starting to see little elements of personality starting to creep into design, which is badly needed. People buy into personality almost more than anything else, so any little elements that create some sort of connection between your user and your app is incredibly powerful in UX design.”
Marie Glad examined the nuts and bolts of effective UX design during the session: “Working within UX is inevitably about teamwork. The users, the client and the production team are the cornerstones of co-creating a collaborative route. Effective teamwork is vital because many teams operate over long periods of time and engage in everyday problem solving.” She advised her clients to adopt this trinity team structure for successful mobile UX development.
The panel had some insider tips for agencies and developers as well. Karp, for example, spoke about separating the service layer from the operational layer in order to simplify the processes of updating front-end solutions in future. Glad spoke about the need to adopt a device-independent approach to UX, the importance of designing for fat fingers and how the mobile UX revolution was above all an intuitive move towards a greater UX simplicity. Carey recommended a number of tools to enable startups to experiment with prototyping, such as Keynotopia and FluidUI.
Mobile UX is the elephant in the room we love to love. It’s the invisible glue holding together our digital lives – our link with the connected world. The simpler the underlying complexity appears, the more magical the effect for the user. With mobile devices being augmented by a dizzying array of wearables, nearables (interconnected smart objects), hearables (smart ear devices) and payables, it’s clear that the art of mobile UX is a science that is taking centre stage in the future of how humans relate to technology and our planet.
Oisin Lunny is senior market development manager at OpenMarket
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