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Functionality and Mobile Design – Don’t Shrink the Screen, Focus on the Tasks

| 9 min read

Mobile design and design for other devices such as laptops and desktops do not mean producing the same product, just smaller. It means focusing on what matters to the mobile user and delivering a differentiated user experience. To do this successfully, you need to focus on tasks and how they are executed.

Design for mobile is no longer optional. With the smartphone and, to a lesser extent, the tablet becoming the devices of choice for billions to access the Internet, designers have to cater to those users or risk being locked out of the market for good.

That means putting mobile first in many product development strategies. It means understanding that mobile is different and not a desktop experience. For example, screen real estate is more limited on a smartphone, connectivity may not be guaranteed, battery life is precious, and many more considerations.

Then there are the benefits of these devices to consider; they are more personal than a desktop, they’re always on (when battery permits), and you can talk directly to the user through them. They have motion sensors, GPS, accelerometers, and more too.

So how do we approach design for mobile? Let’s take a look:

Focus on Mobile

The limitations of screen real estate mean that less is more. You need to keep features to a minimum. You have to focus on the key tasks the user wants to carry out, and you will have to drop stuff from other platforms to make mobile work.

Create Value

Everyone (and their donkey) is releasing a mobile app today. If you can’t clearly distinguish your app and the features it provides from everyone else’s – yours will get lost in the black hole of the app stores.

Author/Copyright holder: Markvonrosing . Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

Personal Functionality

If mobile devices are personal, then the functions they deliver should be personal too. Make them fun, make them customizable and make them integral to your users’ lives. Getting tasks done doesn’t need to be a chore.

Consider the Context of Use

When will your user access your functionality? When they’re bored? When they’re busy? When they’re lost? Make the functionality fit the situation, and you’re on the road to relevance to your users.

Functions that Fit the Device

The functions you offer need to follow patterns that deliver the experience on every device in a consistent way:

  • Keep the user in the picture. It may take time for data to process but you need to let the user know when you’ve received their data and how long they will wait, and you need to do that immediately.

  • Pay attention to the detail. Apps need to deliver seamless experiences where users can carry out tasks efficiently. They also need to look and feel good to use.

  • Watch the interface. Users are all thumbs, literally, on smartphones. Can your tasks be easily completed with someone’s thumbs? No? Then rethink them.

  • Keep things intuitive. This is back to the thumbs issue, really – keep buttons, tabs, boxes, etc. to a minimum and keep content easy to access and navigate.

  • Keep controls consistent and at the bottom. This lets the user focus on the content and manipulate it as they need to.

  • Reduce user input where necessary. Pay attention to whether auto-correct is a help or hindrance on the device for your tasks. Make sure that you help the user pick the right keyboard to get the job done. Don’t forget to support a landscape orientation – particularly if you want a lot of typing done. Think about providing an orientation lock to make this easy.

Author/Copyright holder: Canonical Ltd. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

Think about Navigation

A lot depends on the complexity of your task, but navigation on mobile can fall into these categories:

  • None at all. If you’re releasing a weather app for your neighborhood – a single screen could (and should) deliver all of the tasks for the user.

  • Simple tabs. When you need to break consistent content up into several areas. (Think Twitter)

  • Drill down menus. When you need to deliver higher levels of complexity. Group content and make it easy to move through the hierarchy. (Think your settings menu on your smartphone.)

Get into Gestures

If you’re going to enable gesture control (and that’s down to how your users like to complete their tasks), you need to consider:

  • Discoverability. How will the user know they can use gestures to complete their tasks?

  • Two-handed gestures. They can be useful but they can also be a hindrance. If you’ve got a coffee in one hand, how will the user complete their task with only single-handed controls?

Author/Copyright holder: Intel Free Press. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

Keep Communicating

It’s important to keep the user informed as they go about their tasks. You need to:

  • Have a method to deliver feedback. From the tactile (think the vibration function) to the visual (progress bars) – you need to keep users aware as to whether things are going well as they execute their task.

  • Ask for confirmation when necessary. Modal boxes are annoying but the exception is when you want to protect the user. If you’re asking if someone wants to delete a photo, for example, you can ask if they’re sure before you carry out the action.

Keep on Task

If a user exits your app without completing a task; when they open it back up – they should be brought right back to the same task in the same place. Make it fast and easy to restart a process and your users will love you for it.

Consider Graphics

The icon you use for your app – should ideally be representative of the key task your users want to carry out. Make it blindingly obvious at a glance what your app does and it will be much more likely to be downloaded and used.

Consider the First Time of Use

Keep things simple and focus very much on key tasks when your app first launches. You can add complexity over time. If it’s confusing or hard to carry out a task the first time that your app is used – it’s likely that it will never be used again.

The Take Away

By focusing on the tasks required by a user from a mobile platform and ensuring that functionality and form support those tasks – you can deliver a premier mobile user experience through your app. Mobile is different from the desktop but that doesn’t mean that it’s harder to do a good job, just that a different approach is required.


For some ideas on how to engage users via mobile design, why not check out this whitepaper from Oracle?

The Next Web examines some killer features for mobile apps.

Smashing Magazine offers its guidelines for high-performing mobile UX.

Econsultancy takes a look at mobile e-commerce experiences.

Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: 74studio. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

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