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How to Optimize Your Designs for Smartphones vs Tablets

| 11 min read

It has become an industry standard to put “mobile first” when designing for the mobile web, and while this is, in general, a good thing—it has also neglected the tablet platform in mobile design. There are clear differences between smartphones and tablets and key differences in the way that users interact with them. It’s important for us as UX designers to understand these differences so that our designs can satisfy both usage scenarios.

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The smartphone tends to dominate discussions of the mobile internet, and there are no major surprises about that.

As of 2021, North America has the highest smartphone adoption rate with 82 percent of total mobile connections. However, North America is not expected to see a large increase in smartphone adoptions by 2025, only three percent, while regions such as Asia Pacific and CIS are expected to see a dramatic increase in smartphone adoption by 2025.

© Statista, Fair Use (link)

Key Usage Differences

Some earlier data from a Forrester Research (2014) mobile study, still relevant to usage behavior, found that tablets kept users engaged for longer periods of time, compared to smartphones. This reinforces other research studies that back up the fact that smaller size resolutions mean smaller attention spans. In short, quick bursts of attention are the default on smartphones. UX designers need to be even more vigilant when it comes to clarity and understanding on mobile it seems.

© Sigismund von Dobschütz, CC BY-SA 3.0

Tablets allow for more breathing room, literally and in terms of their relaxed usage state. A user is sitting on a couch, chair or bed for prolonged periods of time. While this is also true of phones, phones tend to move more (known as the “carry principle”) as the user can take them to the kitchen, for example, and then to another area of the house or office that bit more easily (e.g., in pockets).  

The key for UX designers is that you can show users more media, for example images or video content, on tablets. You can engage users more fully (such as a game or interactive visualization) on tablets than on phones. Finally, remember the “hand-off” principle (Apple tried to build it into iOS, though it’s not as smooth as the vision it seems): Users will move between phone and tablet and even over to desktop and back. Consider how your content will be used across each platform.

Key UX Considerations for Smartphones and Tablet

There are some clear differentiators between the two device types, and these need to be considered carefully when designing user experiences.

The Smartphone

Smartphones are:

  • Again, more mobile than tablets and more likely to be used in a wide variety of locations and scenarios.

  • More likely to suffer from distracted use (because of their mobility).

  • Generally, of lower (or at least smaller) resolution than tablets.

  • Rarely the primary access point for users to the internet (though in developing nations they may be).

  • Likely to be used for multi-tasking (users flit from app to app rather than spending significant periods of time doing any particular task).

  • More personal and thus more likely to be used for social and emotional contexts.

  • Less likely to have controlled lighting available when in use.

The Tablet

Tablets are:

  • Less mobile; they’re too big to be user friendly in all spaces (though we’ve noticed this doesn’t stop people from trying nonetheless).

  • More likely to be used in a fixed position (at home, in the office, in a café).

  • More likely to be used by more than one user and are thus less personal and emotional platforms (Note that even though users want to share, Apple, Google, and Samsung sadly do not support a multi-user experience. There currently is no “who’s watching” Netflix style login with security and personalization needed for a true multi-user experience). 

  • More likely to provide higher resolution (or at least bigger) experiences than a smartphone.

  • More likely to invite “free browsing” of content, versus the rush of scrolling smaller image and video sizes on smartphones for example. 

Both tablets and smartphones require “fat finger friendly” design in that 44-pixel targets are a recommended minimum for buttons, icons, etc.

The Take Away

The tablet user experience is different from the smartphone user experience. A “one size fits all” mobile design policy is likely to leave one platform or the other poorly catered for. Think about how your tasks can be enhanced by space constraints and the swipe real-estate iPads offer over the constrained interaction space mobile offers.

Consider if your content or app forces migration to another platform and whether that complements the device switching. For example, if moving from phone to tablet makes a huge and pleasant difference to the user, you made it worthwhile. If it does not, the device-switching behavior is a lost opportunity. In other words, users switched back to their phone because the tablet experience ‘forced’ them to, or because it wasn’t worth staying. This means value was not delivered for example by a tablet experience that was too similar to the phone layout, content, interaction, etc. 

References and Where to Learn More

Continued growth for smartphones—check out the IDC report.

Techcrunch’s analysis of the Forrester data on tablet and phablet market.

The Pew Research Center study (2021).

Hero image: © Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

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