Mobile Computing

Your constantly-updated definition of Mobile Computing and collection of videos and articles

What is Mobile Computing?

Mobile computing is the use of mobile devices to perform computing tasks while on the go and without a fixed physical link. These devices include smartphones, tablets and wearable technology. They let users access, store and manipulate data from anywhere and anytime. Designers strive to satisfy users’ demands on tiny screens and account mindfully for their mobile contexts.  

CEO of Experience Dynamics, Frank Spillers explains the human-centered approach to mobile design:   

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The Rise of Mobile Computing: A Paradigm Shift

Mobile computing is both a field of study and a term that describes how legions of digital products operate. It has revolutionized many aspects of human life. These span from how people communicate and conduct business, to how they learn and entertain themselves. As the digital age continues to advance, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of exceptional user experience (UX) design and user interface (UI) design for devices and users on the go.    

Mobile computing has marked an unprecedented shift in the digital landscape. Where once users had found themselves tied to stationary desktop machines, the advent of mobile technology has long since untethered this experience. Users can freely move and with their smartphones or other mobile devices can interact with digital services anytime, anywhere. 

The benefits of mobile computing are many. It offers unparalleled convenience: Users can access information, communicate, shop, work and entertain themselves—away from their living rooms and offices. However, there is perhaps an even more significant factor to mobile computing. This form of ubiquitous computing has also democratized access to digital services. It’s brought technology within reach of populations whom traditional computing hadn’t reached.  

From a business perspective, the ubiquity of mobile devices continues to open up many avenues for reaching and engaging with customers. Businesses deliver personalized, location-specific content, offer seamless omnichannel experiences, and leverage mobile-specific features like push notifications to drive engagement.

An image of a user with a mobile device.

Mobile users are everywhere, and can enjoy quality content anywhere.

© Sigismund von Dobschütz, CC BY-SA 3.0

What Mobile Computing Means for UX Designers

The significance of mobile computing extends beyond the mere provision of digital services and web design on mobile devices. How users interact with brands via digital products has fundamentally altered user expectations and behaviors. This phenomenon provoked a shift in the way designers create digital experiences for target users of a product or service. This is where the importance of user experience design—and, more importantly, user-centered design—in mobile computing comes into play. Designers and design teams who work to tailor mobile experiences for their target market have a wide range of considerations to build into their solutions long before they go to user testing. Also, the business goals of a typical organization need to be in tune with users who encounter brands primarily through mobile screens.  

The rise of mobile computing means that users expect digital services to be available on their mobile devices, optimized for smaller screens, touch input and on-the-go use. Users demand experiences that are not just functional, but also intuitive, enjoyable and matched to their specific context. Users want to feel that thoughtful designers have preempted their pain points, so the magic of a seamless experience plays out across all the touchpoints where they engage with brands.   

Mobile UX designers must fulfill their users’ expectations and meet their needs through seamless digital experiences specifically for mobile devices. The designs that product teams produce for their target audiences must be not just accessible, but also usable and delightful on mobile devices. At the very least, designers must show empathy and insight into what sometimes are potentially stressful situations for users—such as apps for hospital services or driving. Good design means good functionality, usability and aesthetic appeal.

An illustration showing various types of computing devices.

The many faces of design—most of which users encounter via their mobile devices.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

A well-designed mobile UX can have a profound impact on user satisfaction, engagement and loyalty. It can make the difference between a product that merely exists on a mobile device and one that mobile users truly embrace. A vital point for designers to consider is that mobile computing is not just about apps or websites that users access on a mobile device. Instead, it’s about the need to create an experience that they uniquely tailor to the mobile context, and provide value and delight to users wherever they may be. So, the designer’s role goes beyond just the design of interfaces. Designers also need to consider the larger context of the users’ journeys. This includes their motivations, goals and the environment in which they use the app.    

Service design is another huge realm of mobile computing. Because many brands offer services via their apps—such as Uber—designers have to factor in various considerations that go beyond just visual design features such as color schemes. With mobile, users are everywhere and anywhere. It could be a moment before they arrive at a coffee shop to pick up a latte, or a real-time concern when they have to check on their home security system. Mobile computing is another world compared with the desktop-oriented domain of users in previous times.

Image showing three mobile phones featuring Uber.

Uber delivers on mobile users’ expectations as it aligns its design solutions with the many contexts of its target market.

© Mashable composite: Uber / Getty Images, Fair Use

Designers need to understand user needs and behaviors in a mobile service context, as well as create user personas and scenarios, map out user journeys, create wireframes, prototype and conduct usability testing.  

Frank Spillers explains service design in this video:  

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Challenges for Design in Mobile Computing

While mobile UX design holds immense potential, it also presents unique challenges. These stem from the inherent characteristics of mobile devices, the diverse contexts in which users use them, and the varied user behaviors they elicit.  

1. Limited Screen Real Estate

Mobile devices, especially smartphones, have significantly smaller screens compared to desktop computers. This limits the amount of information that a screen can show at once. It also constrains the size and complexity of interface elements. Designers must carefully prioritize content and functionality. They also have to devise creative ways to maximize the use of screen space. Mobile users typically want to accomplish their tasks quickly and easily. Therefore, it’s important to make designs simple and intuitive, with clear navigation and minimal clutter.  

2. Varied Input Modalities

Mobile devices primarily rely on touch input, which is fundamentally different from the mouse and keyboard input of desktop computers. Touch input is less precise. It’s also susceptible to accidental activations, and it can occlude on-screen content. Moreover, mobile devices often support additional input modalities such as voice and sensors. These are additional considerations for designers and developers.    

3. Diverse Usage Contexts

Users use mobile devices in a wide range of physical, social and situational contexts. Users may be on the move, multitasking, in varying lighting conditions or in situations where audio is not feasible. For example, they could be in a dark, noisy nightclub or a bright hospital room where silence needs to reign. The design must cater to these diverse contexts, and ensure usability and accessibility under different conditions.

An image of a graph about smartphone use.

Mobile computing is growing as a reality, across the world.

© Statista, Fair Use

4. Limited Resources

Mobile devices often have less powerful processors, limited memory and shorter battery life compared to desktop computers. Designers have to create applications that are resource-efficient and minimize battery, data and performance impact.    

5. Fragmented Device Landscape

The mobile device landscape is highly fragmented. There are a wide range of devices that differ in screen sizes, resolutions, operating systems, hardware capabilities and more. Designers must strive for a responsive design that ensures consistency and usability across different devices.  

Frank Spillers explains the need for mobile accessibility in this video:  

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Best Practices in Mobile UX Design

To meet design considerations for mobile computing, designers should:    

  • Prioritize content and features: Due to the limited screen space, it’s crucial to prioritize the most important content and features. This calls for solid UX research skills, to understand user needs and behaviors and focus on what matters most to them. Designers also need to know how to map out user journeys, and create user personas, wireframes and prototypes.  

  • Design for the thumb: Most users operate their mobile devices with one hand. So, it’s vital to design interfaces that are thumb-friendly, or fat-finger friendly. Designers should place key elements within easy reach of the thumb and design touch targets that are large enough to tap easily.  

    An image showing hand-reach comfort zones.

    It’s vital to know how users grasp their devices, and comfortably so.

    © Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Follow platform guidelines such as iOS or Android. Designers should follow these guidelines to ensure that the app feels familiar and intuitive to users.    

  • Use standard UI elements such as buttons, checkboxes and sliders. This helps users recognize and understand how to interact with an interface. It’s important to understand design principles, as well as how visual hierarchies and elements in a design catch the viewer’s eye in mobile contexts.    

  • Consider mobile-first design and design for the smallest device first; then progressively enhance the design features for larger layouts. When designers start with mobile in mind, there’s little risk that users will feel as though the experience is a shrunken-desktop version.     

  • Focus on simplicity and clarity so each screen can support a single primary action, without any irrelevant content or functionality. Navigation should be intuitive and self-evident, and guide users through the flow with minimal cognitive effort.  

  • Ensure legibility so users can see text without zooming in, with a recommended minimum size of 11 points. It’s crucial to maintain adequate contrast between text and its background to ensure readability. Also, whitespace can enhance legibility as it reduces visual clutter and improves comprehension.   

  • Understand adaptive and responsive design so the design adjusts best to different screen sizes, orientations and resolutions. Designers achieve this through flexible layouts, dynamic content scaling and the use of platform-specific design guidelines.  

    An illustration representing responsive design.

    Responsive design flows the content across various screen sizes.

    © Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Minimize input to help users by minimizing the need for time-consuming typing, through techniques like auto-completion, predictive text and smart defaults. Wherever possible, it’s good to support alternative input methods like voice or gesture.    

  • Optimize for speed to minimize load times, simplify tasks and provide immediate feedback on user actions.  

  • Consider the context and ensure that users can access and use the interface under varying conditions. This could also mean to adapt the product to support offline use or provide context-specific functionality based on the user's location or activity.  

  • Deliver a seamless cross-device experience to ensure users experience consistency in content and functionality as they switch between devices. They should be able to pick up where they left off between desktop and mobile, for example.  

  • Test and iterate to ensure that the design meets real user needs and expectations, and provides a positive user experience in the field.   

    An image showing 3 mobile phones featuring Spotify.

    Spotify is one of the brands at the forefront, among prominent mobile UX design examples, in meeting mobile users’ expectations, including accessibility.

    © Spotify, Fair Use

The Future of Mobile Computing

As mobile computing continues to evolve, designers must stay abreast of emerging trends and technologies. Designers need to continually refine their designs to meet the ever-changing demands of mobile users. In doing so, they can contribute to the ongoing evolution of mobile UX design, and create impactful experiences that truly resonate with users.    

Moreover, as users increasingly expect personalized and context-aware experiences, UX designers will need to leverage technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning to deliver on these expectations.  

Overall, the mobile revolution has ushered in an exciting age for UI UX design. It has created unique opportunities for designers to craft engaging and adaptable experiences directly tailored to mobile devices. However, with these opportunities come challenges. To design well for a smaller screen, varied device capabilities and diverse user contexts requires a deep understanding of the unique characteristics of mobile computing. Designers must navigate these complexities to create attractive, intuitive and user-friendly interfaces that meet the ever-evolving demands of mobile users.    

Learn More about Mobile Computing

Take our Mobile UX Strategy: How to Build Successful Products course.  

Read our Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Edition entry for Mobile Computing for additional in-depth insights.    

Take our Master Class How To Prepare For The Future Of Mobile UX with Steven Hoober, President of Design, 4ourth Mobile for more important information.  

Read Mobile UX Design: The Ultimate Guide 2024 by Annemarie Bufe for additional insights.  

Consult Mobile UX Design in 2024: A Complete Guide by Nikhil Vij for further information. 

Questions related to Mobile Computing

What components form the core of mobile computing systems?

The core of mobile computing systems consists of five main components: the mobile device, mobile operating system (OS), mobile communications network, application servers and databases. Mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets, serve as the primary interface for users to interact with. The mobile OS, such as Android or iOS, manages the device's hardware and software resources. Mobile communications networks, including 3G, 4G and 5G, facilitate connectivity and data exchange over vast distances. Application servers, often cloud-based, provide the computing power and storage necessary for running mobile applications. Lastly, databases store the data required by these applications, allowing for retrieval, manipulation and management of data across the network.  

When designers understand these components, they can create more efficient and user-friendly mobile applications as they optimize each element for better performance and user experience.  

Take our Master Class How To Prepare For The Future Of Mobile UX with Steven Hoober, President of Design, 4ourth Mobile for more important information.  

How do designers optimize websites for mobile use?

Designers optimize websites for mobile use by following several key strategies. First, they ensure the website's layout is responsive, meaning it automatically adjusts to fit the screen size of various devices. This approach eliminates the need for users to zoom in and out to read content. Second, designers prioritize speed by optimizing images and utilizing minimalistic design elements to reduce loading times, which is crucial for keeping users engaged. Third, they simplify navigation by using large, easily clickable buttons and reducing the number of menu items. This makes it easier for users to find what they are looking for with minimal effort. Additionally, designers focus on touch-friendly interfaces. They consider the size and spacing of touch targets to prevent users from accidentally clicking the wrong link or button. Lastly, to test the website on multiple devices and browsers ensures a consistent and user-friendly experience across all platforms.  

When they apply these strategies, designers can create mobile-friendly websites that offer a seamless and intuitive user experience, and encourage longer visit durations and higher engagement levels.  

Take our Master Class Boost Mobile UX with UX Design Principles and Best Practices with Miklos Philips, Lead UX Designer/Product Designer.

What strategies improve mobile app accessibility?

To improve mobile app accessibility, designers adopt several effective strategies. First, they ensure high contrast between text and background to aid users with visual impairments. Second, designers use large, legible fonts to make reading easier for everyone, especially for those with low vision. Third, to incorporate alternative text for images allows screen readers to describe images to users who cannot see them. Fourth, designers create simple and intuitive navigation, which helps users with cognitive disabilities to use the app more effectively. Fifth, when designers include voice commands, it enhances accessibility for users who find it difficult to interact with traditional touch interfaces. Finally, designers regularly test their apps with a wide range of assistive technologies to ensure compatibility and a seamless user experience for all.  

By focusing on these strategies, designers create more inclusive apps that accommodate the needs of users with various disabilities, and so broaden their app's user base and improve overall user satisfaction.  

Understand accessibility, and its importance in design, from this video:  

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How does mobile computing impact the approach to information architecture?

Mobile computing significantly influences the approach to information architecture as it necessitates a focus on simplicity, clarity and speed. Designers must organize content in a way that allows users to find information quickly and easily on smaller screens. This requirement leads to a minimalist design approach, where only essential elements and information appear on the main pages. Navigation becomes more streamlined, with a priority on intuitive interfaces that facilitate easy access to different sections of the app or website with minimal taps or swipes. The use of icons and visual cues becomes more prevalent. It helps to convey information in a space-efficient manner and enhance the user experience by making it more engaging and easier to understand.  

Mobile computing also drives the adoption of flexible, scalable architectures that can adapt to various screen sizes and orientations. This ensures a consistent user experience across all devices. Finally, as mobile devices often operate on slower network connections, information architecture must optimize for speed, with techniques like lazy loading and content prioritization ensuring that critical information loads quickly and remains accessible.  

When designers adapt information architecture for mobile computing to these changes, it ensures that users enjoy a seamless, efficient and enjoyable experience, regardless of the device they use.  

 Take our Master Class Boost Mobile UX with UX Design Principles and Best Practices with Miklos Philips, Lead UX Designer/Product Designer.  

What ethical considerations do designers face in mobile computing?

In mobile computing, designers face several ethical considerations that are crucial for protecting user privacy and ensuring inclusivity. First, they must design for privacy, and ensure that apps only request necessary permissions and clearly explain why they need them. This transparency helps users make informed decisions about their data. Second, designers should consider data security, implementing strong encryption and secure data storage practices to protect users' personal information from unauthorized access.  

Accessibility is another ethical concern; designers must ensure their products are usable for people with various abilities, including those with visual, auditory, motor or cognitive impairments. This approach not only expands the app's user base but also upholds the principle of equal access to technology.  

Moreover, designers need to avoid manipulative practices, such as dark patterns that trick users into making decisions against their best interests, like subscribing to services they do not need. Lastly, sustainability emerges as an ethical issue, with a focus on minimizing the environmental impact of mobile computing, such as reducing energy consumption and electronic waste.  

By addressing these ethical considerations, designers contribute to creating a more secure, inclusive and fair digital world.  

 Take our course Mobile UX Design: The Beginner's Guide

How can designers facilitate easier user onboarding in mobile apps?

Designers can facilitate easier user onboarding in mobile apps by implementing several strategies. First, they can simplify the sign-up process, and request only essential information to reduce user effort and increase the likelihood of completion. Second, to employ progressive disclosure techniques, where the app gradually introduces features and functionality as needed, prevents information overload and keeps users engaged. Third, interactive tutorials or guided tours can help users understand the app's core functionalities through direct engagement, rather than overwhelming them with text instructions. Fourth, to provide immediate value or demonstrate the app's benefits within the first few interactions encourages users to continue exploring. 

Additionally, to personalize the onboarding experience, based on the user's preferences or behavior, can make the app feel more relevant and engaging. Finally, to incorporate feedback mechanisms allows designers to collect user insights and continuously improve the onboarding process.  

When they focus on these approaches, designers can create a welcoming and intuitive onboarding experience that reduces dropout rates and encourages long-term engagement with the app.  

Take our Master Class How To Attract Users Through Great Onboarding Experiences with Wes Bush, Founder and CEO, Product-Led Institute and Author, Product-Led Growth.

What challenges do designers face with cross-platform mobile app development?

Designers face several challenges with cross-platform mobile app development. First, to achieve a consistent user experience across different platforms (like iOS and Android) is difficult due to varying design guidelines and user interface elements. Designers must ensure the app feels intuitive on each platform while they maintain a unified brand identity. Second, performance optimization presents a hurdle; apps must run smoothly on various devices with different hardware specifications, which requires careful optimization to prevent lag or crashes. Third, screen size and resolution diversity complicate design; an app must look good and function well on everything from small smartphones to larger tablets. This necessitates flexible, responsive designs that adapt to any screen.  

Fourth, accessibility considerations become more complex, as designers must account for the accessibility features and standards of multiple platforms to ensure the app is usable for people with disabilities. Lastly, to stay updated with multiple platform guidelines and updates demands constant vigilance and adaptability from designers, as failing to comply with the latest standards can lead to app rejections or poor user experiences.  

To overcome these challenges requires a deep understanding of each platform's guidelines, thoughtful design strategy and continuous testing across devices and operating systems. 

Take our Mobile UI Design course.

What influence does mobile computing have on branding strategies?

Mobile computing significantly influences branding strategies by shifting the focus towards creating a consistent and engaging brand experience across various mobile devices. Brands prioritize mobile-friendly website design and mobile app development to ensure their content is accessible and appealing on smaller screens. This accessibility helps maintain brand visibility and engagement in a mobile-dominated world.  

Moreover, mobile computing enables more personalized brand interactions through the use of location-based services and push notifications. Brands can tailor their messages and offers to individual users based on their location, preferences and behavior, and so enhance the user experience and foster loyalty.  

Social media integration plays a crucial role in mobile branding strategies, as mobile devices are the primary means by which many users access social networks. Brands leverage these platforms for direct communication, customer service and viral marketing campaigns, which makes social media presence essential for effective mobile branding.  

Additionally, mobile computing has increased the importance of speed and usability in branding. A fast, user-friendly mobile experience becomes a key brand differentiator, as users often abandon sites or apps that perform poorly on mobile devices.  

Take our Master Class How To Differentiate Your Mobile UX with Frank Spillers, CEO at Experience Dynamics.  

What considerations do experts have for mobile app localization?

Experts consider several key factors when they localize mobile apps to ensure they resonate with users across different cultures and languages. First, they focus on language translation, not just translating words but also ensuring the content is culturally relevant and appropriate. This includes idioms, date formats and currency. Second, experts pay attention to cultural nuances, such as colors, symbols and social norms, to avoid offending users or misrepresenting the brand. Third, they adapt the user interface (UI) design for right-to-left (RTL) languages, such as Arabic, which may require flipping layouts and adjusting alignments.  

Fourth, they localize multimedia elements like images and videos, and ensure they are culturally appropriate and relevant. Fifth, experts consider local regulations and legal requirements, such as data protection laws, which can vary significantly from one region to another. Finally, they conduct extensive testing with local users to identify and resolve any usability issues and to ensure the app meets the expectations and needs of the target audience.  

When experts address these considerations, they can create a mobile app that offers a seamless, engaging experience to users worldwide, and ultimately expand the app’s global reach and effectiveness.  

Watch as Author and Human-Computer Interaction Expert, Professor Alan Dix explains the need to design with culture in mind:  

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What are highly cited scientific articles on the subject of mobile computing?

1. Mao, Y., You, C., Zhang, J., Huang, K., & Letaief, K. B. (2017). A survey on mobile edge computing: The communication perspective. IEEE Communications Surveys & Tutorials, 19(4), 2322-2358.  
This paper provides a comprehensive overview of mobile edge computing, a key technology for enabling mobile computing. It discusses the communication challenges and solutions in mobile edge computing, including resource allocation, offloading, and caching. The paper has been highly cited for its thorough analysis of this emerging field and its impact on the future of mobile computing.  

2. Eshet, E., & Bouwman, H. (2015). Addressing the Context of Use in Mobile Computing: A Survey on the State of the Practice. Interacting with Computers, 27(4), 392-412.   

This paper presents the results of a survey of 150 practitioners involved in mobile app design and development. The study examines how these practitioners address the mobile context of use, which is dynamic and heterogeneous compared to the more stable context of stationary computing. The findings show that the mobile context is mainly considered during the early phase of requirements gathering and specification, but there is a lack of external context-related considerations in evaluations. The paper also reveals that methods perceived as more appropriate for addressing the mobile context are used less frequently, suggesting a need to improve the utility of such methods to better fit the time and budget constraints of practitioners.  

3. Mach, P., & Becvar, Z. (2017). Mobile edge computing: A survey on architecture and computation offloading. IEEE Communications Surveys & Tutorials, 19(3), 1628-1656.

This paper presents a comprehensive survey of mobile edge computing, focusing on its architecture and the challenges of computation offloading. It discusses the key components of mobile edge computing, such as edge servers and mobile devices, and the strategies for offloading computations to the edge. The paper has been widely cited for its in-depth analysis of this critical aspect of mobile computing.

What are highly regarded books about mobile computing?

1. Kamal, D. (2019). Mobile Computing (3nd ed.). Oxford University Press.  

Mobile Computing by Raj Kamal is a comprehensive textbook that provides a detailed overview of the fundamental concepts, technologies, and applications of mobile computing. The book covers a wide range of topics, including mobile communication systems, mobile devices, mobile operating systems, mobile databases, and mobile applications. Written by a renowned expert in the field, the book serves as a valuable resource for students, researchers, and professionals working in mobile computing and wireless communication. Its importance lies in its ability to provide a solid foundation in the principles and technologies that underpin the rapidly evolving field of mobile computing.  

  2. Othman, M. (2008). Principles of Mobile Computing and Communications. CRC Press.   

This textbook examines mobile networks and relevant standards, highlighting issues unique to the mobile computing environment and exploring the differences between conventional and mobile computing. It goes beyond discussions on wireless network infrastructure and mobile application development, considering pervasive computing, smart environments, and the complexity of designing and developing such applications. The book provides a comprehensive overview of the technologies and infrastructure of mobile and wireless networks, as well as important security and mobility support issues. 

Literature on Mobile Computing

Here’s the entire UX literature on Mobile Computing by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Mobile Computing

Take a deep dive into Mobile Computing with our course Mobile UX Strategy: How to Build Successful Products .

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