Small is Beautiful: Why Desktop UX still has something to teach Mobile

My wife was recently using her tablet and I asked if she’d replied to an important email. She promptly put down the tablet and reached for her laptop. “Why not your tablet?” I quizzed. She gave me her best “Are you kidding?” face, saying in total deadpan, “I have work to do here”. My wife loves her tablet and uses it nearly every day but she clearly reaches for her laptop for ‘serious tasks’. While most of us can likely agree that mobile is the future of computing, something very interesting is happening here. In a world where new technologies usurp the old nearly every year, many of us are reaching for our old school laptops surprisingly often. This isn’t just nostalgia, there is something deeply inadequate about mobile. This post is about figuring out how to fix it.

The King is dead, long live the king

It’s common wisdom that a when a new compute paradigm emerges, it quickly replaces the old. Minicomputers replaced mainframes, which were, in turn, replaced by workstations, and then desktops. It’s a never-ending cascade of the new eating the old. Mobile is the obvious next step in this chain. Yet this time, the flow of dominance is stutter stepping. Of course, desktop computers (and laptops as well) aren’t the huge growth industry they once were but they’re hardly going the way of the mainframe, minicomputer or workstation.

New Market Effect vs Old Market Effect

It helps to understand how a new technology displaces an old. The great business book, Innovator’s Dilemma, explores this topic in detail, showing how a new technology is usually ignored by the incumbent players. The problem is that, at least at first, the new tech just isn’t a good replacement for existing customers. Instead, the tech finds a new under-appreciated market. However, as this new market grows, the upstart tech matures and becomes equally good at the old market as well, thus consuming everything.

Economic vs Ergonomic Forces

So the New Market Effect has clearly happened with mobile, growing in new ways that desktop can’t touch (my favorite example being games for cats). The problem is that too many people conflate this new and old market effect. They assume that as mobile is growing into new markets, especially developing countries, it’s therefore a given that it will eat the old market as well.

Revenge of the UX nerd

My wife didn’t reach for her laptop out of nostalgia. The fundamental UX depth of the desktop UX gave her the expressive power her tablet lacked. The old market effect isn’t happening to desktop (at least not yet) for the simple reason that mobile hasn’t matured enough to replace it. But please, let’s try to avoid a Twitter-esque shouting match, hurling examples of people composing email or presenting slides on tablets. Of course these exist but as I stated before, they are the exceptions that prove the rule. While there are people that have composed entire novels on mobile phones, these people are more like Olympic athletes: we marvel at what they can do but we have no illusions that we would be able to do it ourselves.

It’s all about MicroInteractions

The majority of my career has been spent explaining to people the importance of small UX details. Fortunately, Dan Saffer has written a brilliant book explaining this: MicroInteractions. MicroInteractions are the many small and seemingly insignificant interactive moments in a product that provide great value. We too often overlook, or at least vastly underappreciate, the value these MicroInteractions exert on a product. This same thing is happing with mobile and desktop UX discussions. We are so blinded by our techno-lust of multi-touch gestures that we ignore the many compromises mobile UX has had to make. Compromises that have both pros as well as cons. For example:

  • Accurate cursor placement is hard
  • Auto correct’s continued ability to constantly embarrass
  • Tapping the screen is a huge context switch (compared to arrow keys)
  • Copy/paste is a fairly cumbersome task (compared to desktop)

But Scott, no one cares!

The Innovators Dilemma has a simple answer to this: who cares? A new technology opens up new markets and that is where the real action is. Who care’s about documents, or emails? It’s only a matter of time before they too are gone like the dinosaurs. I can hear you yell

Actually either do I…

The point of the essay isn’t to defend desktop but to improve mobile. We have a huge ergonomic opportunity staring us in the face and we’re completely blinded by the success of the New Market Effect to appreciate it. We need to honestly admit that desktop mops the floor with mobile when it comes to text, window, and file tasks. However, this certainly does NOT mean that we should go backward to the desktop metaphor. Let’s just start with the honest appreciation for these deficiencies. Then, let’s move forward to ask, earnestly, “How can we fix it?”

  • Force Touch Text Selection
    Along the same lines, if we could get a bit more expressive with tapping, it might give us a bit more UX nuance and let us reclaim that basic cursor placement of the desktop UX. Currently, force touch is used as a glorified right click for apps. It could be used in much more subtle ways. For example to aid in text selection or offer those helper functions listed above less intrusively.
  • Better Copy/Paste
    Copy and paste is a fundamental utility and is far too hard on mobile today. Copy and Paste was always parked in the Edit menu on desktop, with shortcut keys so it’s always at the ready. Mobile has no menus or shortcut keys so is forced to inelegantly sneak it in, usually as a popup menu when the user may not want it. The first step is to admit this is a UX hack and then find better, more productive solutions. One direction may be to place a copy/paste button on the keyboard.

    We also shouldn’t forget our past. The visual clipboard of the Newton has a huge value in that it made the clipboard visible to the user so it was easy to not only glimpse what was in the clipboard, but it created a new control surface to tap on and then drag into the target area.
  • Beyond 2 window mode
    The iPad pro and Windows Surface are already experimenting with a limited two window mode. Power users love it.
  • Exposing Files to the Cloud
    A related point is that by allowing app data to be exposed as a simple file system, you can now move these files into the cloud. Now that we all have more than 1 device, the ability for the apps on each device to have access to the same files is a huge simplification. I take this for granted on my desktop but it a nearly impenetrable wall for most of my mobile apps today. We can clearly make this happen as it hardly involves any additional user complexity.


Mobile isn’t killing desktop in the way most of us expected it to. It is clearly the future growth platform of computing (at least, until the next thing comes along) but we have over-hyped the New Market Effect, focusing on ‘the shiny’ and not paying attention to critical MicroInteractions that make a difference. We are so in love with flashy UX features that we ignore the deep impact of the proven and the mundane. The directions listed here are too easily ignored. They are actually the core building blocks of powerful UX experiences and need to be improved. It’s just a bit surprising that so much mobile inspiration can come from it’s ‘inferior’ predecessor, the Desktop UX.

UX Strategy & Design (ex-frog/Apple/Symbian/Google)

UX Strategy & Design (ex-frog/Apple/Symbian/Google)