Big Design, Small Screen

Big Design, Small Screen is a series of articles on conceptual design for mobile devices.

I spent parts of the past two years working on a design book specific to mobile. Mobile technology and use moves pretty fast, and I was writing very slowly. After doing a bit of editing on the book, I felt it as a whole was not ready, but parts of it were.

So I decided to share the parts that were ready here on Medium.

A Slight Manifesto.

I hold a device that lets me communicate with unseen forces, an act which previously was considered magic.

I hold a device that understands my voice and can speak back to me in its own. A spirit guide, a tool of the seers.

I hold a small magic pet, who I command through arcane gestures and strange hand movements.

People call them phones but they bear little resemblance to the phones mounted to the walls of kitchens or the horrible office phones still adorning the desks of corporate America. Those things are increasingly offensive in an age where communication is at its richest and most valuable.

Since they were readily available, I’ve always found a reason to have a mobile phone and without fail I’ve always expected more than they gave. I blame Star Trek for this.

Modern mobile devices are simple and brilliant objects. They tend to have few external parts, working buttons or switches. The phone as an object is a blank slate, with the apps as the interface to the device. Even better, content is the interface that drives interaction. You don’t get away with design like this in any other medium these days.

We live in an age when the phone in my pocket is likely more powerful than the computers used to design its predecessors. Where the phone has become the center of organized life, a symbol of freedom where people are faced with oppression, and the path to knowledge, entertainment and communication. We live in a time when technology is advancing so rapidly, science fiction is becoming hard to write. A world where mobile software design is the predominant art form of our time.

We live in a miraculous age. When you design a shitty app you embarrass us all because you deny the wonder of our times.

Designing for Mobile

The question I’m asked most frequently is “How do you become a mobile designer?” I have one answer, which is “Start designing for mobile use.”

A lot of designers will tell you this is extraordinarily difficult and there’s so many things you have to pay attention to, but really there’s not.

I’m going to throw this out there and probably have bullshit called on me by more than one designer, but designing for mobile has very little to do with phones.

When we talk about phones, we immediately fall into limitations, oddities and impossibilities. These are minor details.

There’s some things that can’t be avoided, first and foremost is a screen size and interaction model that many designers find limiting. If you find them limiting, stop designing for mobile; it’s only going to get worse.

Other than that, phones are typically always connected and work as advertised. Don’t bother fretting about the devices, they’re always going to change and improve. Focus instead on one quick and easy secret: humans use mobile devices to do stuff and rely on them like a helper monkey.

That might be a bit of an oversimplification, but it’s a great place to start. The main design difference is usage. People do stuff with their phones in places while other things are happening. We don’t design with a captive audience, we design with a participating one.

The biggest mistake a designer can make moving to mobile is discounting the mobility of the user. They are called mobile devices for a reason, and while it originated with the size of the device, as in “it can be carried” the status of mobile has truly transferred to the user.

There’s no scenario which doesn’t have greater impact referring to the holder of the device rather than to the device itself. Mobile users are out in the world somewhere, doing something and they have an immediate need they expect to be fulfilled by the device in their pocket or bag, and they are very sad when it doesn’t do what they want.

This introduces a very important truth: people don’t use mobile devices with the same intent or expectations of any other platform. Mobile devices are free of constraint and full of context. They also hold a very low threshold for failure, people immediately assume an expectation of service that no laptop can fulfill.

A Quick Thing

I’m going to refer to mobile devices throughout this series as mobile devices. I hate it already and am tired of reading it, but I really mean people who have a phone in their hand or pocket.

Tablets are moving along at their own pace and are amazing devices, but they don’t share the same mindset or expectation of use as phones.

So when I say device, I mean phone, and when I say phone I mean person who has a phone.

So be happy! You are the mobile device. That small magic brick you carry with you is only mobile because you choose to take it to the crapper with you.

What I Plan to Write About

I love mobile, and above all I love big design. I also love getting things right before nerding out. I’m a huge fan of avoiding messy and useless effort by creating a concise and clear vision for what the product is, and what the team’s goals are.

It’s easy, smart and will save you from losing your shit later. I’m hoping what I’m putting in this series will help.

My plan is to share what I know on how to design well, it’s not a magic spell or 10 quick tips. It’s not full of fortune cookie bullshit or snippets to paste into a strategy deck. It’s for people who want to design apps for mobile, not hover around the edges.

This series is about creating a design concept based on the behaviors of users and their deep-assed relationship with their devices. If you don’t believe people have a borderline biological relationship with technology, you should probably leave as we are going to have vast disagreements.

Mobile relies on a well-defined concept and thoughtful design, so I hope to share ways to be inspired and refine ideas into a rock solid state before any pixels are pushed or code written.

The ideas I’m proposing do not take long and should not be in a project plan. They are exercises for designers and developers. You know, people who create things that aren’t spreadsheets.

Looking forward, I plan to post a segment to the series every two weeks focused on a rough outline that looks a bit like this:

First we’re going to talk about Situational Opportunity. This is advanced persona development which also takes into account time, place and context.

Once we have an idea of who would use our app and why it would exist, we move into Finding the Center. This is where we sharpen minds and axes to determine the best and most valuable features for a mobile app.

Lastly, we will discuss Drawing it Out, a series of working methods for preparing concepts in mobile functional flows and UI.

I’m sure the planned content will ebb and flow, I do love a good tangent, but I’ll attempt to “Pull a Porkins” and stay on target (minus the crash and burn).

Ready? Be bold, and let’s move.