Big Design Small Screen

Situational Opportunity

An app needs to have a reason to exist.

A quick browse of the app stores discounts that statement pretty quickly, but it’s true.

One of the hardest questions to answer is “Will Anyone Use This App?” It’s the question that keeps designers, devs and entrepreneurs up all night.

Well, everyone except the huge group of clueless startups with the amazing belief everyone will use their app. Don’t worry about them, the ground is littered with their corpses. Occasionally, they re-animate, zombie-style and chase you with stories of their pivot.

There was a time, and we’re mostly still in it, where creating a popular mobile app required little more than extracting the main features from a good desktop app.

This is typically a transformation exercise. How will things fit? How do inputs work? Does the workflow change or improve? Will there be syncing of docs?

For the rest of us attempting something new, the question remains “Will Anyone Use This App?

If we want the answer to be yes, we should figure a few things out. We need to find the point of Situational Opportunity.

I know, it’s a bit of a mouthful, and just writing about it makes me want to consign it to the buzzword trashpile, but bear with me a bit.

Situational Opportunity is pretty simple to talk about, but pretty difficult to get right, and for good reason: if this can’t be determined, the app is likely to fail.

Situational Opportunity is the act of finding the moment in time when a user will reach for a mobile device as the answer to a need.

It’s that single and immediate “Ah hah!” moment people have when they know (not think) the answer to what they need is on their mobile device.

You know this moment.

If I asked “Who was that guy in that movie with that dog that one time?” It’s likely you’d immediately go for your phone, knowing the answer was easily accessible.

IMDB you sweaty bastard, you’ve won this one.

It’s a trusted model of certainty. It’s the reason some apps are nice, but others fill a value hole in our lives.

Yes, value hole. I said it.

They are the ones unlikely to be deleted, the ones where commitment to the app outweighs the trendiness of newer apps.

The one thing they share is a predictable human response in a given situation.

Situations, not Scenarios

Also, tomatoes not tomatoes and aluminum not aluminum.

If you’d like to argue semantics, let’s get this straight:

Situation: The way in which something is placed in relation to its surroundings

Scenario: An outline or synopsis of a play

I’m not in the mobile business to write fiction. I’m here to observe trends in how humans are interacting with mobile technologies in order to develop better things.

Therefore I’ll be discussing Situations.

It might be from my time spent in the military or just a social behavior I’ve grown over time, but I’m always assessing a situation for all manner of factors, looking for patterns, oddities and opportunities for things to happen. Social behavior is fairly consistent thing and the phone is an interesting observation point.

Because of this approach, most of the things I work on have some aspect of Situational Opportunity. A much fuller view of app features that includes time, place and user.

Think of it as a reflection of “Mobile users are out there in the world doing things.” It’s our job to find the situations that occur and wiggle our way into the middle of them.

Human imperfection is a wonderful thing. When it takes place, our jobs as designers kicks into action. Ask a few key questions like “What can I add, remove or change in this situation that would make life better?” Think about everyday moments, what part can technology play to enhance, share or preserve them?

Looking for the opportunity in every situation requires a couple of key habits every designer needs to get in tune with.

First and foremost is observation. Watch when people are using their phones, but also watch where there is frustration in a situation, whether with technology or not. Make it a point to identify where a helper monkey would be nice.

In order to do this properly, it’s important to get out of the office, go out into the world and talk to some people.

Realistic Situations

Sadly most mobile user assumptions begin like this: User has phone in hand, app opens to default screen… Go!

This is old-school usability thinking that was out of date when everyone was jumping on it for websites. (User arrives at our homepage… Go!)

This is a total failure from the beginning. If planning begins with a user on the splash screen of an app, the majority of factors needed to make the app successful are not being considered.

How did the user conclude the app was the one they should open at this second of this day wherever they are, whatever they are doing?

The answer to this question is Situational Opportunity.

Define the Situation

Capturing the important bits of Situational Opportunity is an easy task. Start with a few simple details:

What the App Does
A nice overview of the idea or features or wherever you are with the description of the app.

What context in a human day does the app occupy?
This is about the expected or observed users mental place.

Where is the user expected to be when they decide to reach for their phone?
A sense of place where the app reaches a valuable point

How much time does a typical user give to the app. Or more realistically, how much time will a user commit to solving their problem?
Is this a deep use app or a lightweight “glance” app

What is the user trying to solve?
Ultimate value hole filling ability!

That just leaves defining the Mobile User as the open issue. I’ll try to get some answers to that in two weeks.


A common question at this point is “What does the deliverable looks like?” As this is a design exercise, it can look like it needs to for the project.

Cheap answer, I know, but this exercise is to validate ideas and concepts not to replace needed work around user journeys or service design.

I usually write mine as a statement or list, many times as a series of interaction flows showing the value of the app in different situations.

Some factors when considering the form it will take are: how much validation the app idea needs, how much of a team motivator it needs to be and whether or not it’s needed as a deliverable piece in an ongoing client relationship.

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

Next Up: Mobile Personas
Previous: Intro to Big Design Small Screen