Big Design, Small Screen: Design for Wonder, Design for Doubt

As a designer, one needs the ability to hold multiple conflicting thoughts in their head and not go mad. I believe all remarkable things emerge from chaos, so a bit of intentional conflict in the noodle can’t be too bad of a thing. Here’s a few random bits of tension for consideration this week.

Design for the Moment of Wonder

Design, lest we forget, is a joyous thing.

Yes, it’s riddled with frustrations, compromises and difficulty but if it weren’t, it would be so much less fun.

When we design for mobile, we have to remember to bring a bit of happiness to the user. There are so many small interactions which can create a moment of joy.

Mobile use is just a series of moments, small bits of time where users find themselves ready to get something done, find something amazing, or just hide behind their phone with a look of concentration in awkward social situations. These weird moments are our opportunity to give users something happy to tap.

It’s a designer’s job to satisfy what they’re looking for, but to also add a gold coin Mario level up on them in the smallest of ways. A small interaction can have a wonderful effect on the rest of your app.

In design, we tend to find the joy in problem solving. Every app we design is truly just a fancy bit of content processing with a rustle thrown at the screen. We are just moving data around on glass. Finding the reason this makes a user happy is part of the design, equal to the colors, style and voice.

Design for the Moment of Doubt

Design, lest we forget, is a opportunistic thing.

As designers, we tend to look for the spaces of doubt. A tiny slice of time where a user pauses, uncertain of what should happen next. A good designer wants to get in there and put some good, functional design in their path to improve the situation.

Designers enjoy thinking of themselves as benign opportunists, and for the most part work with good intentions. I will admit to doing several years of work in the fiendish field of automotive lead generation and conversion, but always worked within my rule of three opportunities: What’s good for the user? What’s good for the product? What’s good for the business?

Designing for doubt is not the same as designing for fearful users. A moment of user doubt, properly satisfied, becomes continued moments of joy.

Product design and direction is a much higher opportunity to design for doubt as continued use of an app is critical to success. Within a given space of a user’s time and mental attention, designers need to look for that pause. That point of doubt we all encounter where the answer to a situation is unclear. Did I miss the bus? Who is that person? What was the name of that movie?

Designing for that pause is helps us visualize the opportunity for the app. If there is even a basic understanding of a user or the intent of what the app should accomplish, engage in some decision point hijacking: a nice bit of pre-emptive calm in a sea of user doubt.

Designing for doubt is a huge factor in why there’s a fairly massive span between 2nd and 3rd place in most app categories. They’re all called apps, and many do similar things, but some are the one you want to use and the rest are junk.

Design for the Future

Design, lest we forget, is a view into the future.

The current is just a modified past, almost all designs are based on what we know.

Having observed younger people with the phones, it’s obvious most conventions related to human / computer interaction are outdated.

Much of mobile design is unwittingly training a new generation of users in dated UX concepts. We are now the people training a new generation of users to rely on past conventions while using new technologies.

In short, many of us are unwilling to give up the button.

UX logic says a button is a recognized symbol of movement and the presence of the button indicates a structured concept of screens that a user will understand.

We should not assume the audience has any knowledge of UX history or theory and therefore can disregard those theories. Throw the shackles off and reject old patterns.

We truly must believe in the abilities of the audience and design for an active state. As odd as it sounds, designers seem to be the worst at losing biases against them.

It’s not about excluding users or making it difficult for them, it’s about proposing new methods to perform actions now possible with current technology and devices.

Patterns of use on new devices are accelerating faster than we are accounting for. No one used a gesture until it became obvious. No one thought of a 2-finger vs. 3 finger swipe until there was technology to support this action.

Once the technology was available, the gestures were not only obvious, they were expected.

Everything that exists is the past. Designing low holds back life.

Design for Clarity

Design, lest we forget, is done for the benefit of others.

There is a huge difference between simplicity and clarity. Striving for simple usually means moving complex things out of the users’ path. Usually, this is a great idea. As a good friend stated once “You can’t kill complexity, you can only move it to the next page.”

In order to simplify, the practice usually involves removing features or moving complexity to the dev team.

Overall, striving for simplicity is a reductionist effort. Sometimes it’s easier to remove things than to create a space where complex things can be understood.

This is essential in mobile design, simply due to the amount of attention any object can be given on a screen and how little attention a mobile user is willing to give.

Simplicity can’t always be achieved when the tasks you’re setting out to design are incredibly complex. Simplicity is a cheap way out in the first place, it usually means less rather than better.

Striving for clarity means taking complex things and framing them with visual and content cues to organize them make them understandable and actionable by the user. It means doing this and making the complex clear. It’s a measure of: Don’t interrupt, accelerate.

Most UX thought is based on not expecting anything resembling mental capacity from our users. We are trained to believe that expecting things from users is bad, they are just feeble things who couldn’t comprehend a complex system.

Don’t fear a learning curve, that just holds design back. Design something yummy with a bit of spice; something unexpected that will pull a user forward. Combine recognizable patterns with methods that will advance the zeitgeist.

Design Outside The Magic Box

Think about how much effort is devoted to designing the surface of the magic box. We are missing a huge opportunity to use these wondrous devices as the mystic genies to connect to each other and the world around us.

A new step forward. The world as an input.

“Who am I? Where am I? What am i doing? What’s it look like? What’s that sound? Who’s with me?”

These are the questions of life being addressed with mobile technology. Things tend to roll around: humans have problems, technology advances, humans turn to technology for answers, humans move beyond technology and create new problems.

The more designs are something that happens in the hand and not as part of the world around, the more our users remain disconnected from the ambient information surrounding them.

When the opportunity presents itself, our designs need to go beyond the small metal and glass box in our hands.


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

Next Up: Finding the Center

Previous: Creating a Mobile Persona

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Andrew Heaton’s story.