Put the User First: Why You Don’t Always Need to Design for All Devices

Product teams around the world are facing pressure to think multi-device and multi-platform in their work. After all, when there are so many different devices out there, isn’t it ‘best practice’ to capitalize on them all? Yes seems like the obvious answer, but the common practice of replicating experiences across different devices often falls short. Instead of jumping to a one design fits all solution, we need to ask ourselves some crucial questions early on in the design process:

  • What problem are we trying to solve for the user?
  • Where are they when they have that problem?
  • What device(s) are they using?

These questions help remind us to start with the user instead of the device when designing across multiple screens. If the user is rarely on the go, does it really make sense to design a simplified smartphone version of a complex desktop app? Or would a companion app be more useful? One that leverages the phone’s touch screen, accelerometer, or gyroscope. That’s what I’ve been thinking about in my recent work at Adobe: applications across multiple devices that work together for the user, instead of either standing alone or replicating each other’s experiences.

Mobile First? Not So Fast

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘mobile first’ over and over, but it vastly oversimplifies a real design challenge. If developing for mobile first was always the winning decision, that would certainly make things easier. But this runs against the idea of designing for the user, on the device that works the best for them at that time.

What does ‘mobile’ really mean now? Mobile is associated with a host of attributes: portable, handheld, touch and motion input, location and orientation awareness, integrated camera, ubiquitous internet access, etc.

Smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, and laptop could all be considered ‘mobile,’ but clearly, they’re very different, both in terms of their capabilities as well as the context in which they’re used. Keeping these differences in mind will help you design smart, for the right platform.

Responsive to The User’s Environment

Think of a device and ask yourself, how can its unique capabilities bring additional utility or joy to that user? Keep in mind:

  • What is each device capable of?
  • What interactions make sense on that device (feel natural)?
  • How can those different devices come together to improve the overall experience?

Imagine a video editor’s workspace. You’d probably find a desktop computer and additional monitors that provide crucial screen real estate. The editor probably has a smartphone as well, maybe even a tablet. How can these devices enhance their desktop workflows? For example, could touch gestures be better suited than mouse clicks for navigating and selecting clips? Or maybe moving the ‘bin’ to a smartphone simply frees up desktop space for more frequently used panels?

Another example: for motion or lighting effects, instead of indicating a three-dimensional path on a two-dimensional screen, what if you could use a smartphone or tablet to simulate camera movement or position a light source? This is a concept that two of my teammates, Michael Cragg and Yaniv De Ridder, recently prototyped and is one of my favorite examples of an intuitive, device-specific interaction.

It’s About Users, Not Devices

In the end, it’s not about particular devices or technologies. It’s about the problems users face and the ways we can solve them using the most-effective technology available. As designers we should constantly ask ourselves, how can we help users complete a task quicker, easier, and in a more enjoyable way?

In a multi-device world, we have the opportunity to inspire users to do more with the apps we invest our time and energy into developing. This way, we can help them exceed their own expectations and make the biggest impact using our design and development resources.


Cathi provides product and business leadership to Adobe Design Studio, an experience incubator employing design-led iteration and prototyping to explore new product ideas. She has spent her career developing new products, ranging from a video ad platform to wireless earbuds. In her free time, she enjoys playing the violin and impromptu dance parties.

Originally published at blogs.adobe.com.


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