whither mobile?

Last week, my colleague Janice wrote an inspiring essay entitled, “It’s A Whole New Internet.” She addresses the zeitgeist of excitement around web development, talking up tags, Ajax, developer idealism, and the like.

One thing missing from her essay is any mention of design for mobile devices. Three or four years ago, all signs pointed to mobile being the Next Big Thing. I fully expected the mobile design community to have the starry-eyed excitement and energy that the web design community had in 1996, 1997. And that mobile design would genuinely excite people.

Why hasn’t that happened? Why haven’t any mobile and device design innovations had the same level of engagement, interest, and excitement that Ajax and folksonomies have had? Where are the passionate back-and-forths about the implications of mobile device innovation?

I fully recognize that this may just be me. That maybe I’m not witness to the communities speaking passionately on these issues. But I’m surprised that such discussions haven’t gotten more mainstream by this time.

I did some searching around, and the amount of quality discussion on developing good user experiences for devices is surprisingly low. The bulk of the discussion seems to hover around utilizing web standards so that your site can be viewed in mobile browsers. That strikes me as fundamentally uninteresting. I did, however, come across two very thoughtful pieces that suggest we must fundamentally reconsider design for mobile devices. It’s not just about making things smaller:

Mobilize, Don’t Miniaturize is an essay by Barbara Ballard making clear that the approach to designing for mobile is not to take an existing app and try to make it work for a very small screen, but instead to understand the context of mobile use and utilize that for applications specific to mobile.

In a similar vein,Design For Small Screens(PDF) is a presentation by Marc Rettig wherein he states near the beginning, “It’s about more than just screen size.” Filled with lots of good photos.

11 thoughts on “whither mobile?

  1. I think this is right on. Part of the problem is that the phonesets just aren’t great for data. We’re rarely that far away from a superior data access device (large screen, full size keyboard, broadband with good latency) long enough to have a significant need for “mobile”.

    And then the second big problem is, as you note, that all attempts so far have tried to deliver the web on mobile. It’s absolutely critical to instead try to figure out what mobile’s reason for being could be.

  2. Lots of people care about doing good and relevent design for mobile devices. Few of them do it for products that US mobile users can buy or use. Look at the stuff that Jones and Heathecote are doing at Nokia for example, especially around physical interaction and near-field communication. Or look at the mobile video projects Fabio Sergio works on. There are very definately passionate conversations going on and innovative ideas out there. John Thackara’s new book has a lot about the context for mobile device design, although also from the perspective of a totally different kind of market.

    I’m sure that “good user experience” to us is quite different from what teenagers in Tokyo or Helsinki want, but obviously there’s an enormous and apparently happy universe of users there. Who knows if there’s research in Finnish or Japanese that’s not available to us?

  3. Lots of people care about doing good and relevent design for mobile devices. Few of them do it for products that US mobile users can buy or use. Look at the stuff that Jones and Heathecote are doing at Nokia for example, especially around physical interaction and near-field communication. Or look at the mobile video projects Fabio Sergio works on. There are very definately passionate conversations going on and innovative ideas out there. John Thackara’s new book has a lot about the context for mobile device design, although also from the perspective of a totally different kind of market.

    I’m sure that “good user experience” to us is quite different from what teenagers in Tokyo or Helsinki want, but obviously there’s an enormous and apparently happy universe of users there. Who knows if there’s research in Finnish or Japanese that’s not available to us?

  4. As Andrew noted, a lot depends on where you live.

    Pacific west coast, Europe, North America all have different blends of landline-vs-mobile, voice-vs-texting, data applications… part of the difference is due to hardware release cycles, part of it is due to the local carriers, part of it is due to the national regulatory structure, part of it is due to how people culturally use the devices.

    “Why haven’t any mobile and device design innovations had the same level of engagement, interest, and excitement that Ajax and folksonomies have had?”

    Different people talking, yes? How many Flickr tags are in Japanese, how many Technorati tags are translated behind-the-scenes…?

  5. Okay. Maybe it is geographic. But where are those discussions? Where is that passion? Where do I learn about what’s happening in device design? Because Google searches turned up remarkably little.

  6. Where do I learn about what’s happening in device design? Because Google searches turned up remarkably little.

    Be sure not to limit yourself to thinking of this topic as “UI design for software on mobile phones.” Check the links I added above. Nokia’s in-house blog The Feature is a bit self-serving, but often has interesting stuff. You’ll find a lot of passion among the people working loosely around the topic of “locative media” (goolgle that term). Regine at we-make-money-not-art posts constantly about interesting (though often impractical) design innovations, many of them around mobile design.

    Besides Thackara’s book, you might also look at Malcolm McCullough’s “Digital Ground” from 2004 on the broader topic of design for “situated computing.”

  7. It’s a different culture. Most of the mobile data applications today seem to be in Japan and Korea. People do maintain weblogs there, but the feel is a little different — particularly when you’re working with a business, it’s difficult to post information outside of the business — group dynamics and expectations differ from California.

    One of the best ways I’ve seen so far to track Japanese mobile development is to look at the finished results, rather than the development process… these two sites scan the marketplace, so that you can see the results of what different groups have accomplished:
    http://akihabaranews.com/en/
    http://www.wirelesswatch.jp/

    There’s good mobile work coming out of India now too, for the parts of the world where the devices are available, but these projects are also more from businesses than from individuals, and so there’s not as much conversation in Technorati as about Flickr tagging and such.

    jd/mm

  8. Peter’s spot on with this. I’ve decided to bite the bullet and create a site dedicated to tracking and discussing (interaction) design related news, articles and resources for small technology (including mobile tech).

    So, here is Small Surfaces.

    I hope that this site will at least create a space that helps people interested in design for the mobile space track what’s going on.

    I’m open to all suggestions, so please take a look and give me tips and pointers.

  9. Speaking of “passion”, I couldn’t resist adding one more link to an article about Genevieve Bell’s research (for Intel) which contains this:

    “Suddenly this device that I use to keep in touch with my family and friends became a way of keeping in touch with your inner spiritual life and your God.”

  10. I think that the problem is that development for phones has been primarily one of opportunity. Access to developing stuff for phones is largely controlled by service providers, who also control the core technologies and the standards, thus creating a very narrow, tightly controlled space for people to be able to create experiences in. You couldn’t have the evolution of something like Ruby on Rails in the mobile space because of the difficulty in accessing the underlying technology. Moreover, there’s SO much money riding on it that much development gets snatched up and the IP classified as soon as it leaves someone’s mouth, so there’s no public discussion. Look at the people who Andrew cites: Jones, Heathcoate and Sergio ALL work for mobile companies, so they have access to the tools and ideas that allow them to experiment.

    If (and that’s a big IF) the providers ever allow people to develop for mobile with the freedom they enjoy on the Web, I think you’ll see a similar amount of interest.

    Besides, there are fashions everywhere and everyone gets excited about some technologies for a while before the hype burns out and people settle down to figuring out what it all really means. Remember collaborative filtering? Push? They both exist, in some form or another, today but aren’t the darlings they were in ’96 and ’98.

  11. It’s flattering to be mentioned (even if no-one can spell my name right ;) ). It is a pretty small industry so far, and people within it aren’t very vocal on the web. Check out conferences such as Mobile HCI to get to the heart of academic research.

    Peter specifically talks about web and wap, and I can say that designing for this is very constraining. I can count the number of good mobile visual designers on one hand. Likewise there are few good mobile application interaction designers – taking web metaphors to small-screen applications just does not work (mobile xhtml sites are pretty easy once you get your head around the possibilities).

    It’s not true that designers can’t start investigating and playing with this stuff now. Most operators do allow access to the Internet and web sites, 3G and EV-DO mean that speed is acceptable, and device browsers have improved astronomically in the last 2 years.

    If you want to try building applications, platforms like Series 60 (or even UIQ or BREW) allow you to build stuff right now, in a variety of languages. I’m very excited about Python on Series 60, as it’s easy to prototype rich Internet applications using the standard Series 60 UI toolkit.

    I’ll admit, I’ve been lucky to work in places where I can design deep UI changes to mobile devices, and learn from that. The best education is simply trying out as many devices, applications and websites as possible. There is innovation out there, but isn’t as immediately viscerally exciting and newsworthy as the fast-flowing river of Internet innovation.