Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Getting it together (the important business of cross-platform design) [post 35/100]

Remember the old days of design for mobile? I mean before the iPhone, when all we had were dumbphones and WAP? That was a gigantic pain in the arse. Screens were tiny, data connections were slow, touch screens were nonexistent. We had to very carefully select which portions of a web site we’d offer in the WAP version – if we offered too much, it would either never load or be a nightmare to navigate; if we offered too little, there would be no point. And no matter what we offered, it had to be the right thing, presented in the right way.

Now we’ve got smartphones and tablets and phablets and each of them has more technology – by a couple of orders of magnitude – than it took to send a man to the moon. We’ve increasingly got WiFi wherever we go (security issues notwithstanding), and we’ve got high-resolution touch screens, not to mention accelerometers and voice control and any number of other sensors for input.

So why are we still designing services that limit functionality on mobile devices?

The way I see it, it’s one, or more likely a combination of, the following:

  1. Someone decided at some point that the mobile version only needed to be a ‘Minimum Viable Product’ (which s/he probably put together without any user input) and nobody’s revisited that since
  2. The dev cycle has been moving so fast ever since that nobody’s had time to figure out what the cross-platform experience is
  3. The company has grown and the org structure is now so fragmented that nobody’s looking at the complete experience at all
  4. Laziness and/or lack of proper respect for the user

Whichever is the reason/excuse, it’s rubbish. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been frustrated because something I can do on my laptop on, say, Spotify (sorry Spotify, you’re by no means the only offender, but you’re the one who’s frustrated me today) is either not possible, or so cunningly hidden I can’t find it, or just a completely different (and thus bewildering) experience.

At least in the startup world, I think this is a result of the balancing act between the need to go fast and the need to do it right. In the world of more established products and services (I’m looking at you, iTunes), I’ve got no idea what the excuse might be. Here’s the thing: in order to develop at maximal speed, work needs to be broken down into more manageable chunks. But to make sense to the people at the other end, it has to all fit together coherently and make sense not just on one device, but across all the devices a person might own (and it’s become the norm to own more than one).

I’m not talking about consistency – the same exact interface crammed onto whatever sized screen is available is almost never a good idea. What I’m talking about is coherence, familiarity, the feeling that I as a user understand how it all works and what I can expect. This is the challenge of designing truly great cross-platform experiences, and it’s a challenge that’s only going to get bigger and meaner as we move into new technologies that have no screens at all.

Make no mistake, this is not easy: different mobile platforms have different native controls to which a service’s experience needs to adjust. Especially with complex services, it can be difficult to strike the right balance between how the service works and how the platform works, what’s familiar and what’s different. It’s hard, but it’s necessary. This is one of the ways in which experience design and development diverge – development must focus on what works best for each individual platform; design needs to work for users across platforms.

This is why – I’ll just come out and say it – experience design doesn’t work well in sprints: because experiences aren’t, ahem, experienced in small bits by their users. There has to be a bigger-picture framework holding all the pieces together and tracking their relationships to one another, so that when something changes on one platform, or an entirely new device emerges, the whole operation doesn’t grind to a halt, and a good, familiar, coherent experience can still be delivered across the whole of the user’s ecosystem.

Years ago, a COO asked me what’s more important: revenue/margin, or quality of design. I said they’re equally vital – there is a healthy, natural, necessary tension between the two. But if compromises always favour creative quality, then margins will contract and the company won’t be able to sustain itself, no matter how much great work it does. On the other hand, if compromises always favour margins, the quality of work will suffer, and pretty soon there won’t be revenue to earn margins on.

This is as true now as it was then, if not more so. Yes, it’s important to move quickly and manage funds carefully. But it’s also important to produce good design – and that means getting it together across platforms and devices. With all the choice in the marketplace today, users who’ve had a bad experience are more likely than ever to just walk away.