Mobile experience design is about more than screen size

28 May 2016

The difference in screen size is the obvious difference between the desktop interface and the smartphone interface.

The web industry’s main response to the challenge of multiple and varied screens sizes, responsive design, has contributed handsomely to greatly improved single-code interfaces that deliver consistent experiences across devices.

A device exists for every 10 pixels of screen width, from the largest desktop to the smallest smartphone, and responsive code provides designers with a means of rendering interfaces fluidly in this highly non-standard environment.

However, we miss the point if we feel that responsive design represents a panacea for mobile experience design, and that somehow by using it that the mobile box is ticked, or that a website or app is now somehow “mobile friendly”.

This is because the technical context surrounding a mobile device provides only one source of context, and the designer ignores the others at his peril.

Context is key

Technical context includes not just a smaller screen, but also less predictable data speeds, variable device capabilities and – depending on your smartphone of choice – very finite battery life.

Environmental context layers another level of potentially relevant factors into the design process. While not relevant for all projects, the smartphone knows the time of day, the language of the user, the location of the user and even the weather. So, when you open Hailo and it knows where you are and invites you to “Hailo Taxi Now”, it only requires one call to action because everything else is pre-loaded using environmental information.

I have never told Google Now where I live, nor have I ever told it where my office is. But every morning in life, as I leave my driveway, an alert comes on to my mobile reading “22 (or similar) minutes to Belfast right now. Traffic is light.” When I leave the office to drive home the alert reads “19 minutes to Dunadry right now. Traffic is normal.” And if there has been an accident, or traffic is untypically slow, I get advised to pursue an alternative route.

Google can offer me this level of usefulness because it values environmental context.

However, it also values the final area of context, which is behavioural.

Good behaviour

This refers to previous behaviour of the user, and there are few better indicators of future behaviour than past behaviour. It’s hard to imagine a better way for Google to know where I work than to observe where I travel from and to each morning. Nor where I live than to identify where I stay overnight most nights, or spend most of my weekend, or where I travel to when I leave the office each night.

Behavioural context also explores previous search behaviour, my social media activity (likes, follows, comments etc), my peers’ social media activity reviews, peer interactions, purchase history, websites visited and previous web activity. All of this leaves powerful clues to the designer about what the user might be most interested in, which helps craft the experience design.

Data for breakfast

One of my favourite lazy Saturday morning breakfasts is pancakes with fruit and fresh cream, and strong coffee. I rarely get to have it because it’s rarely done really well. More pertinently, I seldom have the time. There is a place close to where I live that does pancakes and coffee to perfection, so that’s where I go, when I get the chance.

Few do indulgent breakfasts better than the Americans, so I want you to imagine I’m in Boston and, on a particular morning, I have time to indulge myself with strong coffee and fresh pancakes with cream. My first challenge is to find a breakfast restaurant in the city that can provide me with that, and my question is “what should I type into Google” to find such a place?

The answer? “Breakfast”

That’s it. That’s all I would need to type in. A search term that without context is virtually meaningless now has lots of meaning because of Google’s endless pursuit of context. Google knows where I am, it knows what specific types of breakfast I like based on previous social media activity, it knows what breakfast places are open locally, it knows what their ratings are on TripAdvisor (or similar) and it knows how long it will take me to get to those places.

In less than a second, Google has returned me the names of the relevant breakfast bars in the city and directions how to get there.

Sergey Brin has been clear about his vision for his invention and the centrality of context in delivering on it. “My vision when we started Google 15 years ago was that eventually you wouldn’t have to have a search query at all. You’d just have information come to you as you needed it.”

We’d do well to mimic Brin’s relentless focus on pursuing context to improve the mobile experience, by recognising its full breadth, covering technical, environmental and behavioural elements.

Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Three, Ordnance Survey Ireland, PSNI, Permanent TSB and Tesco Mobile. Visit Fathom online at

Happy woman with mobile phone image via Shutterstock