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Think Mobile

One of the best ways to avoid feature battles is to focus your attention on designing for mobile platforms such as Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Strategically, it’s also one of the best things you can do for your business. Consider this story:

Recently, after boarding a flight to San Francisco for the Voices That Matter conference (hosted by New Riders, of course), a man in his early 30s sat next to me and pulled out his iPhone. The older gentleman who sat on the other side of him asked about it. What was it like to use it? How easy was it really? Wow, it sure does look fast, and neat. The younger man answered every question with growing enthusiasm. I’d seen it a hundred times before—the iPhone frequently turns otherwise perfectly jaded people into vehement, adept Apple sales representatives. But then the younger man said something that surprised me. When the older man asked the younger man what he did for work, he replied:

“I’m a cop.”

He wasn’t a designer. Or a marketing guru. Or a social media expert. Or an entrepreneur. He wasn’t heading to a tech conference or a sales seminar. He wasn’t at all the kind of person I normally see have a conversation like this one. He was a cop—a middle-class guy who puts on a blue uniform every day and relies on walkie-talkies to communicate—heading off to meet some old college friends for the weekend.

“I hardly ever use my computer anymore. I can do it all on this thing.”

Touchscreens and gestural interfaces have taken rise. Long gone are the days when the Internet was considered the new frontier. Personal tech has taken over. Devices are the new new frontier.

And this, my friend, is a very good thing.

Over the next few years, as the obstacles to the adoption of mobile devices are eliminated, more and more people will trade in their desktop and laptop computers and start using devices exclusively. Apple and its competitors in the smartphone and tablet markets will make sure of that. And while many people in the tech industry still see some of these gadgets as luxury items—often even wondering what on Earth they would do with a tablet—these devices are designed for the other 99 percent. They’re designed for that large segment of the population that uses computers for paying bills, social networking, making plans, watching videos, checking the news, listening to music, digging up recipes, learning new skills, creating spreadsheets for work, writing memos, and of course, checking email. These people use computers primarily for media consumption, web browsing, and basic document-creation. And that’s exactly what the iPad and other tablets are designed to do best.

As these products evolve and get cheaper, it will simply be more affordable and more useful to buy a touchscreen tablet backed by a catalog of cheap and easy-to-use apps, with its ever-expanding array of possible use cases, than it will be to buy a desktop, laptop, or even a netbook. More people than ever before will be able to empower themselves through the Internet, and they’ll be able to use it anywhere they want. The air will be completely filled with Wi-Fi signals, and all the world’s information—all your information—will be quite literally at your fingertips, anytime, anyplace..

Personal tech is now affordable by the masses, useful for the masses, and usable by the masses. And this will only become more true in the years to come. If you’re not designing for it now, you’re already late.

But even if you ignore this fundamental shift in personal computing, devices are good for application designers for other reasons—specifically, because they force designers to follow the principles of good application design.

The people designing for devices right now are doing a better job of embracing these principles than most people designing for the desktop ever have. The constraints of the medium—the limited screen space, risk of network slowdowns, difficulties of multitasking, and so on—are having the happy side-effect of encouraging designers to design more concise applications.

Southwest Airlines offers a great example. Here’s the site in a desktop browser.

Naturally, the site offers a way to book a flight, car, or hotel. In fact, in this desktop version, there are two sets of tabs that offer this, one of which lets you fill out the reservation form on the homepage, the other of which takes you to another page to do it. Why? Well, because the larger tabs at the top are more than just links—they’re menus. The Air tab, for example, offers a menu chock-full of links to other information, including a list of destinations Southwest flies to. And yes, plenty of people will seek out this information. But the natural effect is that the design takes up a lot of space, offers a lot of options, and requires a lot of scanning and decision-making.

The Southwest Airlines iPhone app, however, focuses only on what’s absolutely necessary. On the iPhone, users can find this information by checking the To Where option on the Book a Flight screen.

Now, let’s say you want to see how your Rapid Rewards stockpile is coming along. On the desktop version, there is a large Rapid Rewards tab-like link near the top of the page, an accordion tab labeled My Rapid Rewards, and a sign-in form that asks for your Rapid Rewards number. Which one is right? Which step do you take first?

In the iPhone app, you tap Rapid Rewards. It leads to a sign-in screen.

One of these things is so much clearer than the other.

Hey, it’s your life

So if you still wonder what on Earth you’d do with a tablet, there’s your answer. You’d secure your own future as a designer. As a marketing guru. A social media expert. An entrepreneur.

Don’t neglect to see the significance of mobile computing because you’re busy sitting at a desk with a souped-up PC, a killer video card, and 8 feet of monitor space displaying 75 open Photoshop files. Yes, you’ll have to continue doing a lot of your design work there. Yes, it will continue being easier to do design work there. But don’t delude yourself that your customers will always and forever be sitting at a desk when they use your products. They won’t be.

Use your desktop computer. Just use it to design for devices. And make sure a tablet is sitting next to it.

Throughout the rest of this book, I’ll discuss mobile-specific considerations alongside our discussion of design principles for effective applications.

Not present at time of photo

Sadly, at the time of this writing, there is no device-friendly version of Blinksale. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

A competing invoicing application, Ballpark, does offer a mobile-friendly dashboard. It’s not much, but it offers a cursory view of your recent activity.

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