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The Mobile Future of UX

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Robert Hoekman, Jr. talks about the profound impact PC Free and the mobile revolution in general will have on web designers.
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The crowd erupted in applause with each announcement. Steve Jobs and other faces of Apple reported from the WDC stage that Lion would come equipped with an iOS-like Launchpad feature,that apps would go fullscreen, and that AutoSave and Versions would save us all from crashes and other disasters. Then came the parade of iOS announcements: a notification center, reminders, camera access even when the phone is locked, syncing over wi-fi. And as the keynote neared its end, out came the news of iCloud, the cloud-based storage and backup solution that will take Amazon and Dropbox head-on.

But did we miss the best part?

Buried in a rapid-fire list of features was a little-noticed gem, glossed over, barely acknowledged. It just happened to be the one that kept my fingers crossed in the months leading up to the keynote. It's called PC Free, and if you're a web design professional, it will have a profound impact on your work in the coming years.

PC Free, in More Ways Than One

As an iOS user, PC Free is a feature you don't even have to think about. You don't have to open it up, configure it, or remember to check it. It "just works." And it’s amazing.

PC Free is the feature that liberates iOS devices from the mothership. No longer do iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad users, upon returning home from the Apple store, unbox their new favorite thing only to discover that the first step towards iOS mastery is syncing the damn thing to a computer. PC Free will have deep and lasting effects, not only on technology, but on culture. Make no mistake: this single, invisible feature is a game changer.

By freeing device owners from the constraint of having to own a desktop or laptop computer, Apple sets itself up to not only destroy what's left of the netbook market, but lay a path for a massive new audience.

How can this be? Before you assume I've gone off the rails by assigning exaggerated value to these little devices that so many tech geeks struggle to find purposeful in their own lives, take a moment to remember a fact you typically take pride in: you're not like everyone else.

iPad wasn't designed for you, it was designed for the other 99%. It was designed for the people who use their computers in the most typical ways: for shopping, browsing, researching, sharing, social networking, banking, emailing, writing, and reading. Where you spend your days filling every pixel across 10 feet worth of monitor space with Photoshop files and code, the other 99% have other things to do β€” other kinds of jobs, and other purposes for their computers. And many of them, if not most of them, could survive happily with nothing more than an iPad.

In the coming years, countless desktops and laptops will be replaced, not supplemented, by tablets. In a year, the baseline model iPad will be $100-200 cheaper. In 3 years, the cost of this type of personal tech will be no more prohibitive than an iPod Touch is right now. People who could previously not afford to update their 5-year-old computers, or who never bought them in the first place, will be put on a level playing field with those of us who are practically mainlining the Internet now. And they will reap all the same benefits and opportunities.

Embracing Constraints and Reigniting Passion

As a design professional, the impact of this should be clear.

It means that your days of designing only for the web are nearing their end, if they've not ended already. Any debate over whether or not to design for mobile is now moot. You no longer have the option to choose to ignore mobile users.

As such, you'll focus your skills more and more on the constraints of mobile screens. In the absence of a mouse, you'll design hit areas large enough for stubby fingers to tap them. In the absence of visible scrollbars, you'll design to guide the user's eye downwards to encourage scrolling. In the absence of a required physical keyboard, you'll design to cut keystrokes by autofilling more information and asking for less of it in the first place. In the absence of giant monitors, you'll limit your designs to their most essential elements, using a strong visual hierarchy, and creating adaptable layouts that work well no matter the device. In the absence of mouse hover states, you'll surface the information you now hide behind rollovers, and you'll use clear affordances on tappable elements. (And because much of your old lingo will no longer apply, you'll start using use words like "tappable," and "pinchable," and "rotatable.")

In other words, you'll start doing the things you should have been doing all along when designing for desktop browsers. And if you are already accustomed thinking this way, you'll become even better at it. You'll become more responsible, more focused, and more effective designers.

Beyond that, you'll become intensely concerned with how to handle the lack of file management systems on mobile devices (for starters, how will users upload avatars?). You'll scream for device-makers to support transferring photos and videos and documents of all kinds between applications, and get excited by the challenge of working around the problem in the meantime. You'll struggle to figure out how to fully support every ounce of functionality your site requires for users who aren't just "on the go," but flat-out have no option to use a desktop computer.

You'll invent more and more ways to perform usability tests on mobile apps and sites, poking holes in each one and writing blog posts about this method over that method. You'll extend vulture-like talons to snatch up every wireframing and prototyping tool to come along for mobile design. You'll take up coffeehouse seats with your designer friends for hours on end to debate the virtues of one design methodology and technique after another.

Though some of these are things you do now, your vigor for them will be renewed. If you're a veteran, you'll feel like you did back in the early days of the web. If you're newer in the profession, the mobile wave will buy you another five years before you start counting yourself among the old and jaded.

And to think: news of this future was delivered as but one of a stream of feature announcements to cross Mr. Jobs' lips that fateful day.

Whoever you are, be grateful. The wild west of Internet-driven technology has started once again. And though we're a whole lot more prepared now than we were the first time around, challenges will rise daily to test our wills and skills. But each one, if we let it be, will be invigorating.

I, for one, can't wait.

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