The Mobile Frontier

A Guide for Designing Mobile Experiences

By Rachel Hinman

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  • Mobile user experience is a new frontier. Untethered from a keyboard and mouse, this rich design space is ripe with opportunities to invent new and more human ways for people to interact with information. The Mobile Frontier will help you navigate this unfamiliar and fast-changing landscape, and inspire you to explore the possibilities that mobile technology presents.

    A must-read for anyone who cares about the future of digital media, The Mobile Frontier explains not only the technological revolution that’s upon us, but also the behavioral, cultural, and psychological changes (and opportunities) ushered in by mobile. If you’re not listening to Rachel Hinman, you’re not hooked up right.

    Josh Clark, Author, Tapworthy: Designing Great iPhone Apps

    Illustrations View all on Flickr

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    The Mobile Frontier Blog View all Blog posts

    Table of Contents

    Section One: What Makes Mobile Different?

    • Chapter 1: Casting Off Anchors
    • Chapter 2: The Emergent Mobile NUI Paradigm
    • Chapter 3: Peanut Butter in Denver
    • Chapter 4: Shapeshifting

    Section Two: Emergent Mobile Patterns

    • Chapter 5: Mobile UX Patterns

    Section Three: Crafting Mobile Experiences

    • Chapter 6: Mobile Prototyping
    • Chapter 7: Motion and Animation
    • Chapter 8: Awakening the Senses

    Section Four: The Future of Mobile UX

    • Chapter 9: New Mobile Forms

    FAQ

    These common questions about mobile design and their short answers are taken from Rachel Hinman’s book The Mobile Frontier. You can find longer answers to each in your copy of the book, either printed or digital version.

    1. Why is mobile UX such a hot topic right now?
      For what felt like the longest time, mobile UX was considered a small and obscure design space that most designers felt obliged to learn more about but loathed participating in because of all the inherent design constraints. The release of the first iPhone in 2007 changed all that. The iPhone demonstrated to the mobile industry and the world what was possible when innovative mobile technology was paired with a stellar user experience. The iPhone was more than an innovative product; it was the first mobile device that got people—regular, everyday people (not just the geeks)—excited about using a mobile phone. Now, as increasingly more people are experiencing what it’s like to access and interact with information from nearly anywhere, through devices that are beautifully designed, mobile is no longer a niche topic. There’s never been a better time to design mobile experiences.
      See Chapter 1 for more.
    2. What makes mobile user experience and design different?
      Practitioners of mobile UX design often cite context as the biggest difference between designing for mobile experiences and other design spaces.Developing an understanding and empathy for the depth, breadth, and design implications of the mobile context is quite possibly the most essential skill necessary in creating great mobile experiences. If you’re a practicing designer, chances are that context is your design blindside. Most designers have been steeped in a tradition of creating experiences with few context considerations, although they may not realize it. Books, Web sites, software programs, and even menus for interactive televisions share an implicit and often overlooked commonality: use occurs in relatively static and predictable environments. In contrast, most mobile experiences are situated in highly dynamic and unpredictable environments.
      See Chapter 3 for more information on designing for the mobile context.
    3. What modifications to my existing design processes do I need to make to create good mobile experiences?
      Mobile UX professionals use many of the same tools and processes as other UX professionals. Designers new to mobile UX must learn to calibrate their design decision-making skills to a new medium—and prototyping is essential in developing those decision-making skills. Although prototyping is considered a luxury for many PC-based experiences, it is an absolutely essential part of creating compelling tablet and mobile experiences. The reason is simple. Chances are, if you are new to mobile, your design experience and instincts aren’t very well tuned to mobile. Unlike the PC, the mobile design space is relatively new, and design patterns have yet to be formally codified. In lieu of experience and heuristics, the best way to develop these skills is to practice turning the brilliant ideas in your head into tangible experiences you and other people can engage with. Prototyping can become your saving grace in this regard.
      See Chapter 6 for tons of info on prototyping methods.
    4. How do I design for touchscreen experiences?
      One of the issues that makes designing for touchscreen experiences challenging for designers is that most of us have been steeped in a tradition of creating experiences using GUI (graphical user interface) principles. With the widespread uptake of mobile phones and tablets outfitted with touchscreens, we’re currently in the midst of a UI paradigm shift. Designers and UX professionals must now learn to create experiences that leverage NUI (natural user interface) principles. This includes learning the key differences between GUI and NUI, as well as understanding how to optimize experiences for touch.
      Chapter 2 will help you understand what makes NUI interesting and different, and Chapter 8 will give you valuable info on how to optimize screen-based experiences for touch UIs.
    5. Should I design a native mobile app, a mobile Web app, or a mobile Web site?
      Many experts in the mobile industry have deeply held philosophical viewpoints on this question and have been willing to fight verbal cage fights with those whose opinions differ. The short answer is: “It depends.” Chapter 4 covers some of the pros and cons of each approach. A word of caution: While this is an important implementation question to answer, it’s not necessarily the first question you should be asking at the beginning of a mobile user experience project. Ultimately, your goal should be to create a great user experience. Technology and implementation choices can help guide your design and decision-making process–but they should not dictate it.
      More on identifying mobile needs in Chapter 3.
    6. What does the future hold? What’s next for mobile user experience?
      In the near future, many designers and UX professionals will focus on pioneering the parts of the mobile frontier that have already been discovered. And that is a good place to be. But there’s a vast space just beyond what’s been discovered that some brave souls have already begun to explore. There are three mobile trends I’ve been tracking that I believe will have a profound impact on the future. These themes will not only redefine mobility, but they’ll also irrevocably alter the relationship we have with computing. They are: the shifting boundary between computers and the human body, the shifting boundary between computers and the environment, and mobile experiences for emerging markets.
      These topics will all be covered in Chapter 9.

    Excerpts

    • Chapter 6 (PDF)

    Foreword

    So here’s a little fact that feels surprising: Today on our small blue planet, more people have access to cell phones than to working plumbing. Think about that. Primitive plumbing has been around for over a thousand years. Modern working plumbing has been around for at least 200 years longer than the fleeting few years since 1984 when Motorola first ripped the phone off the wall and allowed us to carry it around. Most people find plumbing useful. Apparently, many millions more find cellular phones indispensible. Whenever big parts of modern life—the Internet, video games, search engines, smartphones, iPads, social networking systems, digital wallet payment systems—are so useful that we can no longer imagine life without them, we act as if they will forever be the way they are now. This childlike instinct has its charms, but it is always wrong and particularly dangerous for designers. People who think deeply about the built world necessarily must view it as fungible, not fixed. It is the job of thoughtful designers to notice the petty annoyances that accumulate when we use even devices we love—to stand in the future and think of ways to make it more elegantly functional, less intrusive, more natural, far more compelling. In the best such cases, designers need to surprise us—by radically altering what we think is possible. To create the futures we cannot even yet imagine.

    But the future is a scary place replete with endless options, endless unknowns. Of course, like everyone else, designers don’t have a crystal ball. There is a constant risk that we will make assumptions that turn out to be either too bold or too timid. Designers must rely instead on methods to think through which evolutionary and revolutionary shifts are most likely— among an infinite array of possibilities.

    In The Mobile Frontier, Rachel Hinman has tackled one of the most vital issues in the future of design: How will our lives change while we are on the go? She has used her vast prior experience in working to shape the future for Nokia, then added disciplined methods to do us four vital favors:

    Reveal the structures of current and coming mobile interfaces…

    Just as cars have gone through several design eras (remember tailfins?), The Mobile Frontier has clarified four waves of successive strategies that make a device successively easier and more pleasant to use. Whether you are a designer or simply an enthusiast, this is a revelation. It shows how the metaphors and strategies for how to use a device evolve as there is more processing power, memory, and display capabilities available to make a device better behaved.

    Uncover patterns in how we behave when we are mobile…

    When you observe people deeply enough, you discover something fundamental. While there are an infinite number of things people theoretically might do with mobile devices, inevitably the real activities we choose to do can be distilled into clear patterns with a few themes and variations. The Mobile Frontier has made these clear, so that the challenge of thinking about mobility becomes vastly more interesting, more tractable, and far easier to either improve or reinvent.

    Provide strategies for designing better mobile experiences…

    Whenever we want to improve or reinvent a category, there are some methods that are better than others. The Mobile Frontier helps lay out active design and prototyping strategies that make the otherwise daunting task of building new interface alternatives likely to succeed instead of fail. This allows designers to proceed with courage and confidence, knowing they can reliably imagine, develop, and test alternative interfaces, in order to get the future to show up ahead of its regularly scheduled arrival.

    Speculate about what will come next…

    Finally, The Mobile Frontier bravely peers down a foggy windy road to guess what lies around the corner. This is a task always doomed to failure in detail, but Rachel does a brilliant job of giving us the broad outlines. This is essential for helping us get past the trap of merely filigreeing around the edges of the known, to instead imagine the breakthroughs still to come.

    Collectively, these four deep insights advance the known boundaries of understanding today’s mobile devices and experiences. Thus, they help usher in the vastly new ones sure to emerge soon. Here’s why that matters: We are only three decades into one of the most important revolutions the world has ever seen. In design development terms, that is a mere blink. Just as the mobile device world has zipped past plumbing like a rocket sled would pass a slug, we simply must see ourselves at the very beginning of this revolution. With mobile devices, we are today where automobiles were when the Model T was the hottest thing on wheels. We will see vastly more change than most of us can possibly imagine. Through our mobile devices, we will find new advances in learning, security, community, interaction, understanding, commerce, communication, and exploration.

    Rachel Hinman is helping us make all that come along a little sooner, a lot easier, and far more reliably. See for yourself. Better yet, join in. Get a move on. Oh, and bring your devices. Let’s make ’em more amazing.

    Larry Keeley President and Co-Founder, Doblin, Inc.

    Acknowledgments

    While I am listed as the author, I couldn’t have written this book without the support of many people.

    First and foremost, I must thank Louis Rosenfeld for taking a chance on me. Thank you, Lou, for your support throughout the writing process and your flexibility around the design of this particular book. The user experience community is lucky to have you as an advocate.

    Marta Justak—you are just an awesome human being. Whether kind, supportive feedback or come-to-Jesus tough love, you always knew just what to say to keep me moving forward. Thank you, Marta. This book wouldn’t have happened without you. I’m thankful to have had you as an editor and now as a friend.

    Next, I feel a great sense of gratitude to the entire faculty of professors, instructors, staff, and students at the Institute of Design in Chicago where I received my masters in Human-Centered Design. From the legacy of Moholy-Nagy and the Bauhaus to the early beginnings of design planning and strategy cultivated by Jay Doblin—my experience at ID taught me the power design can have in the world. There was no professor who inspired me more than Larry Keeley. Larry, it was truly an honor to be one of your students. Thank you for writing the beautiful foreword to this book.

    I often think my career in design wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for my very first design mentor, the late Gino Lee. Thanks for taking a chance on me all those years ago, Gino. You showed me the ropes of being a professional designer and started me on this path. Your wisdom and mentorship sticks with me to this day. The world is a little darker without you here.

    In 2008, I met a man named Bob Ianuuci, and that meeting radically changed both my thinking about mobile user experience and the trajectory of my career. Thank you, Bob, for teaching me the importance of thinking big picture in this rapidly changing design space. I’d feel lucky to have even a measure of your vision and integrity. You are a priceless mentor and friend.

    Thank you to Josh Clark, Jon Kolko, and Oliver Weidlich for being generous, honest, and constructive with your early feedback of this book. Your comments made a huge difference, and this book is much better because of them.It was a joy and pleasure to interview the experts for this book. Thanks to Julian Bleeker, Alex Rainert, Mike Kruzeniski, as well as Stephanie and Bryan Rieger for your expertise and generosity. Both this book and the world are better with your perspectives in it.

    Dr. Jillian Kleiner, thank you for your patience, wisdom, and care . . . and for helping me find my way out of the bog.

    Thanks in spades go to my two dear friends, Mirjana Spasojevic and Sharon Priest. You’ve saved me from drowning in the undertow of life more times than I can count. Thank you, for being cheerleaders and shoulders to cry on during this process and throughout our friendship.

    John Shen and Quinn Jacobson at the Nokia Research Lab in Palo Alto are two men I will be indebted to for many years to come. They gave me, quite possibly, the most precious gift anyone can give a writer: the gift of time.

    Thank you for providing a supportive environment from which to create this book. It continues to be a privilege to work for you both.

    I have two friends and former colleagues to thank for the title of this book— Brian Cronin and Rachel Glaves. Your creation didn’t go to waste.

    While I concede it may seem odd to thank a pet in the acknowledgements of a book, I don’t think I would have survived the 14 months it took me to complete this publication without the unconditional love and companionship of my dog buddy, Stanley. Thanks, little guy. I owe you some much needed hikes and beach frolicking.

    I was fully warned that writing a book can feel like a never-ending slog. At times, it truly was. I also gladly assumed the risk of writing a book about a technology subject that’s changing faster than any technology subject before it—almost ensuring that much of what I wrote would be out of date before the book was published. I have my father, David Hinman, to thank for showing me the virtues of hard work, stepping up to risk, and following my instincts. I am glad I inherited your tenacity and optimism, Dad.

    Finally, I dedicate this book to my mother, Patricia Tiffany-Hinman. When you went to college, most women had two career options: nursing or teaching. Yet you raised me to believe I could do anything. I believed you and without that belief, both my career in mobile and this book would not exist. Thank you, mom, for your unwavering support and love—and most importantly for raising me to believe a woman can do anything she sets her mind to.

    Rachel Hinman, April 23, 2012, San Francisco, California

    Testimonials

    A must-read for anyone who cares about the future of digital media, The Mobile Frontier explains not only the technological revolution that’s upon us, but also the behavioral, cultural, and psychological changes (and opportunities) ushered in by mobile. If you’re not listening to Rachel Hinman, you’re not hooked up right.

    Josh Clark, Author, Tapworthy: Designing Great iPhone Apps

    In The Mobile Frontier, Rachel Hinman offers a comprehensive perspective on designing for mobile devices in support of mobile people. She draws on her decade of experience, and the results are highly readable, engaging, and—more importantly—actionable.

    Jon Kolko, Director, Austin Center for Design

    The “big picture thinking” you need to understand mobile computing and its astounding implications.

    Luke Wroblewski, Author, Mobile First

    Hinman dares us to get comfortable, calling the devices in our pockets “banks,” “health clinics,” and “movie theaters”—but not “phones.” Then she gives us the tools to build them ourselves. When everything else in mobile is shifting—the boundaries between computers and the human body, the boundaries between computers and the environment—Hinman’s book makes future possibilities clear.

    Liz Danzico, Chair, MFA in Interaction Design, School of VISUAL ARTS, New York City

    From tiny touchscreens to geo-located services, mobile devices have caused us to rethink how we design. If you’re looking for a primer on mobile fundamentals, look no further than The Mobile Frontier. In casual, easy-to-understand language, Rachel Hinman gives an overview of today’s mobile landscape—and tomorrow’s.

    Dan Saffer, Author of Designing for Interaction