The Mobile Frontier Blog

A Guide for Designing Mobile Experiences

Posts written by Rachel Hinman

  • Mobile Context – The Chapter that Nearly Killed Me

    Posted on


    The mantra I scrawled in
    serial-killer-styled handwriting across a draft of the latest chapter of The
    Mobile Frontie
    should give you a sense of how fun the chapter on
    “mobile context” was to write.

    Haunted, tortured,
    frustrated, angry… all those words fit my state of mind over the last month and
    a half.

    But it’s done! I finished
    it today and it didn’t kill me. I’m hoping for smoother sailing as I tackle the
    chapters that lie ahead. Plus, I’m planning to start the mobile expert
    interviews in earnest and plan to post them here. They should be fun so stay

    I’ve enclosed some excerpts from
    the context chapter (that I slayed like a dragon) below. Comments and
    feedback are welcomed!




    Practitioners of mobile UX
    often cite context as the biggest difference between designing for mobile user
    experiences and other design spaces. But what does “the mobile context” really

    Early in my career I worked
    on a research project designed to answer that very question. We recruited ten
    participants and asked them to photograph their surrounding environment each
    and every time they used their mobile device. The research team hoped these
    photos would reveal a pattern – that somehow through analyzing all these
    images, we could crack the code of the mysterious and elusive mobile context.

    A week later, we were
    drowning in a sea of photographs. Some photos were predictable “on-the-go”
    shots often associated with the mobile context: the inside of a supermarket,
    interiors of buses or trains, and “street shots” taken by users while rushing
    down the street. Other environments were surprising: an interior shot of a
    public restroom, a bedroom, the interior of a church even. After many days of
    sifting, sorting and clustering photographs the research team came to a
    sobering conclusion:

    Mobile context = anywhere and

    It wasn’t the
    earth-shattering, code-cracking conclusion we’d hoped for. It did however
    underscore one of the most fundamental aspects of designing for mobile user
    experiences. Unlike the static and predictable PC context, the mobile context
    is a lot like life. It’s unpredictable, ambiguous… it’s everywhere. The sheer
    number and variance of environments depicted in the photographs we received
    emphasized one of the most magical aspects of mobile user experience that is
    still true today. The ability to access, consume, share, and create information
    from anywhere – untethered from a keyboard and mouse – is a latent human need
    mobile technology has only begun to solve.


    Developing a Sympathy to

    Compelling mobile
    experiences share a common characteristic – they are sympathetic to the
    constraints of the mobile context. Underneath all the hoopla mobile folk make
    about the importance of context is the recognition of a skill that everyone
    interested in this medium must grow: both sympathy and curiosity for the
    complexity of designing for everywhere. It’s not a skill most grow overnight –
    but rather something most of us learn through trial and error. And like any
    skill, the learning never stops.

    Throughout the course of my
    career, there are three design principles that have emerged through my own
    painful process of developing this skill. I’ve found them invaluable for coping
    and dealing with “the everywhere” that is the mobile context of use. 

    They are:


    1.   Focus on
    creating experiences that are uniquely mobile

    2.   Design for
    partial attention and interruption

    3.   Reduce
    cognitive load and opportunity cost


    2. Design for Partial
    Attention and Interruption

    A key
    constraint most users are confronted with on a daily basis is allocating their
    two most precious resources: their time and attention. In a chaotic,
    time-and-attention-starved world, the last thing people want is to be
    fascinated by a mobile phone. Even if the mobile application or web site you’ve
    designed is the coolest experience in the world, you’ll be lucky to get a
    fraction of a user’s time and attention. Expecting mobile experiences to be
    immersive is unrealistic. Instead, be sympathetic to the conditions of the
    mobile context and design with partial attention and interruption in mind.


    A metaphor that helped me
    tune my sympathies to the time and attention constraints of a typical mobile
    user has been to compare PC and mobile experiences to a pair of similar yet
    fundamentally different water activities; scuba diving and snorkeling.



    PC experiences
    are like scuba diving. 

    Mobile experiences are like snorkeling.

    PC experiences are
    scuba-like because they are designed to be immersive. Just as a wet suit and a
    tank of air enables scuba divers to plunge deep into the ocean and become
    immersed in the exploration of a different world, the large screen, and static
    environment implicit during PC use enables users to become immersed in the
    rich, graphical world behind their computer monitor. Just as it’s easy for
    scuba divers to maneuver through the water, it’s easy for PC users to move
    through content quickly and easily with the precision afforded by a keyboard
    and mouse. Overlapping windows and visual cues allow for easy exploration of
    multiple applications and documents at one time. Just like the world beneath
    the ocean, the PC invites exploration and discovery. Engagement is prized.

    Mobile is akin to snorkeling
    because attention is divided. Similar to snorkelers who float on the surface of
    the water and must ride with the ebb and flow of the ocean, mobile users often
    need to access content while in an uncontrollable and unpredictable
    environment. Snorkelers tend to dip in and out of the water in search of
    interesting seascapes, just as mobile users “dip in and dip out” of content and
    information. The dynamics of both snorkeling and mobile experiences make it
    inherently difficult for users to get totally immersed because attention is
    divided. Slow connection speeds and small screen sizes do not allow users to
    multi-task or become engrossed.         

    Emergent Computing Paradigms

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    Bill squared, the interaction design duo of Bill Verplank and Bill Moggridge, created a framework to describe six computing paradigms. Bill Verplank asserts the first three are firmly established computing paradigms, while the final three are paradigm predictions he thinks will take shape in the future. (sketch by Bill Verplank below)


    • Computer as PERSON

    • Computer as TOOL
    • Computer as MEDIA  
    • Computer as LIFE      
    • Computer as FASHION
    • Computer as VEHICLE

    I agree with their first three paradigms. Computer as person, tool and media accurately express the paradigms that have given shape to the computing landscape for the last 50 years. Where my opinions differ is on predictions for future paradigms. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, but LIFE, VEHICLE and FASHION seem vague and difficult to envision with any specificity.  

    There are three similar yet distinct future paradigms I’ve been tracking that I believe will become important and emergent in the years to come. They are:

    • Computer as ORGANIC MATERIAL
    • Computers as INFRASTRUCTURE
    • Computers as SOCIAL CURRENCY

    What does this have to do with mobile experiences? Gone are the days of computing in a static environment. I’ve long believed that mobile phones aren’t really phones anymore. Instead, they are precursors – tangible instantiations of what computing experiences will evolve into. As such, our experiences with mobile devices offer early glimpses into new computing paradigms. Nothing illuminates ideas about the future like a good science fiction reference, so I’ve leaned on a couple favorites to communicate these ideas in the list below.

    Computing Paradigms: Past, Present, and Future


    Computer as Person
    Initially, computers were conceived of as “intelligent agents” or “electronic brains”. In this paradigm, computers act as intermediaries between humans and the digital world of information. To reinforce the notion of computer as person, designers give systems that reflect this paradigm anthropomorphic qualities such as interfaces that “listen” or “hear” human commands. Computers in this paradigm are intelligent agents that can replace the need for humans to perform mundane tasks. Research areas like computer visioning, artificial intelligence and robotics continue in this tradition by trying to give computers human-like attributes.

    Key Values:
    • Computers as an assistant or servant
    • Command and control
    • Computers can replace people

    Expressed in interactions through:
    • Voice Commands
    • Text/language interfaces
    • Text input
    • Programming

    Existing Examples:
    • Clippy
    • Command line interfaces.
    • Voice-driven interfaces

    Examples from Science Fiction
    • Hal in 2010
    • Sonny in I, Robot


    Computer as Tool

    The notion that computers are a tool that can augment human intelligence emerged in the 1970’s and has been best exemplified by the desktop metaphor and the graphical user interface. Instead of replacing people, the computer as tool paradigm relies on our ability to view computers as we would a hammer a pen – as a tool for completing tasks. This paradigm supports the notion that computers exist to enable people to be more efficient through our own agency. It celebrates values like utility, task completion, and efficiency. Many of the hallmarks of interaction design used today are deeply anchored in the “computer as tool” paradigm.

    Key Values:
    • Computers should empower people
    • “Getting stuff done”
    • Utility and usability
    • Computers should be useful and efficient

    Expressed in interactions through:
    • Metaphorics
    • “The desktop”
    • Graphical user interface
    • WIMP
    • Mouse and Keyboard

    Existing Examples:
    • Microsoft Office
    • Email
    • Folders and Files
    • Using your mobile phone as a remote

    Science Fiction Examples:
    • PreCrime tools in Minority Report

    Computer as Media
    The notion that computers could act as distributors of media existed before the 1990s. However, it wasn’t until the widespread proliferation of the Internet that the “computers as media” paradigm got traction and became convincing. Instead of tools for efficiency, computers bear a likeness to televisions and radios in that they distribute media. Instead of helping people complete tasks, computers provide content that can be watched, read, heard, engaged with and enjoyed. This paradigm celebrates values like engagement, expression, content distribution, play and access. In this paradigm content can be prismed through a variety of devices – televisions, computers, mobile phones, and portable media players. As such, anything that can deliver content and provides an engaging and immersive experience is “a computer.”

    Key Values:
    • Computers should entertain us
    • Expression and Engagement
    • Immersive experiences
    • Focus on content
    • Play
    • Persuasion

    Expressed in interactions through:
    • Web Pages
    • Content stores (iTunes, Netflix)
    • Game consoles
    • Convergence
    • GUI/NUI Hybrid interfaces
    • Content as the interface

    Existing Examples:
    •  YouTube
    • Online publication (ex:
    • MP3 Players
    • Napster
    • Wii
    • Reading a book on an iPad or mobile phone

    Example from Science Fiction:


    Computers as Organic Material
    What if everything in the environment was embedded with computing power? Or if computing and information had organic qualities? Similar to Verplank and Moggridge’s “computer as life” metaphor, the “computers as organic material” paradigm predicts a fluid, natural, almost biological perspective on our relationship to computers and information. Instead of media streaming through “dumb terminals” such as computers, TVs and mobile devices, computing and information are ambient forces woven into the fabric of the world. Sensors are everywhere; computers are embedded into everything in the environment. Monolithic devices are not only de-emphasized, they are supplanted by an ecosystem of smaller, more portable devices or large public monitors built into the environment. Instead of focusing on devices, people focus on data and information. We come to understand data and data patterns as if it they’re a biological form. The dynamic and life-like qualities of data are celebrated. Systems allow information to forms and reform by connecting to other data, making computer experiences contextual and adaptive.  Computers can anticipate human intent, making interactions “quiet” and “dissolving into human behavior.”

    Key Values:
    • Computing is embedded into the fabric of the world.
    • Computing is quiet and seamless
    • Computing has biological qualities
    • Focus on data and information instead of devices
    • Data empowers us to make better decisions

    Existing Precursors:
    • Smart Environments
    • Organic interfaces
    • Sensors that turn lights on and off
    • Sensors embedded into textiles
    • Biometrics
    • Glucose sensors inserted into the skin
    • Plants and bridges that Twitter

    Science Fiction Examples:
    The Matrix
    Cylon spaceships on Battlestar Galactica


    Computing as Infrastructure

    What if computing power and information were like water and electricity? The “computer as infrastructure” paradigm prediction is based on the idea that eventually we’ll live in a world where computing power and information are a man- made utility built over or into the environment. We assume it is always there, waiting for us to engage with it. Just like plugging in a hairdryer or turning on a water faucet, people can “tap into” computing functionality through physical mechanisms in the environment like RFID, NFC, and free public WiFi. Interactions become about orchestrating networks, people, and objects through physical computing and tangible interactions. Similar to the hand gesture we make to indicate “I’m on the phone”, our interactions with this infrastructure becomes so pervasive that gestures and mechanisms embedded into the environment serve as a way to communicate our behavior.

    Key Values:
    • Computers and information access are utilities
    • Computing is physical and tangible

    Oyster Card
    • Nike Plus
    • RFID
    • NFC
    • GPS

    Science Fiction Examples:
    • Magical wands in Harry Potter
    • Avatar operators in Avatar


    Computers as Social Currency
    Since humans are inherently social critters, we’re innately tuned to understand how our actions and behaviors are perceived by our family and friends, our tribes and by society. What if the focus of computing and information consumption became yet another form of social expression? The “computers as social currency” paradigm prediction amplifies Yuri Engstrom’s theory on object-centered sociality, our use of book covers, and the inherent shame we feel for perusing In this future paradigm, computing reflects social behavior. Computers, data and information are social objects that people use to both form connections with others and to express their identity and values in the world.  What we own and consume matters greatly. People become highly conscious of their content consumption and computing ecosystems because computing behaviors are expressions of class, education, socio-economic status and social standing within a given society or tribe.

    Key Values:
    • Computers and information consumption are a reflection of social identity
    • I am what I consume

    • Apple Fanboys
    • Facebook
    • “Checking-in” to FourSquare
    • LinkedIn
    The digital divide

    Science Fiction Examples:
    • Sensor Web in The Carytids

    Detailed sketches of these paradigms are on my Flickr stream.

    Curious if these three emergent paradigms make sense to you:


    Are there are any I’m missing? Let me know in the comments below..

    And so it begins…

    Posted on


    Whenever I think of mobile user experience, images of astronauts exploring space or the brave folk who settled the Wild West come to mind. Not the latest iPhone app or Android phone, but rather images of pioneers exploring a new frontier.
    Just like outer space or the western half of the U.S, I’ve long thought of the mobile design space as a frontier, a place where designers and UX professionals can explore and invent new and more human ways for people to interact with information.
    At the same time, I completely sympathize with feelings of trepidation and fear when set with the task of exploring the unknown. Nearly six years ago I dove head first into the mobile design industry with little knowledge or mobile UX experience. It was daunting.
    It’s the spirit of exploration and discovery coupled with the fear of the unknown that inspired me to write this book.
    My hope is The Mobile Frontier will give readers both the knowledge they need to begin designing mobile experiences with confidence as well as the inspiration to explore the opportunities this new, emergent design space presents.
    Bruce Sterling wrote in Shaping Things, “Writing is burdensome. A mind at full ease with itself would not need to slither onto a page, a serene mind would not need to speak its mind.” As my thoughts about this subject slither onto pages over the following months, I’ll be posting ideas and progress here. I hope you follow along and speak your mind with comments, opinions and questions along the way. 
    So throw on your space suit or circle your wagons (whichever best suits your personal style)… the mobile frontier is out here waiting for you.