Mobile Context – The Chapter that Nearly Killed Me

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    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.         

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