The Mobile Frontier: A Guide For Designing Mobile Experiences

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 an effective 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.