Play Small: why mobile challenges designers to make a better web

In a single Noisy Decent Graphics post, Ben Terrett effortlessly segues between my two preoccupations of the moment – agonised middle-class parenting, and the superiority of mobile web over fixed. How could I resist?

“City kids are not like country kids”, he notes, “… the space available to play is smaller… so they learn to play smaller.” (Whereupon I’m reminded of Christopher Alexander’s delightful Child Cave pattern.) For designers, the resulting constraints can be a Good Thing. We all need to Play Small…

“One thing that really brings home Play Small to me is iPhone web pages.

“Most people would assume that a mobile web page is a compromise. Not as good or as rich as the main page. The thing is, more and more I’m finding I like the mobile pages better than the main pages.

“Stripped of all superfluous content and navigation, devoid of over elobarate graphics, they’re like raw ‘what I came here for’ in one handy pocket sized rectangle.”

Absolutely. The mobile web tends to make for better design, and the small surface display is just one of the reasons.

Design for the PC-based web has been rendered flabby not just by growing screen size, but also the assumption of fast, always-on broadband. This assumption enables two kinds of impositions on the user.

First, with less worry about filesizes, people pack an almost limitless number of links, graphics and styles onto a single page. Can’t decide which of your site’s functions to prioritise? Why not include all 19 of them equally! Above the fold! Can’t fit it all in? Make it dynamic to expand and shrink stuff in new and confusing ways.

Second, since pages appear almost instantaneously, we fall into the trap of assuming that any additional clicks cost nothing of the user’s time. Who cares if they take a few blind alleys? That’s why there’s a back button.

The cost, of course, is in the increased cognitive load. Website owners that work like this are abdicating their responsibility to think through a problem fully. They are offloading the work of understanding onto their users.

Ben’s “‘what I came here for’ in one handy pocket sized rectangle” speaks of the reverse, of care taken and thought for the user. The most popular page on the web also bears this out: earlier this year, Google applied a “one in, one out” rule to the 28 words on its classic homepage.

Which brings me on to another reason that the mobile web has the potential to generate better designs: mobile forces an increased focus on the context of use.

It is too easy in the fixed web world for us to assume that we and our users inhabit the same environment. Maybe this happens because desktop and laptop computers are at once the tools we use to specify the online experience, and  the appliances on which our users will interact with the results.

In contrast, mobile experiences are defined by their external environments as much as by their internal functionality. And in considering the environment we also end up considering our users as different from ourselves, and hopefully better understanding their needs and priorities as a result.

In Paper, Scissors, Phone I suggested getting real with sketches and mobile prototyping as a way to further sharpen this focus on target users and contexts.

Ben concludes with  a beguiling extrapolation of credit crunch chic:

“Make no mistake, we’re currently leaving the era of Baroque brands and moving into a new period of austerity in communication. And as we move towards Depression 2.0 maybe Play Small will become a vital tool for all designers across all forms of media.”

The “austere” bit worries me though, because well-thought-out design doesn’t always have to look like a bank statement (though that’s the noble aesthetic of Dopplr, which earns a special mention in Ben Terrett’s post for being so well designed on the PC that even mobile cannot improve it).

I’m reminded of a video I saw of an iPhone user comparing the full web and made-for-mobile versions of a social networking site. Unlike Ben, he preferred the full version on his phone. He felt the mobile version was “limited”. And as he talked to the researcher’s camera, his fingers danced across the touchscreen. This user so clearly relished the panning and zooming and the satisfying gravitational bounce as he hit on the edges of the page. The made-for-mobile page – one long screen-wide galley of content – was functionally superior but it had much less “bounce” than the full website. It was too austere.

I really hope that a fitter, more fitting web will follow from the widespread adoption of mobile multimedia, and that doesn’t mean there’s no room for delight. Though the space may be small, it can still be a great place for play.

Update 18/10/2010: Stacey Higginbotham on GigaOm tells how “mobile connectivity sets developers free” –  Stop Cramming the Mobile Web Into the PC Box

2 thoughts on “Play Small: why mobile challenges designers to make a better web

  1. What frustrates me is when people publish mobile web content but then dont bother to track it’s usage or how people interact with it putting this issue into the too hard basket.

    With mobile analytics tools like you are now able to get accurate real time information about how mobile browsers access and interact with your content and the limitations of desktop analytic tools like google are no longer a problem.

    Dont be a fool – publishing without tracking is just littering the internet :)

    Dean Collins

  2. Hi Dean,

    Thanks for dropping by. I agree with the sentiment, though for balance I must add that Other Mobile Analytics Tools Are Also Available :)


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