Desktop Design for Mobile: The End of an Era

Ioannis Verdelis

The rise of the smartphone took us all by surprise. We’ve spent years designing and developing for desktop or laptop devices, and suddenly we’ve been inundated, not just with tiny phones, but with tablets, watches, and even Google Glass.

The sudden rise of various mobile devices means there’s still a lot of room for innovation in design. Many mobile apps are clunky versions of their desktop companions. If the design and usability are good, it’s often only because the app or mobile site is “lite,” with significantly fewer features.

Yet as consumers get used to accessing mobile devices, it’s important for the design and programming community to keep up. People don’t use smartphones the same way they use computers — or even tablets. Smart developers will make the mobile experience better, rather than worse, for the user.

Desktop Principles Don’t Work for Mobile

There are several old desktop principles we’ve adopted in mobile design, and it may be time to reconsider them. The key to great design is understanding how people use different devices — and then designing for that functionality.

  1. Internet connectivity: When someone is working on a desktop or laptop, we can safely assume he has a good Internet connection. However, with a mobile device, that assumption is a bad one. A user could be reading email or listening to music on the subway. Pocket and Spotify both address this problem by offering offline functionality.
  2. Scrolling: In the 1980s, there was the great “scroll versus cards” debate, and scrolling eventually won out. Now that everything’s mobile, it’s time to revisit the cards idea because swiping is a more intuitive action on a mobile device. TripIt is a great example. The company’s website incorporates scrolling, which is perfect for printing itineraries. However, the app also uses the card method, making important information easier to access.
  3. Computer keyboards: Most designs try to cram a full computer keyboard onto a mobile screen, which makes it impossible to use. Ever pressed ‘M’ instead of backspace — or vice versa? Ever hit the space bar accidentally? We’ve attempted to solve this problem by making the space bar optional and replacing it with intuitive hand gestures.

Mobile Design, Innovated

We learned a lot when we redesigned our mobile keyboard. We knew the space bar was the most-used key, and it would be controversial to replace it with gestures. For that reason, we kept the space bar as the default, but offered users the option to switch to hand gestures. We also replaced any function that required pressing a small key — punctuation, numbers, and symbols — with hand gestures.

We were amazed when, after a month, 50 percent of users switched to the gestures exclusively. We knew we liked our ideas, but that kind of user adoption truly validated them. There were some key lessons we learned during this transition:

  1. When you want to challenge an assumption, don’t just think you know best and try to force change on people. Let them get started in the way they’re used to, and then lure them over to your ideas slowly. If the idea is good, people will adopt it without much resistance. If people aren’t buying, it may be time to rethink your solution.
  2. Question the things that have never changed. Sometimes, an old assumption has become irrelevant, but you have to challenge your habit and notice the outdated. It was a decade before someone repurposed the 12 ‘F’ keys at the top of a laptop and made them useful for things like volume control.
  3. Don’t develop in a vacuum. Engage with users; they’re the ones helped by design improvements. They may not often know what’s wrong, but when you offer a solution, they can tell you whether it works or not.
  4. Lock up your laptop. Pick an exceptionally busy day and try to conduct all your business on your phone. By the end of the day, you’ll be craving your laptop. Ask yourself what was so much harder to accomplish on the phone. What functions did you wish you could use your laptop for? These are the ones that need innovating.

It’s time to stop assuming people use every device the same way. We each use a laptop differently than a tablet, and a tablet differently than a smartphone. As programmers, designers, and developers, it’s our job to create the best user experience, and we can only do that when we allow form to follow function.

Let’s recognize the old ways that are broken and change the way we view the mobile experience.

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  • Anonymous

    Excellent article. We really need to change our perception to provide best user experience to end users.

  • Panayotis Matsinopoulos

    Nice article. Thanks for posting

  • Hati Mutasa

    Intergrating cloud in mobile functionality holds the solution in my opinion. Call the appropriate resource as and when required.

  • mojo

    Oh thank God. At last someone talking sense about smartphones. Just because smartphones have an internet connection doesn’t make them comparable to a laptop or any other PC. A fridge and a kettle are both plugged into the mains but they’re different devices, with different uses.

    Browsing on a smartphone can be a miserable experience because of the small screen. It’s like looking at the world through a crash helmet, and if you bring up an onscreen keyboard it’s like looking at the world through a knight’s visor. The fact is, for most internet use, you simply can’t beat a large screen. This idea of one website fits all and mobile first is flawed. Smartphones are fantastic for apps but PC’s and increasingly smart TVs are better for most internet use.

    And don’t be fooled by the rapid adoption of smartphones which some people present as proof that people are desperate to get online via mobile. It’s a skewed market; the phones are given away or highly subsidised in order to sell airtime. Just look at smart TVs. A TV is a device for bringing entertainment and information into the home so a smart TV is a natural evolution. Their uptake will be slower than smartphone though because people have to pay for them themselves.

  • Ioannis Verdelis

    Thank you for the great feedback everyone. User experience on small screens has been a real pain point for a while now. When designing an app, it only makes sense to take the device into consideration.