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Mobile news looking for its own design codes

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Mobile news looking for its own design codes

by Luke Miller

One factor sticks out the most when creating great mobile experiences. Better yet make that ten factors, and you can count them on your hands. Your fingers are the primary input method on mobile and they come with a different set of constraints than the mouse-keyboard model most of us grew up with. The gesture-based model, part of what is called a natural user interface (NUI), requires a whole new set of signifiers to let users know what kinds of interactions they can perform.

In mobile, we no longer have a mouse and cursor to act as intermediary between the user and the graphical interface (GUI). We don’t get to make use of hover states that signal potential interactions before they occur or the highly precise 1x1 pixel input our cursor gives us. Touch interfaces require new metaphors to help users control products with their chubby fingers.

Take a look at your smartphone’s lock screen. What design elements do you see? A background image, the time, some animated elements, icons, a call to action, perhaps even some alerts or notifications. Some of these items require specific gestures to access their functionality, like the iPhone’s ‘slide to unlock.’ However if you try the wrong gesture on some UI there is feedback that serves as a kind of error message.

Influencing users' behaviour

Can you see the difference between elements that tell you to tap versus swipe? What happens when you perform the wrong gesture on an element? Each piece of UI signals you in some way. Some serve us before we interact, to indicate either information or potential actions (text, icons, animation), and some after we interact, to confirm our input or tell us there was an error (pop-ups and more obvious animations). It’s easy to pick out the GUI elements from the NUI because they’re the ones trying harder.

We can take the word “natural” in NUI to mean pre-existing. To become good at anything you need practice and when we’re introduced to new or foreign concepts we have a learning curve to battle. The incentive to overcome the learning curve presented by computer interfaces depends on our motivation and ability, according to B.J. Fogg, director of Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab. Fogg’s behavior model states interface elements, or “triggers” as he calls them, are successful when they occur in a sweet spot of simultaneous motivation and ability; this is when the difference between mobile and desktop matters. 

The triggers in mobile products that make it into business reports, otherwise known as Key Performance Indicators (KPI), are the most heavily scrutinized and need the most amount of attention from UX designers. Navigation, sign up, notification permissions, sharing, and other forms of engagement are mobile triggers where motivation and ability need detailed examination. Those that miss Fogg’s behavioral sweet spot are what tech companies in Silicon Valley and beyond are obsessing over.

Shall we do just like Facebook?

Facebook’s navigation on mobile: great example of how attention to human factors shapes the business of mobile designFacebook’s navigation on mobile: great example of how attention to human factors shapes the business of mobile designThe evolution of Facebook’s navigation on mobile is a great example of how attention to human factors shapes the business of mobile design. While I worked at the Wall Street Journal in 2011, I advocated the use of Facebook’s navigation pattern, the hamburger menu ≡, on account of how well it held up in user tests (when tasked with navigating), in addition to how well people are able to scan lists (WSJ for iPhone puts search, login, settings, info, and 15 sections in its menu). But consider for a moment the triggers and human factors at play in what I’ve just mentioned parenthetically. Did the user tests succeed because we were only testing Facebook users? How well did the items behind the hamburger menu perform? The answer is not good.

In September of 2013 Facebook changed it’s navigation design after a massive A/B test on their live user base that pitted a standard iOS toolbar against the hamburger menu. Facebook's practices are arguably why the much debated hamburger button gained in popularity among mobile designers in the first place but also why we may start to see it go away.

So should we all be designing the way Facebook, Google, or Apple are just because many of our users are also theirs? To some extent, yes, but it’s helpful to further break down the triggers that are uniquely yours.


This post is part of a series of interviews and articles on the occasion of the Tablet and App Summit (#TAS14)which takes place on 14-15 October in Amsterdam. #TAS14 is a paid conference part of the World Publishing Expo 2014 – the largest annual global trade exhibition for the news publishing and media industry.

This is an extract from the SFN Report on mobile, due to be published in October. Luke Miller, experience designer at Yahoo!, is the special guest at #TAS14 where he will talk about designing better user interface for mobile news and services.



WAN-IFRA External Contributor


2014-07-21 17:18

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