Game-changers and same-changers
Whither mobile?

A little theory might help

As best I can remember it was November of 2009 when I first sat through a conference presentation setting out some basic design considerations for mobile research. I can’t imagine how many times since someone has presented essentially the same advice whether from the conference stage, in a corporate white paper, via a webinar, or whatever. Mostly these rules, guidelines, tips, etc. are based on some combination of experience and intuition. They generally lack any theoretical basis or methodological experiments to back them up. That’s for the academics. Market researchers just want to get on with it, just do mobile. It’s the same approach we took with online surveys and perhaps one of the reasons why they often are so wretched.

Having some theoretical underpinnings for mobile design strikes me as a good thing. It might provide a rationale for why we do what we do, and serve as the as the basis for hypotheses to drive empirical experiments that might actually lead to better practices. Perhaps more importantly, a good theory could be really useful when helping clients to rethink their approach to surveys in a mobile world.

All of this came to mind while reading this post by Raluca Budiu arguing that information theory has a lot to offer as we think about designing for mobile devices. In a nutshell, her argument is that designing for mobile is all about dealing with basic limitations in the human-device communication channel. Some of those limitations are technology-based, such as the bandwidth of the connection to the Internet, the processing capability of the mobile device, and the size of the screen. Other limitations have to do with the user, things like working memory capacity and the focus that a user can bring to the task given the environment. Granted, Budiu’s principal focus is on websites, not surveys, but it is even more important to offer an optimal design for surveys because the motivation generally is much poorer when completing a survey than when searching for information.

And, as Budiu points out, things are about the get a lot more complicated.

It’s clear that we’re moving towards an interconnected world populated by a plethora of devices — from smart thermostats, smartwatches and smart glasses, smart phones, phablets, tablets, laptops, desktops, smart TVs, and smart tabletops. We need a unified theory for designing for the continuum of screen sizes. This theory cannot reduce all these systems to a single denominator; designing for smartwatches is not the same as designing for tablets, and designing for mobile is not the same as designing for the desktop. Although many of the principles may be the same, they get applied differently on different devices. We need more nuance.

The challenge may be even greater for researchers than for website designers. One of our goals is ensure that the way in which we present a survey does not cause the respondent to answer differently because of the device he or she is using. Having a little theory to guide us could be a big help.