Users First

“Mobile first” sound the tendentious battle cries of UX designers worldwide, suggesting that user experience design now supposedly needs to begin with mobile experiences, and build outwards from there.

I can think of at least three succinct reasons why that dictate is wrong:

First, it puts the device before the user, which is not meaningful. As designers, we are not engaging with devices, but with human beings. Do we really know that all users consistently favor small, mobile, high-resolution viewports over large, widescreen ones? I submit that the answer is no, because any such knowledge is contingent on not just awareness of user preferences, but user needs, user behaviors, and environmental circumstances, which are never consistently the same. Besides, even when factoring in these shifting parameters, we also have to consider the needs and intentions of our clients, for whom we are trying to make this interaction happen. We cannot assume that “mobile first” always makes sense in that context either.

We are currently seeing not only a convergence of web based experiences displayed on increasingly smaller devices, but a simultaneous divergence, where screens are also becoming larger – virtually all of them wired, and sometimes even interconnected.

We cannot assume anything about users until we know who they are, and what they are trying to do. This, in turn, will dictate which devices they will be using, and that should be what guides our designs – not dogmatic assumptions based on device classifications that are pre-destined to lose relevance.

Second, the statement “Mobile first” makes an implicit assumption about just what “mobile” means. The device landscape is changing so rapidly that the term itself is quickly becoming obsolete. In an age of ultralight laptops, netbooks and “phablets”, just what is a “mobile device”, really?

There are mobile phones that are straddling the divide between handheld and tablet devices, both in terms of size and resolution, and there are miniature, wearable devices whose resolutions we can assume will become higher and higher in order for those devices to display more information. At the same time, there are medium sized, often lower-resolution wireless touchscreens built into appliances and cars, where display characteristics may sometimes resemble mobile devices, even though they are often fixed, and usage is entirely different from that associated with smartphones. And there are both lower and higher resolution large screen devices and projection screens that blur the boundaries even further.

This means that we cannot, and should not, lock down user experience design to one type of screen, or size. We need to design for flexibility, but even more, we need to understand how users will be accessing our experiences, and what is most important to them. Since this is very much a moving target, the combination of mobility and compact screen size will not always top the list, of that we can be certain.

Third, we must realize that, not only are device classifications increasingly arbitrary and meaningless, but that the concepts of screen size and resolution – indeed, the very concept of human-computer interaction – are equally elusive. User experience cannot be locked down to a fixed pixel density, or a certain set of screen proportions – we are even seeing the merger of digital projections and physical reality; of the two- and the three-dimensional.

User experience, especially as it relates to screen projection, is relative, and depends not only on the physical properties of the screen in question – whether a pair of eye glass lenses, or a large projection screen – but also on the user’s distance to the screen, how the user is interacting with what is displayed there, and the various environmental circumstances at play.

This is why we need to change the mantra, from “Mobile first” to “Users first”.

What matters first and foremost to users is content, not the device on which this content is displayed. And how that content is structured, hierarchically as well as visually, also matters more to them than the technology used to display it. Even the visual presentation of the content matters more than the device, since the presentation is to some extent intrinsic to the content itself, and how it is intended to be perceived and experienced. The device is merely a facilitator in this perspective.

Therefore, the due process we need to observe is content before structure before style.

Defining the content is the designer’s number one priority. Without content, there is nothing to design, and without content to guide the design, it simply becomes meaningless fluff, regardless of the device used to deliver the experience. Once we have determined the content that will best serve users’ needs, aggregating the entirety of our content, and judging the value of it by virtue of Occam’s proverbial razor, we can proceed to shape it, and adapt it to the different rendering formats.

Realizing that design is first and foremost a process of reduction, the designer always sculpts the specific, smaller shape from the larger, unspecific whole; always crops and trims the desired view from the bigger picture. This is, ultimately, why user experience design can never truly be “mobile first”. Mobile, whatever we mean by that, may possibly be the desired end state of a given design, the terminus of our design journey, but it should never be the starting point.

We need to see the whole to define its most granular pieces, and determine their respective proportions, placements and relationships. We must outline an overall composition before we can craft the pieces that comprise it. We cannot build blindly outward by accumulating and assembling fragments; an artist does not create an image by cloning and repeating small sections, but rather composes a holistic experience by sketching in the most prominent components first, and filling in the details later. We must identify the smaller building blocks within the context of the bigger construct, and define the different ways in which they fit together. If we don’t, we are essentially improvising buildings by piecing bricks together, rather than first drawing up blueprints on which to base our constructions.

Hence, starting from a site-wide perspective, the designer should always first seek to define the content as a whole, distilling it into the total number of unique views necessary to contain the experience, classifying shared, global, re-useable content blocks as well as individual pieces of content; then whittling down experiences until able to look at individual pages, and components of pages. It is in this larger context that the mobile experience can be found. Eventually, the designer will arrive at the most purposeful, granular visual structure – or layout – as part of a holistic system of design elements, first and foremost tailored to the user’s needs, scalable up or down, as needed.

Not until we have shaped our content in this reductive fashion, and structured it both hierarchically and spatially, can we begin to apply style, or “look-and-feel”, to our design, down to the individual graphic elements. Only then can we start moving from defining content, and making content accessible and digestible, to also making it palatable and persuasive.

At this point, the devices used to render our experiences should pretty much be inconsequential; a natural selection produced by a deliberate, result-oriented process. Whether our user experiences are best suited for a smartwatch, smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop computer, or a TV screen, should really be determined primarily by user and content considerations, ideally allowing the intentions of the sender and the needs of the recipient to meet in a mutually beneficial, equally purposeful harmonious whole.

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