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4 leading mobile UX experts talk key trends

Erik Sherman Journalist, Independent

By now you'd think that mobile user experience (UX) trends would be obvious because the field is so well scoped out. Designers and developers are aware of mobile pitfalls. They know of trade-offs between native and HTML5 apps and standard practices.

But the field is still young. As Luke Wroblewski, a product director at Google and an influential mobile developer, pointed out to TechBeacon, the Internet in its present graphical form could be said to have been around since the mid-1990s, when the Mosaic browser came out. "If you look at the modern mobile age—the iPhone [came out] in June 2007—we've had less than half that time" for mobile to develop, he says. "So it's not a surprise we haven't figured it out yet."

TechBeacon spoke with four big names in mobile UX design and best practices: Steven Hoober, president of 4ourth Mobile; Greg Nudelman, CEO of DesignCaffeine; Andy Budd, Clearleft's cofounder and CEO; and Wroblewski. We asked what mobile UX examples had impressed them, what trends they thought might be significant, and how mobile could change in the near future.

Design ascendancy of Google

One of the more surprising mobile UX trends is that Google has become the standard-setter for mobile UX design patterns. Apple has been the standard bearer for years, but some experts believe the company has stumbled.

"The design torch is being passed from Apple to Google," Nudelman says. "We started with the skeuomorphic design [that took cues from the physical world]. Then Apple went with the iOS 7 release into much more flat design. They removed a lot of the elements with which we designers could communicate with our customers."

Apple-bashing in design? Nudelman knows it sounds sensationalist, but he adds: "I think they're due for a spanking, a much deserved one. When everything is flat, people have trouble interacting with applications." It becomes hard to tell primary from secondary buttons, which forces users to work harder to know what actions to take.

"Microsoft and Google as the most notable ones are starting to talk about what is authentically digital design," rather than a digital interpretation of physical design, Hoober says. "They aren't using analogies." He offered an example of Google's implementation of its material design spec. "If you're in Maps, scoot the map around," Hoober says. "It's not contained in some little box. The map is in the background. Literally, there's a little shadow to make that clear. They've extended the layer motif of views on top of views and into the application." The Gmail app has a stream of content, on top of which are items such as search and menus. "People are totally borrowing this design motif."

Recognition of mobile as a separate media type

One of the problems mobile UX design has faced is the inclination of many to treat a phone or a tablet like a PC. Smaller devices dependent on wireless connections do have limitations, but instead of thinking of them as some more restricted form of what has already existed, Wroblewski suggests seeing mobile as a separate form of media, just as PCs, television, radio, cinema, still images, and books are distinct from one another.

"Mobile can do everything all six forms of mass media that came before did," Wroblewski says. Consumers can watch video, listen to audio, browse the web, read, and look at pictures. In addition, they can pay for products and use devices to augment reality. For example, Uber lets a rider pay for their trip and also updates users on the vehicle's location and estimated time of arrival. The app's success is owed to its willingness to treat problems in a brand new way, making use of the natural abilities of mobile devices and services.

"The entire planet's population is your audience," says Wroblewski. "To take advantage of that opportunity, you have to look at what makes [mobile] a unique platform in the way Uber does. Some of the stuff will leapfrog what we have in computers."

Another example is Waze, a social app that allows people to better navigate traffic with real-time notifications provided by other users. "Waze is showing what the next generation of Google Maps could be, with the ability to crowdsource information from its customers to make better decisions," Nudelman says. "I think we're moving into this other level of apps for things that have been explored. We're still in the rapid iteration mode."

Death of the standalone app

With all the talk of apps, however, it's easy to overstate their continued importance. Consumers spend an estimated 85 percent of their time on mobile devices using apps, but that time is devoted to only five non-native apps, with the specific set varying by consumer. Breaking in is increasingly difficult, and the approach is also limited, particularly when the app alone is the strategy.

"If you're designing a mobile app whole stop, you're doing it wrong," Hoober says. "Do you have a website that supports it? Is there a service that you provide by email or SMS or some other channel? Is there a social media presence? Is it just crass marketing, or is there a way to integrate that into the service you provide? If you have notifications, do they work well in wearables?"

Budd notes that true mobile doesn't ignore web pages either, no matter how prosaic they may seem. "I would still argue that only four or five percent of the websites have made the transition [to responsive design that supports mobile]," he says. "I think a lot of companies are really struggling with the rush to move their sites to being responsive." Designers also need to look at the Internet of Things, because soon many of the sensors and devices won't reside on a phone or tablet.

Apps also need to communicate to provide the next generation of services that could capture consumer attention. That will take different approaches to integration than a longer list of apps. Wroblewski mentioned the Sunrise Calendar app as one example of stepping beyond the usual app design. "When you're in any other application, you can see what your schedule looks like," he says. "It essentially takes the app and puts it into a keyboard." The custom keyboard keeps the app's functionality in whatever context is appropriate. "We're at this point where not everything can be an app."

Budd believes in the future of artificial intelligence (AI) agents on mobile devices. "They route around the limitations of the device," he said, pointing to x.ai's Amy personal assistant software, and Viv, developed by the people who created Siri, which allows developers to provide a conversational interface with a back end that can teach itself to integrate different abilities to perform almost any task. Eventually, AI technology may largely supplant the need for user interfaces.

Risks to wearables

Wearables are further complicating the picture. Apple notably didn't release the number of Apple Watches sold, which suggests that the volume is less than the company and its shareholders had hoped. Not that wearables are a bad idea. On the contrary, "this new class of devices [will] allow us to have much more input into our applications," Nudelman says. "For example, we can now track activity and sleep patterns where we have a lot of opportunities to positively integrate into somebody's life. Those are changes that the customers themselves want to act."

But wearable design has a considerable learning curve ahead. "In their rhetoric, [Apple will] say an Apple Watch app is not an iPhone app," Wroblewski says. "But when you look at all the capabilities built into it, it really is an iPhone on your wrist." Just as many mobile developers mistakenly tried to treat a smartphone like a small PC, Apple and others may have done something similar, porting smartphones onto wearables and making one subordinate to the other.

"I have a bunch of apps on my Apple Watch but none of them work [alone] because they have to be activated on the phone," Nudelman says.

There also isn't a killer app for wearables, according to Nudelman. Fitness and notifications seem to have potential, but neither has become obviously necessary to anyone. In fact, the latter runs the risk of overwhelming users. "These days we're on a minimum of 10 social networks in addition to emails, phone calls, calendars, SMS, and all of the other things we have," he says. "If you don't control the flow, it's like drinking from a fire hose. It's unsustainable to be constantly notified about every retweet, or Facebook like, or email. We need technology to get smarter very quickly."

International competition

The innovation necessary could come from any part of the world, which will affect not only what comes to market but where significant competition could arise. Nudelman notes that Waze came from Israel and that there are other pockets of innovation heating up. He has worked with groups in the Middle East and South America.

"I see a lot of competition: very savvy, very local, very enabled, very focused, and very hungry," he says. "They want to succeed. They want recognition. They want what Silicon Valley has. It's already changing. It's a truly global marketplace. We can no longer just look at ourselves and say we're in New York or California and therefore we're set. The picture out there is far more complicated than we can comprehend."

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