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October 14, 2014

Design, UX and Development for Today’s Mobile Apps

Dollarphotoclub_71032320Unless you’ve been hiding under your desktop the last few years, you know that mobile isn’t just the wave of the future anymore—it’s the tsunami of the present. Mobile usage will pass desktop this year, and there’s no looking back.

Naturally, that means more designers and developers are focusing on mobile—and discovering that the challenges grow exponentially.

Don Bora, Co-Founder of Eight Bit Studios—not to mention Co-Founder and Chief Instructor at Mobile Makers Academy—has been building mobile apps since the beginning. He shared some of his insights with Chicago Interactive Design & Development meetup group during an October 9 presentation hosted by WunderLand. (Don's Powerpoint presentation can be seen here.)

The central theme of his experience? “My inability to predict the future.”

Apple vs. Android.

The world’s two dominant mobile platforms each present their own challenges in user experience (UX) and design.

“With the Apple Watch, TV and car play, we don’t know they’ll allow us to do,” said Bora. But at least Apple controls its own hardware and software. “By coupling the OS (operating system) to the device, developers know the latest and greatest will work with the latest and greatest.”

Android devices present a different magnitude of challenges. “The ecosystem is muddied, because Google has no vested interest in keeping the OS up to date,” said Bora. “It’s the manufacturers who are innovating in design and resolution. So it’s getting more and more complicated.

The result is a different set of specs for every version of every device. Bora flashed a slide picturing 62 different devices, but even that intimidating array only represented a tiny fraction of the Android devices currently available.

He said, “That slide always gets a big laugh.”

Responsive vs. Native.

The other great divide in mobile applications is between responsive websites and native apps. Each has its advantages and, of course, its own unique challenges for designers and developers.

Responsive websites are, well, websites—they “live” on the Internet, designed for desktop interaction, but they adapt their shape and functionality to work on mobile devices. Native apps “live” on your device, where they’re custom-built to look and work perfectly.

For developers and designers, responsive sites are far simpler. Bora described what’s essentially a three-step process: develop, test and deploy. And simpler often means cheaper.

But that simplicity comes with a price. “The libraries on the web that control touch interfaces aren’t very good, and will probably never be,” said Bora. “That means there’s a disconnect between your desktop-mouse interface and the mobile touch screen. You can’t hover on a touch screen, so that’s a constant challenge for UX to work around.”

Native apps work exactly as the user expects them to, but they require multiple rounds of developing and testing for each device—dozens, even hundreds—where they’ll be installed.

Good vs. Great.

Whether creating for Apple or Android, responsive or native, Bora said some of these general guidelines will make any mobile app work better:

  • Design for fat fingers—think tappable vs. clickable.
  • Stick with a single column.
  • Use vertical collapsing and other techniques to maximize viewable space.
  • Remove anything superfluous.
  • Don’t make ‘em wait.
  • Focus on the tasks users are trying to complete.
  • Test often.

Bora stressed the importance of collaborative design. Even though he owns his company, he said, “I still code. I oversee everything, but I have two partners, and we work on everything together.”


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