The way we talk about things can limit how we think. We will design better if we talk about what people use our designs for, rather than the device they use them on.
You probably hear a lot about the “mobile internet”. It isn’t a new phrase.
You might have heard that it is killing “desktop” or the “web”, or that “wearables” are the next big thing, and they might even kill the “mobile internet”.
I’m calling bullshit.
The cool kids often look at the new thing and think that it will replace the older thing, because — apparently — there can only be one thing.
People said television would kill radio, apps would kill the web, social media would kill email, instant messaging would kill email, and Slack would kill email.
Viva la revolución!
Desktop and web and apps and mobile and wearables are not separate things. They are all doors into the same internet.
Just like instant messaging, social media, Slack, and email are all communication tools but they all have different strengths and weaknesses. We use them all together, but differently.
Language influences our ideas.
Imagine, for a moment, that you had never heard the word “mobile”. Imagine if we had called all of our devices “computers” — which they are — instead of different levels of “mobility”.
So your laptop is your “large” computer, your smartphone is your “small” computer, your watch is your “mini” computer, etc.
They all do the same things, and they are all connected to one internet, and your one product can exist on all of them.
Would you think about your design differently if you only had one product that just happened to be accessible from several different types of computers?
Yes, you would.
Android apps must work on a variety of different screen sizes, and so do iPad apps, but we don’t design for the “mini” app store or the “big” android devices — because we call them all “Android” and “iPad”.
You think responsively by default, because you think of them as one thing.
With “mobile” and “web" and “wearables”, we choose and prioritize and separate, instead of thinking about them as one thing. And then we are tempted to just “make it work” for the ones we don’t choose to prioritize.
We should be talking about “depth" and “continuity”. Not mobility.
Instead, let’s think about devices based on the things you can do with them.
Some devices allow us to have more on the screen at once, and allow us to be more precise because they use a mouse cursor. Let’s call that “depth”. You can go “deeper” into the task.
Some devices can be with us all the time, and we can use them more frequently because they are always with us. Let’s call that “continuity”. They are with us more continuously.
For example… let’s say a Google Spreadsheet is a “deep” task. It has a lot of moving parts, and details, and if you’re a power user, it is something that might be very a powerful tool with a lot of customization and features.
It is virtually impossible to use a spreadsheet on a phone the way you use it on a desktop screen. It’s just too complex. And that’s ok! It’s also way more powerful.
On the other hand, let’s say checking the weather is a “shallow” task. Basically you just open the app and look at it. You might tap once or twice to switch between today’s information and this week’s information, but basically you just look at it. Like a car crash.
The weather is useful, but it’s not deep or powerful. You’re not calculating your company’s profit margin this quarter, you just want to know if your hairstyle is in danger.
A laptop device allows much “deeper” tasks than a phone or a watch. The screen is bigger, it has a keyboard, etc. An iPad is almost is good. A smartphone is a little less good. And a watch only really has enough screen space and inputs to do “shallow” tasks.
That’s “depth”. It can be shallow or deep or anything in between.
In my opinion, a laptop and an iPad are very “mobile”. I carry my laptop to work every day, so mobility is not what defines it. If Apple would put a fucking SIM Card slot in a Macbook like I have wanted forever, it would be the most powerful mobile device I own.
But a laptop is not very “continuous”. A laptop and an iPad are big enough that I want to put them in a bag when I go somewhere, where I can’t see them or hear them. I can still use them on the subway when I sit down, but if I am walking through a crowd, or pretending to go to the bathroom so I can check Reddit during work, a laptop is not exactly subtle.
That’s “continuity”. It can be available any time or only when I sit down, or anything in between.
Deep devices are usually less continuous.
Continuous devices are usually less deep.
To make a device continuous it needs to be with me always, which means it has to be easy to carry, which means it needs to be small.
To make a device that can do deep tasks, it needs many types of input and a large display. If we’re talking about screens, that means depth and size go together.
If you think about devices this way, then it’s not about mobility. It’s about use cases.
You design shallow, “always on” experiences for small, continuous devices. But those experiences are probably quicker and simpler.
You design deep, "focused” experiences for large, non-continuous devices. But those experiences might be more powerful and more complex.
You might use Facebook for an hour on your phone, but you’re not doing anything “deep”. You’re doing a lot of shallow things, quickly: Likes. Notifications. Looking at pictures or videos. Maybe an article or two.
Designing a website is a deep task. How often do you use Photoshop or Sketch on your phone, to do professional design tasks? Never? That’s because it is one big task with tools and layers and plugins and it takes a while to do it.
Try ONLY working from your phone, all day. I dare you. Then tell me that smartphones will replace desktop computers with a straight face.
Design across devices. Not for devices.
Sit down and think about all the tasks and features that are related to your product, including things that your product doesn’t do yet.
Think about whether they are deep or shallow.
Think about whether they need to be continuously available or sometimes available.
Many tasks might fall into more than one category, or between categories. That’s fine. You decide where to “draw the line”.
Can you seperate big tasks into the shallow/deep parts and always/sometimes parts?
Prioritize the shallow/any time stuff on smaller devices. Prioritize the deep/sometimes stuff on bigger devices.
Use the power of big devices to improve the experience of smaller devices, and the availability of small devices to improve the experience of bigger devices. Netflix does this by remembering what you watching on your phone, so you can resume watching on your laptop.
There is only one internet. Mobile devices are just one way to get there.