A brief word on context and constraints of mobile in UX design

While the mobile device is not new it’s still worth saying a few things that make it distinct from other platforms like the desktop.

Mobile devices like the iPhone for example have changed quite a bit since the iPhone was introduced in 2007. Some of the constraints that were introduced then, like lower resolution, small screen size and other limitations are less of an issue now as both the resolution and other improvements have been made over time. However, there are still many other device, environmental and basic human constraints that are unlikely to go away any time soon to pay careful attention to.

Books, Web sites, software programs, and even menus for interactive televisions share an implicit and often overlooked commonality: use occurs in relatively static and predictable environments. In contrast, most mobile experiences are situated in highly dynamic and unpredictable environments. [1]

In the book Mobile First by Rachel Hinman she points out the three most important constraints that have the most impact on the mobile user experience.

    Device constraints: The limitations of a small and portable form factor.

    Environmental constraints: Highly variable context of use.

    Human constraints: Varied cognitive abilities caused by social dynamics, cultural influences, and ergonomic limitations of mobile devices. [2]

The following list of constraints has been adapted from a table found in Mobile First by Rachel Hinman.

Device Constraints

    Smaller form factor
    Small screen
    Camera/video – on the edge of being exceptional
    Keyboard isn’t as efficient as a desktop/laptop
    Battery life continues to be an issue and focus to improve
    Not great at multitasking
    Not easy to share (multiple user accounts per device)
    Microphone and speaker are sub par
    Many websites still don’t have a great mobile web experience

Environmental Constraints

    Can be used almost anywhere
    Stored almost anywhere
    Sensitive to drops
    Use is prohibited in some environments
    Screen glare, especially in bright sunlight

Human Constraints

    Easy to lose
    Gestures and metaphors require learning
    A distraction to use especially in public environments
    Difficult to hear in some environments
    Small text and graphics can be difficult to read

This brief overview of constraints is by no means exhaustive but hopefully it’s enough to at least give you awareness of the topic and to dive in a bit more. A you consider these constraints listed make sure to revisit them and consider them when designing mobile applications. In a future post I’ll be elaborating a bit more on constraints as well as touching on what can be done to work around them in app design.

Related articles
Hick’s Law Applied to Application Design
7 things I’ve learned about designing iPhone apps

[1] Hinman, Rachel (2012-06-11). The Mobile Frontier (Kindle Locations 66-68). Rosenfeld Media. Kindle Edition.
[2] Hinman, Rachel (2012-06-11). The Mobile Frontier (Kindle Locations 928-930). Rosenfeld Media. Kindle Edition.