Low-Cost, Lightweight Mobile UX Research

Yesterday I had the pleasure of leading a panel discussion at Techweek Chicago 2013 on low-cost, lightweight methods that design teams can use to conduct user research and usability testing for mobile apps and websites.

Our team also created a list of mobile prototyping and testing tools that can be purchased for less than $300. It’s a small expense when your company is betting on you getting the product and its design right. We hope this helps you build better experiences for your users.

Luke Wroblewski on Multi-Device Web Design

Luke Wroblewski conducted a one-day workshop this week at An Event Apart Boston on The Web Everywhere: Multi-Device Web Design. Here are my notes:

A Framework for Devices and Use

  • Device sales are not the same as usage. Make sure you understand what people are referencing when they use statistics. For example, iPhone web browsing exceeds Android browsing even though more Android handsets are sold.
  • Trend: Now bigger is better for smartphones. You need to design for 3.5-inch to 7-inch screens when designing for smartphones.
  • Look at actual usage on your site and not device distribution in making strategic decisions. Figure out who is looking at what content using which devices.
  • A switch to smaller tablets is underway. Expect to see more traffic to your site from 7- to 9-inch tablets. And you can’t push the same design to a 7-inch tablet as you would to a 10-inch device.
  • Large tablets are not mobile devices. Most large tablet use is in the home. A 10-inch iPad is really a mobile-in-the-house device.
  • Human factors should drive what we do with the interface. Look at physical dimensions and human ergonomics.
  • Don’t use industry terms like “phablets” to drive your design. Think of devices as being good for the hand, good for the lap, good for the desk, or good for the wall.
  • Get ready for more diverse screen sizes. Wrist-sized screens and eye-sized screens are coming.
  • Android sales tend to follow a continuous predictable line, while iPhone sales spike and fall around device release cycles. Be aware of sales trends as you plan your design strategy.
  • Expect more growth in “hybrid convertible” devices that include elements of laptops and elements of tablets. Tablets have keyboards and laptops are becoming touch devices.
  • Computers from ASUS and HP will have touch input via peripheral devices.
  • Quoting Ethan Marcotte, “privilege the small screen” so those users have everything they need, then add more to the design for larger devices.

Navigation on Phones and Tablets

  • Try to avoid iPhone-like bottom tab bars on web designs meant for handheld devices. They conflict with Android device controls and support for fixed positioning is not universal for Android devices.
  • Use toggle menus at the top of the screen on websites designed for mobile devices.
  • Toggle menus are limited to one level of navigation. Use off-canvas menus for deeper levels of navigation.
  • Put content up front, not navigation. Allow easy access to your site’s navigation and an easy way to get back to your content.
  • The footer anchor pattern places navigation after your content but allows easy access to it with one tap on an anchor link in the site header.
  • There are more comfortable touch zones on tablets and laptops at the bottom and left and right sides of the screen. Understand this when designing websites for tablet use.
  • Responsive designs that fall back to desktop layout do not work as well as they could on tablets because of comfortable touch zones. Explore split navigation placed at the lower left and right corners of the device. Test your responsive designs with real users on tablets.

The Mobile First Approach

  • Depending on the market being served, especially international ones, you still have to plan for feature phones with minimal CSS support and no media queries. Start here and build up.
  • Within media query break points use fluid layouts to scale your design between the break points.
  • When doing responsive design consider portrait and landscape orientations. Also be aware of how your design works on widescreen devices, like Microsoft’s Surface, when they are used in portrait orientation.
  • Start your design with handhelds in mind, then enhance upward and build fluid layouts.

Design Techniques

  • Use the width of your content to determine break points. These become “stress points”.
  • Use content curation and responsive patterns when designing for multiple devices.
  • The off-canvas pattern puts navigation and supporting content off screen with UI elements to expose them. Use this as an alternative to the single-column “mobile stack”.
  • Use CSS3 and icon fonts whenever possible for buttons and other images.

Performance and Speed

  • Executing a multi-device strategy is somewhat like packing for vacation: Responsive is like packing when you don’t know the weather; you pack all kinds of clothes. A separate mobile-specific site is like packing for the beach; you bring only what you need.
  • Responsive design is about adaptation; mobile-specific sites are about optimization. Mobile-specific sites will usually perform better in terms of speed but come with additional development and maintenance costs.
  • Transitions and other UI elements can improve the perception of performance.
  • Spinners can communicate to the user that something is happening, but also can create the perception of the app being slower. Only use spinners and other UI techniques if they really create the impression things are running faster. Test with real users to see how they perceive it.

Multi-Device Strategies

  • Strategy One: Maintain the status quo and keep a separate mobile site.
  • Strategy Two: Add adaptive styles to your existing site as a step toward responsive design. See Dan Cederholm’s write-up on using adaptive styles on Dribble.
  • Strategy Three: Extend your existing mobile website to larger devices. This is easier than downsizing an existing desktop-focused site, and takes what you already have and gradually makes it responsive without disrupting your existing site and business.
  • Strategy Four: Start fresh. If you ever needed a reason to redo your entire website, the new multi-device reality is it.
  • When first starting with responsive design, try doing it on your most used pages to get the biggest bang for the buck. If you have a video site like YouTube, the video player page is the place to start.
  • Alternatively, you can try it on your least used pages to get comfortable without a lot of risk.

What’s Next

  • Websites on TVs and wall-sized displays are on their way to becoming mainstream. Examples include Google TV, Xbox, PlayStation 3.
  • The web on a TV is not about a web browser on your TV, it’s about creating cross-device experiences that include the TV.
  • Eye-sized screens like Google Glass will be design considerations in the future.
  • Apple, Android, Samsung, LG, and Microsoft all publicly claim to be working on a wrist-sized device. It will include some kind of HTML support in the future. It’s one more screen size you will have to consider in your designs.
  • Speech is becoming an input type, with Siri and Google Voice Search being only the beginning.
  • Google Glass uses speech interfaces, eye movement, device movement, and touch. The types of inputs used with your designs will only increase.
  • If a technique is used on one device form factor, it will spread to the others. Look at what’s happened so far with touch, voice, and high-resolution screens.

Forecast: A Rich HTML5 Weather App

It seems like every other day someone is launching a new weather app in Apple’s App Store or on Google Play. But it’s not everyday that someone releases a weather app with a rich user experience delivered in HTML5.

Forecast is one notable exception. The app uses delightful interaction design, a drop-dead simple information architecture, and fluid animation and transitions to create an incredibly rich native app-like experience. Once the app is added to an iPhone home screen it can be launched as a full-screen web app that provides a polished and elegant experience. The app also works beautifully on my Samsung Galaxy S3. It’s a great example of what rock-solid web developers can deliver to the mobile browser. You can also use Forecast on your laptop if you allow it to access your current location.

The app features a timeline-based look at precipitation projections and cloud movement. The app is playfulness and user engagement at its best. For tablets it includes an experimental feature called Time Machine that lets you see the weather for a given location in the past or the future.

Forecast merges multiple data sources and makes its data available via the Forecast Data API. Accoridng to Forecast’s blog, it provides its best hyperlocal coverage in the U.S., parts of Canada, Ireland, and the UK.

Forecast presents an exciting example of the capabilities now available on the mobile web.

Forecast Summary and Detailed Daily View
Forecast Summary and Detailed Daily View
Forecast Regional Map and Seven-Day View
Forecast Regional Map and Seven-Day View

Haze: Simple, Elegant, Awesome

It’s not every day (or every week even) that an app makes me sit up and say “holy crap, this is awesome!”. But the Haze iPhone weather app did just that for me this week.

Haze for iPhone
Haze for iPhone

Haze is a simple weather app that seamlessly brings together two important concepts of mobile interaction design: keep apps simple and focused, and make them engaging and fun to use. Haze nails it on both counts.

Unlike apps from The Weather Channel and other sources, which offer lots of data, features, and charts, Haze does just three simple things but does them very well — It tells you the current temperature, it tells you the likelihood of precipitation, and it tells you the amount of available sunshine for the day. Haze also uses subtle visual cues in its animated background to show if each of these are trending up or down over the next day.

Haze also incorporates fluid animations and audio feedback as you move between screens to create a rich and engaging experience. You can tap into each of the three main information points to get an expanded (but still highly visual) view of the information, but yet never feel like you’re swimming in data. Even in the “in-depth” view Haze uses the size of the infographic elements to indicate which data points are subordinate to the main one.

And real info junkies can easily swipe down to get five-day forecasts, which are also elegantly and simply presented. Add in different themes for a bit of customization and Haze seals it as a fun way to get basic but important information.

You can download Haze for 99 cents from iTunes.

Balsamiq for Google Chrome

If you work in an agile environment you’ve probably heard about the practice of “designing in the browser”. It’s a great way to design where you pair a UX and visual designer and let them execute their ideas directly in code to instantly see what it looks on any device.

Wireframe Created with the Balsamiq Chrome Extension
Wireframe Created with the Balsamiq Chrome Extension

Well here’s a way you can wireframe in the browser. Balsamiq Mockups now has an extension for Google Chrome that lets you build sketchy wireframes in the browser and save them to your Google Drive. You can also share them with other Google Drive users and edit them collaboratively.

You create your wireframes using the familiar Balsamiq widget set; you just do it the browser. Mockups can be saved to Drive as BMML or PNG files. Both can be downloaded, and the BMML files can be edited in your Balsamiq desktop software.

The extension is available in the Chrome Web Store. It comes as a 30-day free trial and you can get a single-user license for $5 a month or $50 a year.

While the Chrome extension is a useful tool for small teams and academic groups, you may need the more robust features for project management and collaboration offered in the myBalsamiq web-based product. But the Chrome extension is a great example of Balsamiq’s flexibility and shows how Google is turning the browser into a robust application environment. Enjoy!

iOS Icons For Web Apps

I just created a new set of iOS home screen icons for this website. Creating multiple home screen icons allows the icon that launches your site to look professional and crisp on Apple’s retina and pre-retina displays for iPhone and iPad.

Icons: Before and After
Icons: Before and After

It’s very easy to do. Just create a set of PNG image at 57×57 pixels, 72×72 pixels, 114×114 pixels, and 144×144 pixels. Create the images individually in Photoshop and don’t just resize the largest to the smaller sizes. Create the images as squares with 90-degree corners. iOS will take care of adding the rounded edges and reflective effect.

The image in this post shows the raw PNG I created and how it looked after iOS applied its effects. You can also tell iOS not to alter your image by using the “-precomposed” option. This approach is used by a lot of sites and apps like Path and Pinterest. Apple’s developer documentation will tell you how to do that.

Once your images are created, place them at the document root of your web server. Then add the <link> tags below in the <head> section of your site’s pages. And with that you’ll have nice clean home screen icons for people who want to keep your site one tap away on their Apple devices.

<link rel="apple-touch-icon" sizes="57x57" href="/apple-touch-icon-57x57.png" />
<link rel="apple-touch-icon" sizes="72x72" href="/apple-touch-icon-72x72.png" />
<link rel="apple-touch-icon" sizes="114x114" href="/apple-touch-icon-114x114.png" />
<link rel="apple-touch-icon" sizes="144x144" href="/apple-touch-icon-144x144.png" />

The icons are used by the different devices in this way:

  • 57×57 will be for iPhone 3GS, 2011 iPod Touch, and older Android devices
  • 72×72 will be for iPad 1, iPad 2, and iPad mini
  • 114×114 will be for iPhone 4, 4S, 5, and 2012 iPod Touch
  • 144×144 will be for for iPad 3 and 4

For more information on configuring web apps, see Apple’s iOS Developer Library.

The Touchable Desktop

Yesterday I presented at UX Thursday in Chicago.

My 20-minute talk was on The Touchable Desktop – When Responsive Won’t Fly. It looked at design considerations for websites targeting desktop computers and tablets when responsive web design is not an option. Here are my slides:


Here are some additional resources to help you when designing for tablets and touchscreens:

The event was sponsored by User Interface Engineering.

Siri’s Apple Store Integration

Siri Apple Store Search
Siri Apple Store Search

Apple last week updated its store app for iOS to include integration with Siri for speech-based search. You can now ask Siri questions like “How much does the new iPad cost?” and “Where’s the nearest Apple store?”. Siri searches like these can land consumers on the store locator results page or product pages for iPods, iPhones, and other gadgets.

The integration is provided through Siri’s interface with search engine Wolfram Alpha. Wolfram also enables Siri to search thousands of appliance and home computer products from Best Buy. Some of this search capability with Siri was available with previous versions of the Apple Store app, so it’s not clear what the latest app version offers, except perhaps more consistent search results.

One downside of the Siri Apple Store integration is that most users (except the most hard-core Apple fans) will not know it is available. I only learned about it through blogs and tech websites. The average iPhone user may not even think to ask Siri for the location of the nearest Apple store, and may instead either launch the Apple Store app or just search the web. That’s one of the biggest hurdles to using Siri — people don’t know what they can do with it so they may not try to do much.

One change I’d make to Siri’s Apple Store integration is the terminology used for store location searches. A store location search returns a set a of results that are labeled as the stores “fairly close” to you. It would be better to label these as the stores “nearest to you”. For someone in a more rural location looking for the closest Apple store, a distance of 100 miles may not be considered “fairly close”. Or in my case, a store 21 miles from my office is hardly “fairly close”. But aside from the labeling the interface is pretty intuitive and marks a step forward for speech-based interactions as part of the overall ecommerce shopping experience.