6 min read

I was privileged enough recently to be at a preview of Chris Chabot’s talk on the future of mobile technology. It was a little high-line (conceptual), but it was great at getting the audience thinking about the implications that “mobile” will have in the coming decades; how it will impact our lives, how it will change our perceptions, and how it will change physically.

The problem with this, however, is that mobile user experience just isn’t ready to scale yet. The biggest challenge facing mobile isn’t its ability to handle an infinite increase in traffic; it’s how we navigate this new world of mobile experiences.

Frameworks like Bootstrap et al have enabled designers to make content look great on any platform, but finding your way around, browsing, on mobile is still about as fun as punching yourself in the face. In a selection of dozens of applications, I’m in turns required to perform a ballet of different digital interface interaction: pressing, holding, sliding, swiping, pulling (but never pushing?!), and dragging my way to finding the article of choice.

The hamburger eats all

One of the biggest enablers of scalable user interface design is going to be icons, right? A picture paints a thousand words. An icon that can communicate “Touch me for more… ” is more valuable in the spatio-prime-real estate of the mobile web than a similarly wordy button. Of course, when the same pictures start meaning a different thousand words, everything starts getting messy.

The best example of icons losing meaning is the humble hamburger icon. Used by so many sites and applications to achieve such different end goals, it is becoming unusable. Here are a few examples from fairly prominent sites:

  • Google+: Opens a reveal menu, which I can also open by swiping left [MG1] right.
  • SmashingMag: Takes me to the bottom of the page, with no faculty to get back up without scrolling manually. The reason for this remains largely unclear to me.
  • eBay: Changes the view of listed items. Feels like the Wilhelm Scream of UI design.
  • Linked in: Drop-down list of search options, no menu items.
  • IGN: Reveal menu which I can only close by pressing a specific part of the “off” page. Can’t slide it open.

There’s an emerging theme here, in that it’s normally related to content menus (or search), and it normally happens by some form of CSS trickery that either drops down or reveals the “under” menu. But this is generally speaking. There’s no governance, and it introduces more friction to the cross-site browsing experience.

Compare the hamburger to the humble magnifying glass:

How many people have used a magnifying glass? I haven’t. Despite this set back, through consistent use of the icon with consistent results, we’ve ended up with a standard pattern that increases the usability and user experience of a site. Want to find something? Click the magnifying glass.

The hamburger isn’t the only example of poorly implemented navigation, it’s just indicative of the distances we still have to cover to get to a point where mobile navigation is intuitive. The “Back”, “Forward”, and “Refresh” buttons have been a staple of browsers since Netscape Navigator–they have aided the navigation of the Web as we know it. As mobile continues to grow, designers need similarly scalable icons, with consistent meaning. This may be the hamburger in the future, but it’s not at that point yet.

Getting physical, or, where we discuss touch

Touch isn’t yet fully realized on mobile devices. What can I actually press? Why won’t Google+ let me zoom in with the “pinch” function? Can I slide this carousel, or not? What about off-screen reveals? Navigating with touch at the moment really feels like you’re a beta tester for websites; trying things that you know work on other sites to see if they work here. This, as a consumer, isn’t the base of a good user experience. Just yesterday, I realised I could switch tabs on Android Chrome by swiping the grey nav bar. I found that by accident.

The one interaction that has come out with some value is the “Pull to refresh” action. It’s intuitive, in its own way, and it’s also used as a standard way of refreshing content across Facebook, Twitter, and Google+—any site that has streamed content. People can use this function without thinking about it and without many visual prompts now that it’s remained the standard for a few years. Things like off-screen reveals, carousel swiping, and even how we highlight text are still so in flux that it becomes difficult to know how to achieve a given action from one site to the next.

There’s no cross application consistency that allows me to navigate my own browsing experience with confidence. In cases such as the Android Chrome, I’m actually losing functionality that developers have spent hours (days?) creating.

Keep it mobile, stupid

Mobile commerce is a great example of forgetting the “mobile” bit of browsing.

Let’s take Amazon. If I want to find an Xbox 360 RPG, it takes me seven screens and four page loads to get there. I have to actually load up a list of every game, for every console, before I can limit it to the console I actually own. Just give me the option to limit my searches from the home page. That’s one page load and a great experience (cheques in the post please, Amazon).

As a user, there are some pretty clear axioms for mobile development:

  • Browser > app. Don’t make me download an app if it’s going to require an Internet connection in the future. There’s no value in that application.
  • Keep page calls to a minimum. Don’t trust my connection. I could be anywhere. I am mobile.
  • Mobile is still browsing. I don’t often have a specific need; if I do, Google will solve that need. I’m at your site to browse your content.

Understanding that mobile is its own entity is an important step – thinking about connection and page calls is as important as screen size. Tools such as Hood.ie are doing a great job in getting developers and designers to think about “offline first”. It’s not ready yet, but it is one possible solution to under the hood navigation problems.

Adding context

A lack of governing design principles in the emergent space of mobile user experience is limiting its ability to scale to the place we know it’s headed. Every new site feels like a test, with nothing other than how to scroll up and down being hugely apparent. This isn’t to say all sites need to be the same, but for usability and accessibility to not be impacted, they should operate along a few established protocols. We need more progressive enhancement and collaboration in order to establish a navigational framework that the mobile web can operate in.

Designers work in the common language of signification, and they need to be aware that they all work in the same space. When designing for that hip new product, remember that visitors aren’t arriving at your site in isolation–they bring with them the great burden of history, and all the hamburgers they’ve consumed since.

T.S. Eliot said that “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists”. We don’t work alone. We’re all in this together.


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