Designing for What? (The convergence of ‘mobile’ and ‘desktop’ in UX design.)

I recently attended a seminar about accessibility issues on mobile devices. The categories of mobile devices listed included smartphones, phablets and tablets amongst others. These categories, and many of the accessibility solutions outlined at the seminar, underscore an outdated dichotomy in design between the mobile device and the desktop.

Previously, there were a number of clear distinctions between mobile and desktop: lack of mouse and keyboard on mobile, lack of cellular data connection on desktop, highly divergent screen sizes and processing power, even incompatible browsers and operating systems. These differences have all since become blurred. We now have bluetooth and USB keyboards and mice for tablets and phones, cellular data-enabled laptops, laptops with screens smaller than a tablet, unified operating systems and browsers, and tablets and phones which can out-muscle many desktop computers.

The variety of hardware and software combinations that a UX designer can be presented with these days is truly mind boggling. Screen size specifications are listed by the hundreds, newer devices can be used with touchscreen or a mouse, and cellphone carriers are launching one-off browsers to brand their flagship devices. While we UX professionals are a capable bunch, and we certainly can accommodate all the variety of devices, configurations, pixel densities and browsers, we may more likely be murdered by our tech partners for our efforts rather than gifted Webby awards.

Furthermore there continues to be a theory that user perform different types of tasks on mobile devices than on desktops. Given the differentiation blur outlined above, this really breaks down into the assumption that users are only using their mobile devices while they are away from home. While this may be true for a portion of the population, as of 2013, 77% of mobile searches were performed at home or at work. So, users are not critically distinguishing their activities between mobile and home. In fact, mobile devices are more fetishistic than desktops and therefore more likely to be handled and therefore used.

So, what do we do?

  • Throw out the whole differentiation between ‘mobile’ and ‘desktop’. 
    These terms don’t mean anything any more and can confuse stakeholders and developers who may get stuck thinking mobile means a phone and forget that there are phablets and mouseless laptops.
  • ‘Mobile first’ become ‘smallest first’
    The principles of ‘mobile first’ design are still applicable. Start designing with your users’ smallest screen size in mind.  Assume that they have no mouse or keyboard. But don’t throw your nice, large click targets out once screen sizes expand.
  • Design for fingers

    Remember that a larger screen does not indicate the presence of a mouse or keyboard. All your scaled designs must include icons and links viable as touch targets, with ample padding and margins. Always assume a virtual keyboard will obscure the lower third of your screen on input into text fields, areas and dropdowns
    Use breakpoints
Rather than knocking yourself and everyone else out with documentation accommodating every permutation of hardware and software combination, choose the minimum breakpoints relevant to your design. This will depend greatly on your content and functionality.
  • Make your Coder your BFF
    Coding for responsive designs – especially when accounting for high and low pixel-density displays across various browsers – is a fine art. A good coder will know some tricks that will make text and images scale well.  These may require tweaks to your design which will be well worth the effort.

With the rapid deployment of devices into the market and the conspicuous lack of standardization even within a single manufacturer, the traditional line between designs for desktop and those for mobile are irrelevant. Rather than dwell on these obsolete distinctions, designers have to accept the rapidly changing landscape and conform our process to accommodate it. By creating websites and applications that are scaleable in size and accessible across hardware configurations, we can effectively design for a huge range of devices – present and future – without compromising our sanity, the goodwill of our partners or the integrity of our vision.

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