Mobile is an experience, not a platform

“Mobile-first.” “The future is mobile.” I hear it everywhere, and I’m sure you do too. And very often these days, it’s closely followed by “We’re embracing responsive design.” I asked someone recently what that meant. Like far too many buzzword aficionados, he didn’t have the foggiest idea, struggling to get past the notion of fitting a site onto a small screen.

I see two recurring problems in the way a lot of us are approaching the mobile opportunity. Firstly, we have a natural inclination to consider form over function, and so we look at mobile as a platform rather than an experience. This in turn leads to the second problem, which is that we then typically look for a quick solution to allow us to deliver on what we see as a new platform, and we fixate on popular approaches, such as responsive design, without taking a step back and understanding what it is we really are trying to achieve.

The platform vs. experience issue is not a new one. For those of us who were around when Al Gore invented the Internet, we saw a lot of this in the early days of the Web. Paradigms that were designed and optimized for offline experience were ported directly into the online experience, with little consideration for the fundamental differences. The dot com boom and bust is littered with such stories, but those were perhaps understandable the first time around.

As we transition from desktop to mobile, and I should note as an aside that this is really accretion rather than pure substitution, we need to take heed of the lessons of our recent past. It is imperative that we consider mobile as a new use case, in fact, for most of us, as the new base case. Form has to follow function here, and that means that we should first be asking how people are going to interact with our product or service on-the-go, and/or in bite-sized time slots, and only then consider screen sizes and resolutions.

Responsive design works superbly for publishers with rich content sites. While the context of a mobile interaction may be different, in that users are working with short periods of time, the nature of the interaction is much the same. The responsive design paradigm solves perfectly for this.

For the rest of us, whether we’re an airline or in the local search business, the experience that solves for a user’s goals in a mobile context is a distinct one, and the primary challenge is to define what that is.

The use case becomes a highly personal one. Our devices are fast becoming natural extensions of ourselves, borne out by the fact that we are apparently never more than 3 feet* away from our phones – and that’s most likely when we take a shower in the morning! As providers of a service or product, we not only know when and where a person is, but we potentially have access to a treasure trove of information about a user’s past and present, and that data set is now with them at all times. Our solutions need to be contextually and personally aware, and I’m glad that people are really starting to look at this – Marissa Mayer made this point at Davos just the other day.

* Statistic shamelessly stolen from Walt Doyle’s keynote at Street Fight New York
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