Review: Designing the Mobile User Experience

I was fortunate to get an advance copy of Barbara Ballard’s Designing the Mobile User Experience. In general, it is well-written, authoritative, and a boon to interaction designers working (or better, starting to work) in mobile. While I’m not sure this book alone will really enable you to design mobile user experience, it is a good introduction and overview of the mobile space.

It’s great that, rather than dive immediately into application design, Ballard spends the second chapter on the needs and contexts of users. I like that her definition of “mobile” has nothing to do with the device, but is instead a characteristic of the user. It’s the user that is mobile and is carrying the device. I was particularly drawn to the idea of user “microcontexts:” the social context, the physical environment, the application, and the interpersonal context of whom the user is interacting with all come into play.

Although the section on international usage patterns is good (albeit incomplete: no Korea or India?), Ballard makes some judgement calls that may only be true in the West. She says, for instance, that mobile devices being used by more than one person are rare. In some parts of Africa and, I believe, Indonesia, it is actually common. Families own sets of mobile phones and individuals simply take whichever one is charged and ready.

Ballard presents a number of different frameworks, models, and dissections that are useful for understanding the fractured nature of the mobile space. She presents a taxonomy of devices, a device hierarchy chart, the anatomy of Personal Computing Devices (PCD), and a method for selecting the device’s technology/platform (something interaction designers rarely get to do).

Designers, especially those new to mobile, will likely find the chapter on Mobile Design Principles particularly insightful, although here (like in other parts of the book) the technical jargon gets thick and becomes geared towards more developer types.

For designers of a certain ilk, the meatiest part of the book will be Chapter 6 on Mobile UI Design Patterns. (I personally find patterns hard to put into practice, but that’s another story.) Missing from some patterns is an accompanying image of the pattern, however, which makes some patterns hard to understand. Images of the patterns in actual use in addition to wireframe-like figures would have been nice. Designers who are into patterns might also checking out Ballard’s Mobile UI Design Patterns Wiki.

I was personally more interested in Chapter 7, strangely titled Graphic and Media Design. I’d call it, well, Interface Design. Using the brilliant metaphor of portrait miniatures, Ballard offers some really interesting advice for designing UIs for the small screen, such as that designers might want to replicate some of the characteristics of amateur art in their designs: no attention paid to the background, close cropping, and to play with perspective. Some color plates and examples of these practices on mobile devices would have helped this chapter.

Chapter 8, an overview of industry players, is probably crucial to any understanding of mobile even though for anyone with experience, this chapter contains very little insight. It’s also an industry that changes rapidly (although not rapidly enough in some cases). Likewise, chapter 9, on Research and Design, interaction designers will probably find puzzling and dated, springing from a very HCI/usability approach. A complementary book–and indeed, almost the inverse of this book–is Mobile Interaction Design, which I would recommend to really dig into interaction design for mobile. What’s missing from Ballard’s book is well covered there, and visa versa. I’d recommend the two books be read together (if you can afford the hefty price tags on both: $75 for this book, $60 for the other. Why are these books so expensive??)

As a final note, it will be interesting to see how the industry shifts (if at all) when the iPhone debuts in June. And how those shifts will affect this book. Very little is mentioned here of gestures, for example, and the iPhone makes some use of those, not to mention new haptic paradigms like multi-touch. Mobile design is changing rapidly and it is tough for any book to keep up.

One thought on “Review: Designing the Mobile User Experience

  1. i was reading through chapter 8 (industry players) specifically… not only is it not very insightful, (bland/generic/obvious) it doesn’t seem to reflect the reality of stakeholder dynamics (or the one i am familiar with, at least)… anyways… i didn’t pay for the book, though at 75 bucks a pop, may not be a bad business to get into. 😉

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