Mobile UX: User Expectations Have Shifted


The New Smartphone User

Welcome to the world of the “New Smartphone User”.

“Give me a break,” you say. “There’s no such thing as a “Smartphone” anymore. Practically all phones are smart. My 10 year old has an iPhone, and so does my great aunt.”

You’re right. Everyone is jumping in on mobile. It’s disruptive technology that didn’t exist in “lots of people can afford it” form 5 years ago.

Mobile Back in the Day

I remember my first “smartphone”. I got it back in the day when the only “smartphones” were Palm Pilots and BlackBerrys. I worked at Verizon Wireless right out of college, and got to watch the users who came in with their “SmartPhone” devices. Most of them were middle age business women and men. They rolled up in their Mercedes’, walked in in suits, and asked us for help reconfiguring their email settings. They exchanged their BlackBerry pins at meetings and had inappropriate conversations while looking extremely hard at work. The “Smartphone” wasn’t cool, it wasn’t helpful for the average user, it was a business tool.

Texting Takes Over the World
Then a shift started to happen. Folks began to text like crazy on their flip phones. Parents were coming in to our store waving their cell phone bills around screaming bloody murder at us because they had $1200.00 in charges from their teenagers going WAY over the 250 text limit. (Once a dad even ripped a phone off the wall and thew it at us. People get REALLY fired up when it comes to their cellular devices and bills.)

The phone manufacturers realized that it would be easier to text on a qwerty than it was on a regular flip cell, so out came phones like the LG EnV. It was a huge seller. Still a “Flip” but a long skinny one, that flipped open to reveal a full keyboard in all of it’s teenage text loving glory. And the Moto Sidekick. You could slide the screen up to reveal a keyboard. It was new, it was exciting, it was incredibly disruptive to the mobile industry. Kids would come into our store, and it was like a ray of light was shining down from heaven on those devices. The gateway to general population smartphone usage was beginning to open.

iPhone Changed Everything

Then entered the very first iPhone. And nothing in the mobile tech industry was ever the same. They targeted the young hipster market. Early adopters of tech, not business users. Young adults who were searching for the perfect way to promote their status. They had something to prove and they weren’t afraid to drop some serious cash to do it. iPhones 1 & 2 were pretty magical. Only a select group of users got on board that early, the Mac addicts were in heaven.

Then came the iPhone 3G, and everything changed again. I jumped into the iPhone scene at the 3G mark. No more CrackBerry addition for me. I became an Apple fan. I wondered how I had ever lived without this little device. I started out using it mainly for email and games, then Facebook stepped up their native game and I was hooked.

At this point other manufacturers started to scramble and really try to get in the game. There were LG touch screen phones, but they were kind of messy from a UI stance, Motorola gave them a shot too, but battery life was insanely short, you basically had to have them plugged in all day. No one came close to iPhone, until Android exploded on to the scene.

The Android platform had a slow start, then caught like wild fire. Non Apple smartphone manufacturers grabbed hold of it like it was a lifeboat in the sea of mobile they were drowning in. Some went vanilla, others started customizing, and here we are today: with a ton load of Android devices all running fragmented versions of the OS. It’s all over the place, but it’s customizable, and the users who love it, REALLY love it. The freedom to customize your OS was a huge selling point for the tech savvy folks who had been jailbreaking their iPhones for years.

Businesses starting buying employees smartphones, parents starting buying smartphones, they started buying their kids smartphones, the years passed and now even my great aunts and uncles are iPhone and Android-ing it up when they go in to upgrade.

So why all the fuss about changes to mobile app navigation right now? “Folks have been using smartphones for years and years, what’s the big deal?” you may ask.

The New Demographic Expects More

The big deal, is that up until very recently, Smartphones were not full blown main stream. They were still a couple hundred bucks, and not everyone could afford them. You can now walk into BestBuy and pick up an iPhone 5C for $1.00 with a 2 year contract. The demographic has shifted from the tech savvy hipsters who have used iPhones and Androids for years, to the grandparents who have been using a flip TracPhone up until now. They’re also being used by parents who don’t want to deal with a wifi contract so they let their kids use their smartphones to do research for school, and by elementary kids in the classrooms. A local school just started a BYOD program, and they’re including smartphones in the program. We’re dealing with a brand new demographic of mobile users here folks, many of whom have no idea what a series of stacked lines in a square mean (hamburger icon to you). And they expect more.

Disruptive Tech: A History

I think of it this way. Back in the 80’s, DOS was where it was at. Prior, if you wanted to program, you ran around punching holes in things and feeding your masterpiece into a machine. Usability was not the key focus, getting the thing to work was the key focus. Function > than Form, UX & Usability at that point.

Then came the internet. If you had a website, you were a magical sorcerer. I created my first one in the 90’s. It was an HTML 1, Geocities back when Geocities was just a big white box to type your code in, Javascript ticker infested hot mess, but it was right in line with industry standards. It had photos, links, the ticker (the shame still runs deep on that one) and that was it.

Did it work? Yep. Was it beautiful? Not so much. Was it usable? Barely. Websites and programs didn’t have to be user friendly back then, they just had to exist. Folks piled their homepages full of crazy amounts of info. We were on dial up so images had to be tiny or you’d be sitting there for 10 minutes waiting for a page to load. 26.6k modems. Shudder.

Then the industry began to grow and change. HTML grew up, JavaScript grew up, CSS burst onto the scene and things began to improve. Folks started to expect more than for your site to just load. They expected to be able to FIND things on your site, and navigate around with ease. And slowly over time, we moved away from the Function>Form, Usability and UX mentality into the mindset where we are now, where if your page isn’t user friendly, folks leave and go find another one that is. Form, Usability & great UX are now the focus, functionality is a given. Now user friendly interfaces and a good looking website are the user expectation. The industry has grown up.

How Does This Apply to Mobile?

So now, here we are. Mobile app designers and developers are scrambling around trying to figure out what’s going on with mobile navigation and this shifty hamburger icon. Mobile apps have been around for years now, the hipsters are well versed in the iconography and the expected navigational structures, “It’s always been done this way,” is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. But the way it’s always been done, isn’t going to be enough anymore. We’re moving out of the land of mobile being disruptive and new and people being amazed if your app actually loads, and into the land of people expecting your stuff to load in seconds, look fabulous and be usable. Is mobile moving at breakneck speed? You know it. You thought the internet transformation progressed quickly? Mobile is stomping that record right into the ground.

Mobile Usability and Fabulous UX Are Now Expected. Test All of the Things!

We need to start testing all of the mobile things. Designs can’t just be based on, “I’m the designer and I like this so I’m doing it,” like the internet was back in the early days, we’ve moved past that point in the mobile space.

People now expect your mobile designs to be sexy AND usable. How do you make sure your designs are usable? Mobile usability testing. And I don’t mean showing your app to your brother who has been using a smartphone for 5 years and him giving it a thumbs up. I’m talking about testing your app design with your specific customer demographic.

Mobile Usability Testing Tools to Get You Started

Mobile Usability Testing tools have come a LONNGGG way in the last few years. There are some killer tools like UXRecorder for mobile web and responsive testing on iOS, SolidifyApp and inVisionApp for testing mobile prototypes on iOS and Android, and and TestFlight for testing native app designs. Get yourself set up with the right tools in your toolbox, and get out there and test your mobile designs with your demographic. Otherwise, your future will be bleak and your apps will wind up chilling next to the old forsaken javascript tickers in that big design graveyard in the sky.


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