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 worked at Verizon Wireless right out of college, when the only smartphones were Palm Pilots and BlackBerrys. I’d frequently help BlackBerry users—who were typically middle-aged business women and men—reconfigure their email settings.
At work, these folks exchanged their BlackBerry pins at meetings and had inappropriate conversations while looking like they were very busy. The smartphone wasn’t cool, and it wasn’t very helpful for the average user—it was a business tool.
Texting takes over the world
Folks started texting like crazy on their flip phones. Parents came into our store waving their cell phone bills around, screaming at us because they had $1200 in charges from their teenagers going way over the 250 text limit. One day, an angry dad ripped a sample phone off the wall and threw it at us.
The phone manufacturers realized that it would be easier to text on a QWERTY than it was on a regular flip phone, so out came phones like the LG enV, which wound up being a huge seller. It was still a flip phone, but it opened to reveal a full keyboard.
Then the Motorola Sidekick joined the party. You could slide the screen up to reveal a keyboard. It was new, it was exciting, and it was incredibly disruptive to the mobile industry.
When kids walked into our store, it was like they saw a ray of light shining down from heaven on those devices. The gateway to general population smartphone usage was beginning to open.
iPhone changed everything
When iPhone hit, nothing in the mobile tech industry was ever the same. They targeted early adopters of tech, not business users. They wanted young adults who were searching for the perfect way to promote their status. The hipsters had something to prove, and they weren’t afraid to drop some serious cash to do it.
When the iPhone 3G came out, I got one and immediately became an Apple fan. I wondered how I’d ever lived without this little device. I started out using it mainly for email, Need for Speed: Shift, and Bejeweled. When Facebook stepped up their native app game, I was hooked.
“UX is now the key to success in the mobile market.”
At this point other manufacturers started to scramble to get into the market. There were LG touchscreen phones, but their user interfaces were messy.
Motorola tried, too, but their phones’ battery life was way too short—you had to camp out near an outlet all day.
No one came close to iPhone until Android exploded onto the scene.
The Android platform had a slow start, but it eventually caught on. Non-Apple smartphone manufacturers grabbed hold of Android 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 of Android devices all running fragmented versions of the OS. It’s all over the place, but it’s customizable—and the people who love it really love it. The freedom to customize your OS was a huge selling point for the tech-savvy folks who’d been jailbreaking their iPhones for years.
Businesses started buying employees smartphones, parents started buying smartphones for themselves and their kids, and now, years later, even my great aunts and uncles are choosing iPhone or Android when it’s time for an upgrade.
So why all the fuss about changes to mobile app navigation and iconography right now? Folks have been using smartphones for years and years, so what’s the big deal? you may ask.
The new demographic expects more
The big deal is that up until very recently, smartphones weren’t full-blown mainstream. They were still a couple hundred bucks, and not everyone could afford them.
You can now walk into Best Buy and pick up an iPhone for no money down—just a few dollars extra tacked on to your monthly phone bill.
The smartphone demographic has shifted from tech-savvy hipsters who’ve used iPhones and Androids for years, to grandparents who’ve been using a Tracfone up until now.
“Brand-new mobile users have no idea what the hamburger icon means.”
Who else? Parents who don’t want to deal with a wifi contract so they let their kids use their smartphones to do research for school.
A local school just started a bring your own device program—and they’re including smartphones in the program. That means school-aged children are using smartphones in the classroom to learn.
We’re dealing with a brand-new demographic of mobile users, 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: in the 80s, DOS was where it was at. Before that, if you wanted to program, you ran around punching holes in things and feeding your masterpiece into a machine.
Usability wasn’t the key focus—getting the thing to work was the key focus. At that point, function was greater than form, UX, and usability.
Then came the internet. If you had a website, you were a magical sorcerer. I created my first website using HTML 1 in the 90s. It was on Geocities back when Geocities just had a big, white box where you typed in your code.
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 an entire episode of Friends waiting for a page to load.
“Focus on creating great experiences that drive brand trust, and your bottom line will thrive.”
Over time, we moved away from the function > form, usability, and UX mentality and into the mindset where we are now, where if your page isn’t user friendly, folks leave and go find one that is.
Form, usability, and great UX are the focus in web design—functionality is a given. Now user-friendly interfaces and a good looking website are the user expectation. It took years and years, but the industry has finally grown up.
How does this apply to mobile?
So here we are. Mobile app designers and developers are scrambling around trying to figure out what’s going on with mobile navigation and iconography. Mobile apps have been around for a few years now, the hipsters are well versed in the iconography and the expected navigational structures, and “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 enough anymore.
“The way it’s always been done isn’t 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 into the ground right now.
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.
“We need to start testing all of the mobile things.”
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’s 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 matured fast. Having a subpar mobile UI with poor UX is no longer acceptable.
If your mobile app isn’t flawless, the general public is going to either jump down your throat or jump off your app.
Make sure that you’re performing usability testing with all of your user personas, especially if you’re general public facing and not targeting an industry-specific persona.
UX is now the key to success in the mobile market. Keep a laser focus on creating great experiences that drive brand trust, and your bottom line will thrive.
This article was originally published on UserExperienceRocks.com.
UX and Content Strategist at InVision and UX Blogger at UserExperienceRocks.com. Fan of: my daughter, photography, writing, and beautiful usable things.