Less is more… if you collaborate

Less is more… if you collaborate

The smart phone is an octopus in a box. It is a calculator, web browser, instant messaging device, social hub, spirit level, star map, sat nav and more in a handy single mobile package. In addition, you can also still make phone calls with it. All this functionality comes without the user manuals that we would normally expect from each of the individual devices or applications found on a computer.

swissarmyknifeThe success of the mobile phone as a ‘Swiss army knife’ with apps that you can pick up and use is largely attributed to the shared design patterns used by these. Users quickly become familiar with the building blocks of one app and then recognize these in another. The functions offered are different but the interaction techniques to use these are familiar which enables the ‘pick-up-and-use’. These mobile design patterns are now so common that we are starting to see their introduction on the desktop (Windows, OS X ) and in cloud apps. Nothing really new here for a experienced UX professional.

The ‘pick-up-and-use’ feature is further enhanced by the reduced functionality of the apps themselves compared to their desktop counterparts. Faced with limited interaction capabilities, and the inevitably shorter attention span of users on the move, designers are forced to focus on core functionality and on offering this really well. As a side effect, other apps are used to offer additional functionality. To email something from one app, this app will open the smartphone’s email application with pre-filled fields. Following a link in an app? Open the built-in browser with a pre-filled address. Need directions from the address in your contacts? Your contact app will open your mobile’s map app pre-filled parameters, etc. etc. etc.

Rather amazingly, the use of extending an app’s functionality by delegating it to another app that was specifically designed for this purpose is a paradigm shift that is largely going unnoticed. At the same time this way of extending functionality without actually extending the application itself is heavily under-utilized in desktop apps and cloud apps alike. A cloud app we use in Akendi is 10000 ft. Great for team time sheets but a very bad project management tool. Microsoft project is a great project management tool but a very bad tool for keeping time sheets. None of these tools really integrate with each other. They are great at one thing but then become a Swiss army knife by half-heartedly adding functionality that users might need as well. Swiss army knives make great knives but you would never use the other tools out of choice. They are only useful if there really are no proper equivalents around.

The time has come for desktop and cloud app designers to take notice of what works well on mobile. Not just in terms of design patterns, but also the new paradigm of extending functionality by invoking other applications.  Focus on what your app is good at and delegate the additional functionality to other applications that are designed for this purpose. Your users are used to and ready for this, the technology in terms of API’s such as REST is there too. What is stopping application developers?

Dr. Leo Poll is President of Akendi UK.  A firm dedicated to creating intentional experiences through end-to-end experience design, to learn more about Akendi or user experience design, visit www.akendi.co.uk

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