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Book Review of “The Mobile Frontier”

January 1, 2013

In the summer of 2012 I bought my first modern mobile device — a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7 tablet.  While I’ve used a dumb phone for a few years, this 7” tablet and its touch based Natural User Interface (NUI) really impressed me.  I could easily see how mobile devices like this, plus those bigger and smaller, will change the world of human-computer interaction.  What possibilities!

To see what User Experience (UX) designers were doing in this new world I googled “Mobile UX” and started following the links.  I found a link to UX Magazine, and started perusing recent articles. One article stood out as being very helpful in acquainting a mobile novice like me with some of the very basic constraints of mobile devices, and UX design solutions to gracefully live within them —  Reading this excerpt from Rachel Hinman’s new book led me to buy the book and enthusiastically read it from cover to cover:  The Mobile Frontier, Copyright 2012, Rosenfeld Media, Brooklyn, New York.

The author, Rachel Hinman, is a seasoned mobile UX “designer, researcher, and recognized thought leader in the mobile user experience field”, p 264.  Here’s why I think this book is a must read for 1) software developers (like me) that do a lot of desk top Graphical User Interface (GUI) design and code development, 2) Mobile Developers, 3) Solution Architects, 4) Project Managers, and 5) CTOs and CIOs.

The first section of the book “What Makes Mobile Different” contains 4 chapters that provide a crucial Big Picture conceptual overview of exactly what makes the touch based mobile user experience different from the GUI desktop experience we’ve all become used to during the past 20 years.  It also presents application and UX design considerations that follow from these differences.  The things that make “Mobile Different” are way, way more than a small screen size. Being acquainted with the differences, some of which are listed below, enables the development of effective mobile solutions:

  • NUI versus GUI
  • The vital importance of context
  • Being often interrupted in mobile experiences and the implications of this
  • The need to actively manage a mobile user’s “cognitive load”
  • The key importance of “device ecosystems” interacting with each other through various “touch points” in the overall solution architecture.  A key point of view for Architects.

The book makes it clear that “What Makes Mobile Different” influences not only User Experience, but also application architecture and choice of technology.

The second section provides a more detailed conceptual look at “Emergent Mobile Patterns”.  Aside from the patterns the author identified, I was fascinated by her use of Christopher Alexander’s “Pattern Language” technique to describe the emergent patterns.  Alexander’s “Pattern Language” thinking heavily influenced the “discovery” of software Design Patterns in the early 1990s.  Since then, there have been many useful descriptions of software patterns written in “pattern language” format.  Its quite interesting to see it applied to UX patterns as well.  Patterns work!  For architecture of buildings and bridges, software structure, and UX.

 Five emerging patterns of mobile UX are explored:

  1. “The ‘Cloud’ and Applications as Natural Set Points for Mobile Experiences”
  2. “Good Mobile Experiences Progressively Reveal their Nature”
  3. “Content Becomes the Interface”
  4. “Use Uniquely Mobile Input Mechanisms”
  5. “Say Good-Bye to Done”

The third section of the book is focused on giving UX designers (including software developers called upon to act as UX designers) tools and processes for developing highly useable mobile user interfaces, in light of the concepts presented in the first half of the book.  In this section, I found Chapter 6 “Mobile Prototyping – Tools and Methods for Designing Mobile Experiences” to be truly excellent at telling me how to go about mobile prototyping, and when to use the various techniques, tools and processes presented.  Further, I found the Double Diamond project model very practical.  It consists of 4 phases – Discover, Define, Design, and Deliver.  I’ll leave it up to the reader to find out what is done in each phase, the importance of a divergence phase being followed by a convergence phase, and why it is called “Double Diamond”.

The key high level mobile UX concepts presented in the first part of the book, combined with really useful practical advice on how to go about incorporating those concepts in to real world design, plus easy readability, make this book a stand out.  I highly recommend it for anyone who is, or will be, involved in a mobile software development project, whether they be UX Designers, Software Developers, Architects, Project Managers, or Senior Management Stakeholders.

George Stevens

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