Best Practices for Mobile User Interface Design

As specialists in the mobile industry, we are often asked about the state of mobile and the practices that can best move UI design forward. Here are 10 considerations that drive our design practice.

As mobile design specialists, our clients consult with us because we are defining the best practices that can move UIs and the mobile user experiences that encompass them forward. We have collected 10 key considerations that drive our design practice. Together, these considerations inform ways mobile can keep pace with human activity, and guide our clients’ mindsets as they strive for success.

01

Everything Is Connected So Get The Relationships Right


This is no longer a single-device world. Peoples’ devices exist in digital ecosystems, surrounded by multiple devices. The new mobility comes in new form factors: tablets, TVs, phones, notebooks, smartwatches, to name a few. By focusing on just the handset experience or on just one device at a time, designers are missing an opportunity to craft deeper connections with people’s lives. How do we help these devices work better together, rather than just coexist? The answer lies in “Distributed Experiences” — digital solutions that reach across the various devices within an ecosystem. If you’ve read our perspective Distributed Experiences: Multi-Device Design then you understand our take on moving beyond "channels" where apps are seen as services, while applying service design methods.

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02

Great Experiences Come From Specialists

The mobile experience is not owned by any one design discipline. In fact, the best experiences we’ve crafted at Punchcut have been ones where team members from Strategy, Interaction Design (IXD), Visual Design, Motion and Technology have been equally present and active in brainstorming potential solutions to a given design problem. Each member of the UX team is encouraged to bring depth from their field, and contribute to a collaborative work style. We don’t believe in “throwing over” a set of wireframes to a visual designer when it needs to be skinned. Our design practice pairs visual designers and interaction designers together and they actively engage in early stages of projects, challenging and extending each others’ concepts, rather than just executing on another’s vision.

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03

Create Spaces People Care About

When designing an interface, you are designing a virtual space. Whether or not that space has physical properties, its rules and physics must be applied consistently. We pay meticulous attention to lighting, shading, material and gravity models even if the UI feels especially virtual or digital. The rules don’t have to be realistic, but they should be believable and viscerally understandable. It should be engaging, even delightful, to "be" in that space.

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04

Focus on the Minimum Viable Product

Fight feature addiction. Resist the temptation to throw everything into an app. Focus instead on doing less and doing it exceptionally well. (Read our perspective on overcoming feature addiction.) With living platforms that can push updates at any time, what matters most is the Minimal Viable Product. Launch your experience with a core set of features that are insightfully crafted. Remember, they can be updated as you go. The most important thing is building loyalty by building thoughtfully. Creating and releasing an experience that is dense, but broken, may be worse than launching nothing at all.

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05

Create Experiences That Users Want, Not What They Ask For

We believe in involving users throughout the design process. They keep us honest. Starting with Participatory Design, we explore users’ true needs by inviting them to design with us. Once we’ve refined our recommendations, we’ll bring back users for Concept Validation to see how well the concepts resonate. Finally, when we’re getting closer to a tightened-down design solution, Usability Testing will help catch any false assumptions and ensure users can perform tasks efficiently. At every stage, we have an opportunity to refine the concept.

Still, throughout this process, we know that when asking users what they want, you can’t always rely on what they tell you. Observation is the best teacher. Watching users over time reveals what they actually do, and allows us to design for those scenarios. Borrow a principle from game design: there’s no substitute for play testing.

Borrow a principle from game design: there’s no substitute for play testing.

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06

Fail Early and Quickly

When you’ve got a good concept, put sketches or screens onto a device as soon as possible. Use it and simulate interactions. See how it looks by loading a series of PNGs onto a device’s photo gallery. Prototype physical objects out of foamcore boards. Rearrange the furniture and role-play with it as much as possible. Learn from your prototype and then iterate. Experiences must be felt, not simply seen or discussed.

This principle applies to client and stakeholder design reviews too. Rather than just dropping your designs into a PowerPoint presentation for your stakeholders, put your designs onto a device and have them use it and even live with it. Their design feedback will be more informed by real-world considerations.

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07

Downtime Is Just As Important As The Uptime

When teams are heads-down on a project for weeks on end, productivity suffers. Good ideas suffer. Recognize that design teams need to push away from their desks and get out of the office for inspiration from the real world. Encourage designers to check out peripherally related industries and adapt existing ideas to new contexts. A little downtime can go a long way to re-energize designers and their work.

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08

Mobile UIs Don’t Have To Solve It All

Sometimes in our addiction to features it’s tempting to try to solve the world’s problems with an interface. Resist the desire to spell out every possible interaction with a UI. Remember, we’re shaping human behavior with these interfaces. The amount of screen-time your experience requires may directly influence that persons’ face-time with other people. Every step doesn’t have to be dictated by the UI. Leave room for human interaction, and allow the power of inference to give users choices about how they wish to interpret the information and take action.

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09

Dogfood It

In software development the idiom, eat your own dog food means you rely entirely upon the mobile UI you are trying to develop. If you want to understand how something will be used, use it as your own. Migrate your contacts and swap your SIM card to the new device. Depend on it for every task. Resist the urge (and it will be there!) to jump back to your trusty old device. Capture real-time observations for improvement and channel those into the design effort. You’ll find the little bits of friction you encounter really add up into design insights.

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10

Engage Designers Early

We cringe when we hear about products that have been defined solely by product managers, engineers or marketers — without input from designers. Bringing in a design team only after the product has already been defined dramatically limits the scope and impact of what design can do for your service or app. The organizations that are succeeding today are those that embrace the role that designers can play in shaping a product. If you are in a position to engage an external design agency, bring them in before any RFPs are issued to brainstorm the problem, bring insights around user desire and behavior, and uncover any missed opportunities.


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Punchcut is a user interface design and innovation consulting company specializing in mobile, connected products and software services across devices.

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