In a multi-device world, our approach to user interface design needs to be expanded if we are to create truly multi-dimensional experiences. Users are no longer fixed to high-computing desktops – they are surrounded by digital ecosystems and information networks wherever they go. As a result, the design of any digital solution must consider the variety of contexts that arise across this ecosystem, and adapt features specific to each.
Punchcut calls this approach the design of “distributed experiences.” This concept empowers our designers and encourages our clients to evolve beyond porting elements across channels and toward creating more fluid, adaptive digital experiences that spread across dynamic touch-points. We’ve collected the following considerations to inspire others to capture this often-overlooked opportunity and begin to truly distribute brand experiences over the mobile ecosystem.
1. Understand the digital ecosystem, its organisms and its relationships.
We view the digital world in terms of ecosystems: groups of devices, people, services and spaces interacting together to support one another. Through this systemic design perspective, the most successful solutions come from the understanding that multi-device experiences, like the users who drive them, are inter-connected, inter-related, and infinitely variable.
Studying these relationships and the methods that guide the exploration of digital ecosystems reveals the depth and dimensions required for distributed experiences. Within each context are specific opportunities, yet each of them also represent a chance to unify the multi-dimensional experience into a natural, fluid whole.
2. Focus on distribution, not duplication.
True distribution is not duplication. Distribution is the system by which designers deliver the "right things" at the "right place" at the "right time." It involves parsing out portions of the user experience and applying them to the appropriate device and contextual landscape, necessarily evaluating each touch-point from a human, spatial, device and service perspective.
n. Def. Arrangement; classification. The pattern of apportionment.
All too often we find design approaches that prefer to duplicate existing experiences rather than re-think and re-architect them. Consider the forced extension of web paradigms to mobile devices: the experiences of one are simply scaled for another with the assumption that everything else is remains constant. The same goes for televisions, where the use of desktop metaphors (lists, folders, etc.) and conceptual references persist, ignoring important differences in the screen’s resolution, viewing distance, and control methods. Just having a website, mobile app and television widget does not qualify as having created a “distributed experience.” To be truly distributed, these experiences must be adapted to the unique contexts at each touch-point.
3. Adapt experience touch-points to each context.
If, in the world of mobility, context is everything, then context’s importance is only magnified when considering a multi-device ecosystem. Effective distributed experiences must accommodate the appropriate depth, features and interface components into one fluid experience spanning a variety of devices and contexts. Each touch-point must be strung together by a common thread, yet each must also be addressed individually, from human (behavioral), device (constraint), service (function), and space (environmental) perspectives.
While a key goal is to create a unified service experience, it is important to recognize that distributed designs do not necessarily mean consistent ones. Different functions feel appropriate in different contexts and on different devices. This paradox – that it is not about consistency, but continuity – is critical in building a service experience that extends across devices.
4. Embrace the concept of services, not applications.
Applications package sets of features and functions that tap into consumer value, and their tangible and quantifiable elements make for easy adoption. Yet it is important to remember they reflect a single-device or single-dimensional view of the world. Focusing on applications must not hinder our mindset for envisioning next-generation experiences for multi-device ecosystems. With the emergence of cloud-based software, applications may begin to fade away, bringing the power of services to the forefront.
5. Establish frameworks to provide flexibility.
In the world of systems and services, constant adaptation is the key to long-term success. One-off design solutions do not provide the flexibility and scalability needed to accommodate growth at each touch-point. Fixed, rigid architectures prevent the experience from scaling and adapting to accommodate new sizes, elements and features.
In contrast, thinking from a systems perspective and studying interactions on a component level has led Punchcut to build User Interface Frameworks, guides that help inform future touch-point experiences. By defining a set of principles, elements, patterns and guidelines, frameworks help distributed experiences adapt to meet users not only where they are, but where they are going to be. This sort of design endures because it focuses on identifying the continuous elements that are core to any experience, and provides specific references for what elements can be transformed as the system evolves.
6. Take the time to get the details right.
Distributed experience frameworks require in-depth evaluation, brainstorming, and exploration. For the sake of parity or getting something to market, too many companies have released singular products and services that chased an opportunity before they defined the scope of the idea. They were never given a chance, so it’s not surprising consumers didn’t give them one either. To deliver quality distributed experiences, ones that resonate with the people engaging with them, successful solutions must take the time to conduct contextual research and explore design goals on their way to establishing a lasting, multi-device strategy.
7. Seek to evolve and enhance relationships.
Knowing when to – and not to – incorporate features and devices is key to true human engagement. Distributed experiences represent the first step in an exciting evolution that points us in the direction of establishing truly convergent experiences. As they become more distributed, opportunities are expanding for seamless integration and cooperation between devices and environments. However, this still requires a foundational shift that address the multiple dimension and multiple inputs employed in the effort toward human mobility.
At Punchcut, when we use the word convergence, we strive to add new meaning. We keep a standard that refuses to dilute its definition to include basic cross-channel or multi-device experiences. Instead, our process involves creating complete user interface frameworks, broken down into componentized parts of an experience, each evaluated and applied to devices where they are most appropriate. In working with consumer brands and content providers, a distribution may look something like this: the most immediate, streamlined functions live on the mobile phone where users are quickly checking in or making real-time updates; deeper control lives on the desktop along with users’ calendars, media and records; and the most rich, engaging experiences are couched on TVs and tablets where media is most readily consumed. Throughout each device, there is brand and experience continuity, but different context-appropriate experiences have been distributed thoughtfully at various touch-points. That is what we call convergence.