Elance Blog

The Mobile User Experience: From Smartphones to Tablets


The idea of the user experience has rarely been as prominent as it is now, brought on by the touchscreen mobile movement. Not only are we demanding content, but we want it optimized to whichever mobile device we're using--smartphone or tablet, and are much less receptive to the one-size-fits-all approach. Septillion Developers, developer and technology writers, steps in to discuss the evolution of touch-based mobile UI and offers his thoughts on the trends that we will continue to see moving forward.

A few years ago, the world hadn’t seen a tablet that had any relevance. And now, 2011 is widely being hailed as “The Year of the Tablet.” Forrester Research predicts that this year, tablet sales in the U.S. will double and that by 2015, nearly a quarter of all personal computing devices will be a tablet. This influx of devices will create an even greater demand for tablet developers, most of who will likely come from the existing pool of mobile developers around the world today.

It’s interesting to note that this explosive growth of the tablet segment is not at the cost of the smartphone industry. If anything, it lends support to the ongoing smartphone revolution and encourages developers to create “ubiquitous” apps which provide a similar user experience across several devices ranging in screen size, navigation experience and computational power.

Mobile developers and User Interface designers are increasingly facing the eternal dilemma of designing for the smartphone vs. designing for the tablet vs. designing universal apps which work just as well on both devices. From a user’s perspective, it’s all about having the best possible experience on each platform. So ultimately who is going to get their way—designers or users?

Mobile User Experience is constantly evolving
Change is good – at least in the world of mobile user experience. Feature phones were all about functionality and the “user experience” was largely restrained to being able to type quickly and press hardware keys to navigate between screens with minimal time lag. And then the Apple iPhone came along and started the “touch revolution”. Lesser-known terms such as swipe, gestures and taps became the talk of the town in the mobile design community.

Interaction design and usability design gained utmost significance and it’s fair to say that these days, an app is considered as good (or as bad) as the user experience it provides.

The tablet explosion has further revolutionized the mobile user experience through increased screen real estate, true multitasking and segmented controls.

Mobile App User Interface for Smartphones
In the early days of the smartphone industry, mobile design was perceived to be a set of best practices which make an application easier and better to use. While that end goal still holds true, the means have changed significantly in the last couple of years.

With a limited screen size and lesser computation power compared to computers as well as tablets, discoverability and usability have always ranked high amongst the top challenges for mobile designers. Smartphones with touchscreens have been all the rage in the last couple of years as they let users do just about everything with a few gentle taps and swipes and it’s a lot less cumbersome than having to press a key (or combination of keys). However, the limited screen size promotes text-intensive page design with little room for high-resolution images and/or powerful animations.

Multitouch further steps up the ante by allowing users to use more than one finger to perform certain functions such as pinch to the homescreen or swipe left or right between applications. Though apps utilizing multitouch gestures (e.g. Zoomable maps, drawing & painting etc.) are capable of providing a enriching user experience, most smartphone screens are hardly big enough to support child-sized hands at best, Though smartphones with 4-inch screen size and dual-core processors (e.g. Motorola Atrix 4G) are becoming increasingly common, they’re still no match for the screen real estate and the monster processing power of tablets and notebooks.

Mobile App User Interface for Tablets
The tablet was once written off as an unproven type of device, dubbed to be a portable multimedia computer and nothing beyond that, with little usability for the enterprise. And now, tablets rank as the fastest selling gadgets largely based on the “unique user experience” they provide. Segmented controls and the ability to view multiple applications at once promotes intuitive design is nothing short of a god-send for lesser tech-savvy users.

With a larger screen size (usually varying between 7-10 inch) and no dearth of computational power (mighty dual and quad-core processors), it’s fair to say that tablets overcome a number of smartphone limitations as far as user experience is concerned. For example, editing a Word document is a pain in the hand on a smartphone device owing to the small screen size while it’s easy-as-you-like using a tablet. With a larger screen real estate, higher pixel resolution and powerful rendering capabilities, tablets are a natural ally for rich media content such as videos, animations and high-end graphics.

Similarly, gaming apps with high-end graphics and bulky animations provide that extra “wow factor” on the tablet as opposed to the smartphone. With CSS3 animations and hardware-based acceleration expected to be a norm rather than an exception in future tablets, the user experience is only going to get better from here on.

Universal Apps
Do universal apps eliminate duplicate work for developers? Simply put, a universal app is one that runs equally well on a smartphone as well as a tablet running the same operating system. Universal apps are a developer’s dream come true as they have to write apps once and the SDK / toolchain should take care of adjusting the user experience automatically based on whether it’s running on a smartphone or a tablet. However, there’s a catch – most UI-sensitive universal apps won’t run just as well on multiple devices with varying screen sizes and would inevitably require some design change or the other. Apple recommends developers to create UI designs for each form factor – iPad as well as the iPhone to take into account various differences such as handling of gestures, split views and lack/ availability of certain hardware. To add to that, universal apps are largely conditional coding- definitely not considered to be a good development practice under most paradigms. Unless a developer accounts for such adjustments, a universal iOS app is likely to provide a scaled-up, pixilated appearance on the iPad which doesn’t exactly lead to an optimal user experience. Therefore, universal apps aren’t always such an exciting prospect from an end user perspective.

Moreover, apart from Apple, all other major mobile platforms have shunned the universal app theory. Google, for instance, is committed to enhancing Android to provide the best user experience on smartphones as all portable devices by pitching Android 2.x as a smartphone-only platform while making Android 3.0 exclusive to tablets.

Developing native universal apps with optimal user experience on multiple devices is a daunting task. That’s one of the reasons why HTML5 is being projected as the next big thing in mobile user interface – both for smartphones as well as tablets, as it advocates a screen size-independent design approach.

Several industry experts have predicted that smartphone and tablet would ultimately converge to a single mobile device. While that scenario is still a distant dream and universal apps are hardly universal as of now, it’s heartening to see the mobile user experience paradigm evolve in different directions to provide a best-suited experience to smartphone and tablet users.

“Everything is designed. Few things are designed well.” – Brian Reed

I’m glad that mobile user experience belongs to the “few” category.

About the Author:
Septillion Developers are seasoned technology professionals with more than a decade of experience in Mobile, Web 2.0 and Open Source Technologies.