A Curated Selection of Practical Tips and Advice (Book Review)

Cover - Mobile FrontierA review of
The Mobile Frontier:
A Guide for Designing Mobile Experiences
by Rachel Hinman
Rosenfeld Media, 2012

The Mobile Frontier is at times thought-provoking, practical, useful, and entertaining. It is also a book without a particular identity, and reads as the work of a passionate practitioner produced during downtime. The title of the book belies its conflicted nature: Is it an inspirational work surveying the unexplored mobile frontier? Or is it a field manual for designing great mobile experiences? The book will nudge you in both directions, but does not fully develop either.

It is difficult to determine the ideal audience for The Mobile Frontier. If you’re an established UX practitioner with an upcoming mobile project, you’ll find pages of industry boilerplate and wandering pontification laced with nuggets of helpful guidance. If you’re a mobile veteran, these buried treasures will likely be familiar.

Likewise, if you are a serious experience researcher or designer expecting documented best practices, or even a single citation for boldly stated claims (such as the poor learnability of voice recognition UIs), you may be disappointed. This book is probably best suited to those who have not given mobility much thought and/or have yet to build mobile experiences.

The first section of the book is a spirited but murky exploration of the mobile design space. Hinman writes at length about the distinguishing characteristics of mobile UIs, but upon reflection, the reader will be hard-pressed to articulate the key points delivered. Is a mobile UI somehow not a graphical interface? Are the UI advancements that have stemmed from smartphones not extensible to larger screens and different devices? These are conceptual questions that the book struggles with throughout its length, frequently asserting that our mobile screens are irreconcilably different from other types of screens without convincingly articulating why.

Hinman states that she believes a computing paradigm shift is underway, but does not offer a vision of where this shift might lead us. Instead, the book focuses on mobile web pages and apps. This agnostic approach is understandable given the rapidly evolving pace of mobile technology, but the reader can’t help but feel somewhat let down. Maybe the visionary component of The Mobile Frontier is premature.

The book flirts heavily with the idea of “natural” user interfaces (NUIs), the next generation in the evolution of UIs superseding graphical user interfaces (GUIs), the distinguishing features of which, per the author’s examples, appear to be the lack of a mouse cursor and the presence of touch gestures. Hinman also states that we are in a GUI-to-NUI chasm or transition phase, but she does not provide specifics on what a future-state NUI would look like; the book provides general design guidance only.

Many of the illustrative examples of NUIs would work on a modern desktop or hybrid device, such as Microsoft Surface, which undermines the argument that a NUI is more than a contemporary GUI. On several occasions, Hinman refers to the “magic” of NUIs, but does not articulate what this actually means.

The Mobile Frontier also neglects to discuss mobile design for productivity. While many of the concepts explored may be extensible to work-related design, Hinman makes claims such as “Mobile isn’t a great platform for performing tasks” (tasks here being defined as linear start-stop journeys towards accomplishing a goal), and “The pleasure [of using NUIs] comes from the interaction, not the accomplishment.” Can’t it be both? Enterprise designers may find themselves puzzled by this stance.

Criticism aside, The Mobile Frontier contains some practical and useful information. Generally, the mobile design principles conveyed by the book feel sound, even if their descriptions are not always explicit. Chapter 4, “Shapeshifting,” focuses on multi-device/ecosystem experiences and presents interesting models of multi-screen interactivity borrowed from the German studio Precious Design. Chapter 5, “Mobile UX Patterns,” contains an edifying breakdown of app types that have emerged over the past few years. The book also delivers some useful prototyping guidance, especially around sketching, stenciling, and paper prototyping.

Chapter 7, “Motion and Animation,” does an exceptional job of introducing animation principles—borrowed from The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation by Thomas and Johnson—and intelligently extends these principles to mobile UI design. In addition, pages 222–225 contain a fantastic library of touch gestures and their currently accepted uses.

To close the book, Chapter 9, “New Mobile Forms,” is well-written and rousing, alluding to future considerations for the mobile space, including wearable computers, biological measurement, and applications for emerging markets.

Hinman concludes with an inspirational encouragement for the reader to go forth and work to define the mobile frontier—a fitting message from a passionate mobile champion. However, after striding through 250 pages of filler like “What breathes life into nouns is their relationship to other nouns in the world,” “GPS enables users to locate themselves in space and time,” and “The Internet allowed users to focus and fall in love with content,” the reader may wish that the rest of the material in The Mobile Frontier carried as much weight as the author’s final words.

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