The Mobile Frontier A Guide for Designing Mobile Experiences

*** Feb042013

In the first chapter of The Mobile Frontier, Rachel Hinman writes:

My hope is that this book will help you navigate the unfamiliar and fast-changing mobile landscape with grace and solid thinking while inspiring you to explore the possibilities that mobile technology represents.

The author largely accomplishes her stated goal, enticing the reader to think not only beyond the desktop computer, but beyond the current state of the art in mobile experiences as well — beyond the “larval” forms we know as mobile devices and mobile apps. However, some parts of the book are more successful than others.

Tools for expanding your understanding of the mobile frontier

The most fruitful parts of this book are those that introduce pathways for exploring and understanding the “mobile frontier”. For example in Chapter 3 (“Peanut Butter in Denver: Demystifying the Elusive Mobile Context”), the author encourages developing “empathy to mobile context” by brainstorming not at your computer or around a conference table, but out in the world, where your mobile site or app will actually be used.

In the next chapter, which discusses the multi-device nature of mobile computing, Hinman suggests collecting “device ecosystem maps” from users to better understand (and design for) the multitude of different devices they might use to access your service or content. This was a completely new idea to me, and has the potential to be extremely valuable. Even in the relatively mundane e-commerce sector, understanding your users’ device ecosystems is not currently possible through a tool like Google Analytics, but it could inform what content and functionality you provide in what contexts, and in turn help you create a better, more seamless experience.

And finally, Chapter 6 is dedicated to prototyping mobile experiences, and provides several innovative methods for both tactical prototyping (useful when, for example, solving a known problem in a known context) and experiential prototyping (for example when developing an entirely new way for users to interact with content in an unexplored context). The author explains methods ranging from paper protoyping to “bodystorming” in detail, and describes the pros and cons of each.

The present and future states of mobile computing

The less successful parts of The Mobile Frontier have to do with describing the current and possible future states of mobile experiences.

The author puts strong emphasis on the significance of the touchscreen (which she categorizes as a “natural user interface”, or NUI):

Because of touchscreens, interactions are unmediated, allowing users to interact with information in a direct and natural way.

Editing a photo, drawing, or playing a game via touchscreen is not unmediated, it is differently mediated. In a sense, touchscreens involve two fewer degrees of separation between the user and the information, because it removes the pointer-via-mouse proxy. But any “naturalness” of our interaction with a tablet or phone is bestowed not by its means of input (the touchscreen) but by its form factor (small, lightweight, unattached). We can cradle, pocket, or cuddle up with such devices, and that feels extremely natural. And in fact, Hinman hits on just this point later in the book, in the section “Mutual Reconfiguration and Multidevice Experiences” (a heading which exemplifies the abundance of lofty-sounding terminology throughout the book).

Describing the iPhone’s “responsive multi-touchscreen, intuitive UI, and gestural interface,” the author concludes:

Rather than being chained to a static and bulky computer workstation, users could easily compute while on the go.

There is no doubt that current mobile phones and tablets are changing the way we live, but this overstates their capabilities. You cannot use an iPhone to, for example, write an iPhone app. What you can do, away from your “computer workstation,” is consume media, access information and perhaps produce and broadcast some content yourself.

The section on “organic user interfaces”, or OUIs, also seems to miss the mark. There may be something radical and exciting about OUIs, but I could not glean it from the author’s description. She writes:

“With OUIs…Interactions will be seamless because the form of an object will clearly determine its ability to be used as an input.”

That seems to describe perceived affordances, an old term that describes an ancient fact of human-thing interaction: some objects have qualities that communicate how that object can be used. The form of a knob clearly determines its ability to be turned. To the contrary, the provided example of an OUI (a small bendable digital display which shows a roadmap) may afford bending, but how one would navigate a map through bending the object is not at all clear.


My general complaint about Rachel Hinman’s book is that it is very heavy on naming, classification, and terminology. Maybe this is inevitable in a book about new patterns and behaviors, and I suppose it’s useful to establish a common language we can use to describe them, but at times it feels as if an observed phenomenon is not a real thing until it has some catchy or important-sounding name.

However, overall this book is a success. It walks a line between the academic and the practical, providing a number of different pathways for thinking about and understanding the “mobile frontier”, as well as concrete methods and guidelines to follow when building new mobile experiences.

N.B. About the Kindle edition

This is not at all the authors fault (I think the blame lies with the publisher and the Kindle format or possibly even the Kindle iPad app), but it does seem ironic that a book which stresses the primacy of content in the new mobile paradigm provides such a dismal reading experience in the digital form. There are tables which are virtually unreadable, long, center-aligned bullet points at the end of each chapter, and quotes from outside sources that are indistinguishable from the regular text. Something I’ve noticed with other Kindle editions as well: in the absence of a well-considered layout, images which don’t directly enhance understanding of the text seem superfluous and distracting.

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Author(s)Rachel Hinman
PublisherRosenfield Media

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