Wanted: a New User Experience Metaphor for the Mobile Web
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the mobile user experience, particularly the experience of the Web on the (typical) mobile device. I say “typical” because I’m not talking about the iphone here — I’m talking about the kind of mass-market device that billions of real users hold in their hands every day. Increasingly these are devices that are capable of a reasonable data services experience, but they are still not being used to their potential. What is the new user paradigm that will truly kick start the mobile Web?
The essential innovation of the Web itself was putting together two existing technologies: hypertext and the Internet. Hypertext had been around for a while, in library-science and computer science circles and even in such products as Hypercard. Likewise, the Internet was around and widely used (mostly by academics and students) through well understood but essentially plain text paradigms such as FTP, Telnet and Gopher. Both these technologies by themselves were limited in their appeal. But somehow, layering Hypertext on top of the Internet (the Web) created something that was greater than the sum of its parts, and the Web as we know it was born. Yes, there were other factors at work in the birth of the Web but I believe it was the marriage of these two technologies that was the crucial factor.
When we come to the mobile Web, however — that is, usage of the Web on devices which are intended to be used one-handed, often with a four-way rocker switch instead of a universal pointing device — the underlying UI metaphor of hypertext breaks down. If you have to scroll through all the possible links on a “page” one by one in order to get to the one you want, this breaks the hypertext usage model and creates a usability nightmare. This may indeed be the crucial factor holding back the mobile Web. The whole rich Web user experience we’re now used to is based on the idea of hypertext. Take away hypertext as a tenable user experience metaphor and the whole thing crashes down around you.
Yes, there are smart browsers and other technologies coming at us that try to work around this problem, and some of them do a fairly good job. But these technologies are like treating the symptoms instead of attempting to cure the disease. The work of the Mobile Web Best Practices working group has stressed the idea of using existing Web technologies (such as XHTML Basic) to create a mobile-friendly user experience for content. I believe this approach does address some of the root causes as opposed to the symptoms and that it is already influencing a new generation of mobile-friendly Web content. But these guidelines still only go part of the way towards realizing the full potential of the mobile Web because the underlying metaphor is still essentially hypertext.
But what innovations exist that could take hypertext’s place as an underlying user metaphor? Clearly “widgets” (a la MacOS Dashboard widgets, Yahoo! widgets, etc…) are one candidate, but widgets generally exist as islands — an action in one widget does not generally bring you to another widget. Widgets tend to be very “one way” — that is, widgets are not generally rich environments for content creation. I think content creation will be a key part of the future of the Web on the mobile platform. So I think it is a bit facile to think that widgets are the future of the mobile user experience.
In the panel on designing for convergent devices that I attended at South by Southwest, Denise Burton from Frog Design made some very good points about focus (that is, of everything on the screen what is the “active” element — subject to actuation of the “OK” button or other functions such as text input) and the use of animated transitions to clue the user in when that focus changes. She also demonstrated a UI built on top of Qualcomm’s UI1 that brought some of these concepts to life (a kind of continuum of widgets with clear transitions to show which widget is active and the ability to dive deeper into a particular widget to get a more detailed view). The advantage of this approach is that it puts a large amount of information at a user’s fingertips and provides a highly efficient navigational metaphor (as few clicks as possible to get to the information you want). The only problem is that this type of experience exists as a closed universe — another walled garden. How do you take this kind of immersive UI and open it up to a world of developers? How can such a user experience support the kind of user choice that we have come to expect from the Web?
I do believe that WICD will play a role since it was built to support a user experience within a browser context that is also responsive to the kind of user events that are common on the mobile platform and can responded with scalable animations. By embedding multiple interactive SVG objects in a single page, WICD can also enable the kind of experience I’ve described above using (open) Web technologies and standards. But WICD is just an enabling technology. WICD also doesn’t address the content creation challenges on the mobile. The real innovation in mobile Web user experience needs to be built on top of such technologies.
I can’t quite put my finger on what it will be, but I feel I’ll know it when I see it. Any ideas?