In Mobile Design, Less Is More

Pramit Nairi is the user experience director at RPA, an independent, full-service advertising agency. Follow him @pramitnairi.

Think about this for a second: The audiences for whom we design are increasingly using smaller screens, those screens are increasingly becoming their primary screens, and people are using them for an increasingly wider set of activities. People are communicating more, buying more, sharing more, photographing more, videographing more—the list goes on. All on a screen no bigger than five inches. Try running stuff on that screen designed for the comparatively gigantic 27 inches of glass you have on your desktop and you have recipe for terrible website experiences.

As someone who designs stuff for big brands, I’m responsible for being the voice of the user at a large agency. We’ve always strived to keep things simple, but with screen sizes and resolutions increasing for many years, the temptation of more real estate meant that more stuff got crammed in. Promo banners? Add it! Suggested links? We’ve got the space! Email sign up widget? We need it! Additional navigation? Can’t live without it! The list goes on.

Mobile changed all of this. It has forced creators—clients and designers alike—to really focus in on saying one thing at a time. Not only did things like the right rail die because the screen space just wasn’t there, but distracting and unusable designs quickly fell out of favor among mobile web users.

If you’re wondering why your skyscraper banner isn’t performing, look at eye-tracking studies for your answer. Heat maps have shown us that users naturally focus in on content in the middle of a page, generally the largest column, ignoring the stuff on either side. So it comes down to this: If your site is about the content, let it shine. Don’t crud it up with extra cruft. Don’t distract your user with the unnecessary.

The approach that brought us to the uni-columnar, mobile-friendly design ended up being so good for the end user that it even started trickling back up to the larger screens. We’ve seen sites like The Verge and Quartz make the most of these constraints.

Luke Wroblewski codified this into an approach called Mobile First and wrote the seminal book on it. Karen McGrane has written about the implications this has on content strategy in her appropriately titled book, Content Strategy for Mobile.

Mobile isn’t going away, and the screen size on mobile devices has a natural limit. The resolution might increase, but at the end of the day, and not to ding the Samsung Galaxy Mega or Galaxy Note, the human hand (and pocket) can only comfortably hold something so big.

It all comes down to understanding the shift in user behavior and serving them in the best way possible. Few people know what’s in store for next year, and fewer know what’s beyond that. As designers, publishers and creators of content, the best we can do is stay adaptive and embrace user-centric design principles as opposed to hanging on to business-as-usual. After all, if it weren’t for the users and the utility they derive from it, all of this Internet stuff would still just be a DARPA project.

Image by Yuma Hori via Flickr