I was recently researching best practices for mobile apps and I found a great article published on both Smashing Magazine and the inVision blog titled A Comprehensive Guide To Mobile App Design by Nick Babich. One thing that surprised me as I read the article was Nick’s findings when it came to handling the content and user interface. The article says:
“Clutter is terrible on desktop, but it’s far worse on mobile (simply because we don’t have as much real estate on mobile devices as we do on desktops and laptops). It’s essential to get rid of anything in a mobile design that isn’t absolutely necessary because reducing clutter will improve comprehension.”
While I certainly understand the benefits of a minimal approach and the dangers of featuritis, it’s the words anything that isn’t absolutely necessary that surprised me. The implication that we should eliminate features someone may need just because they are not high priority seems like a bad idea to me and to go against best practices. It led me to ask myself several questions. Is this always the case? What exactly makes content absolutely necessary? Have best practices changed in regards to the content that is displayed on desktop vs mobile? Did I not understand the best practice in the first place? Maybe the rules are different in regards to content when designing for an app vs designing for a website?
The Same Experience on Mobile as on Desktop
People expect the same experience on mobile as they have on desktop. 1 in 10 US adults use their smartphones as their primary means to connect to the Internet, and that number is growing rapidly so it’s important to provide your users everything they might need. To paraphrase an article titled Mobile Interface Myths You Should Throw Out The Window (also published on Smashing Magazine):
“It is a myth that mobile websites require fewer features than their desktop counterparts. The truth is we need to prioritize and maximize mobile capabilities [so that we can avoid eliminating content and still create a clear interface and an exceptional experience.]”
The article also says the old thought of “when in doubt, leave it out” just isn’t the case anymore. While the recommendations of both articles are similar and I may be splitting hairs, they still left me with questions. Which is it, eliminate content that is not absolutely necessary or is this a myth? Is there research I can look at? Of course there is.
Research Regarding How to Handle Content on Mobile Experiences
In 2015 Nielsen Norman published a report on the mobile experience where they studied 151 people over 7 years. The research focused on the use of smartphones, with people using both websites and apps. A few items from the report that stood out are:
- Mobile users must incur a higher interaction cost in order to access the same amount of information; rely on their short-term memory to refer to information that is not visible on the screen. It’s thus not surprising that mobile content is twice as difficult.
- We still recommend prioritizing brevity and reducing unnecessary content when writing for mobile.
- Content and feature prioritization is key.
- Although we provide general guidelines in this report, your answer likely depends on the kinds of users and tasks that you have.
Looking for an answer to this question was a reminder to me that when it comes to UX, while there are certainly best practices, there are no hard and fast rules. Each project is different. At the end of the day what content to provide your users on mobile depends on who your users are, their needs, and the specific project itself. It seems to me, the old saying “When in doubt. Leave it out.” may still be relevant after all, and particularly so when designing for a mobile app. But my favorite quote still is “If you want to stand out from the rest; test, test, test!”