Mobile Context Revisited

by Luke Wroblewski May 19, 2011

Mobile context has been overblown. It is device capabilities and constraints plus the fact that mobile devices are with you anywhere and everywhere. But those factors are important enough that they force us to rethink Web design.

There are few places where the importance of context (the circumstances under which something happens) has been stressed more than in mobile design. But an over-emphasis on context can focus design solutions too much on assumed mobile situations instead of on the true richness of mobile Web use happening today.

We’ve all heard the classic “this is a mobile user so he really just needs location information”. Or “that’s not a feature we should include because she’s on a mobile.” In both cases, mobile context is used to justify limiting the features or content available on mobile devices.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in observing people on their mobile devices, it’s that they’ll do anything on mobile if they have the need. Write long emails? Check. Manage complex sets of information? Check. And the list goes on. If people want to do it, they’ll do it on mobile -especially when it’s their only or most convenient option.

Frustration sets in when what people want to do isn’t available in the “mobile version” and they quickly reach for a desktop or full site link to finish their task. In fact, you might even be able to measure how well your mobile Web experience is meeting people’s needs by tracking how often the “full site” link gets used.

So if we can’t think of mobile context as a way to focus designs on a set of assumed “mobile use cases”, how can we employ what makes mobile unique to our designs?

Personally, I think that mobile context is better thought of as device capabilities and constraints coupled with the fact that mobile devices can be used anywhere and everywhere.

Rather than starting with a set of assumed mobile uses. We start with the value of our service and our content. The constraints in mobile devices force us to focus on what really matters so we only include and emphasize the most valuable parts of our offering first and foremost. Not just the parts of our offering we think “make sense” on mobile.

We then consider how that content or service and can be enhanced by being accessible anywhere and everywhere and through mobile device capabilities like location detection, portability, touch input, or even CSS3 support. It’s important to note these are enhancements to the core services and content we settled into when applying constraints NOT a different set of content and services or a limited subset.

Taken together, device capabilities, constraints, and the fact mobile devices are with us everywhere and anywhere is a big deal. They force us to rethink a lot of what we know about Web design.