It was a long time ago, but I still remember it as a career milestone. One of the biggest takeaways I learned in my internship on a tech team was that application design was not the same as graphic design. Although there was certainly a visual aspect to it, the art aspect takes a back seat and usability drives. This really intrigued me, and made me realize how much I enjoy making things useful.
As my career progressed and I worked to become a better designer in many aspects, I saw the value in understanding interactions and user flows. Many times, I didn’t have a formal name for all of the techniques I used to make sound decisions, but all-in-all, user-first design is what I was doing. Visuals have to look good, but anything worth interacting with must function even better. As mobile became used heavily, I started to learn more contextual considerations for those situations. Now, there are many designers who not only specialize in application design, but with mobile context and technology understanding.
I was once hired as a consultant to help write a proposal for an advertising and graphic design agency who was hiring their development group to build an app for them. The client was pretty sound on designing it and having the dev shop build it. They sent some examples of design over and there were immediate red flags from a usability and technology standpoint.
As I gathered my thoughts on helping the dev shop explain to their client the value they will receive in hiring someone with an application (and specifically a mobile) design focus, I took some notes to share with others that could be helpful.
Mobile apps have many special considerations. Users on mobile devices are not just sitting still at their computer like traditional applications. They are on a train, pulling their phone out while at a crosswalk on their bike, or sitting on their couch. And, this could be true for just one user – all within an hour of their day. A designer needs to consider location, distractions, accessibility, and many other usability pieces that vary. Not only is it important to understand the technical, usability and accessibility decisions these changes could affect, but the methods in which they are discovered must be at the core the design process.
Mobile design specialists have a deep understanding of how interactions work in a multitude of scenarios. This strongly pairs with the development process. The design will match up with engineering abilities as they work in tandem to put the parts of their design to work for form a holistic experience. They pair tightly with engineers to build an easy-to-measure application from the beginning. This is more efficient with a thought-out plan than going back and “slapping tracking” on parts. Additionally, accessibility considerations should be built into the design. This is also an entire focus in an of itself, but the awareness and technical understanding of it are important during the planning and design process.
Much of designing for mobile is seeing the big picture. Knowing how to prioritize user needs with business needs is essential to the success. This is often a delicate balance. Prioritization of tasks and information can be constrained by both the user and the business, and the ability gets stronger with time. Consumers use mobile apps all day every day, which grows a common level of quality expectations. Anything less, and they will look for something better or simply uninstall and free up precious storage. It's important to hire someone who exceeds these standards in their work.
In summary, the specialties that a mobile designer offers vary greatly from being able to make a beautiful layout design. In any good relationship, there is always room to collaborate with a shared vision.