Does (screen) size really matter? | June 7, 2011

There’s an interesting debate happening in the world of mobile design at the moment. In one camp we have the “nativists” who believe that the best mobile experiences are tailored to a particular device. These are the people focused on creating platform specific mobile apps and mobile websites. Then we have the “universalists” who believe in the “one web”, a place where all content and services can be delivered to multiple devices through the same URL.

This division is causing me a bit of a quandary. The designer in me appreciates the slightly more constrained experience that platform specific design provides, but realises that we risk opening a pandoras box of ever more variations. I also see some benefits of the app store mentality (such as ratings and reviews) but worry that it provides too much control to a small number of parties and is inherently unscalable.

In contrast the standardista in me loves the simplicity of a single web, but finds it hard to reconcile with my own usage patterns. There are just certain things I don’t enjoy doing on a small screen like booking a flight or filling in my taxes. Basically anything which requires lots of data being presented at the same time, complex navigational structures and multi-step processes. There are obviously ways of breaking this information down to satisfy fat fingers and a small screen size, but that makes it difficult to reconcile with a single URL pointing to a single resource or piece of data.

It’s easy for people to dismiss small screen sizes as just a matter of dimensions. You just need to reflow the content and fit it into a smaller space. However I find the screen real estate has a direct relation to my enjoyment of an experience. For instance, I feel completely absorbed by some movies when watching them on a big screen, but feel distracted when viewing the same movie on a small screen. So there are certain films which I prefer to watch at the cinema but would hate to watch on a flight. Similarly there are certain programs which I enjoy on the small screen, but would never want to see projected.

Research suggests that this happens in the physical world as well. In one experiment, researchers set people a variety of tasks and the only variance was the hight of the room. It turns out that rooms with high ceilings encouraged more expansive and creative thinking, while low ceiling heights promoted focus and concentration. It would seem that size does matter.

The same thing happens to me when I use devices with different form factors. The extra real estate of my desktop means that I’m more comfortable doing creative, expansive and exploratory activities. On my phone, I’m much more comfortable doing targeted, focussed and linear tasks. Research in this field is obviously needed, but if different devices and form factors do encourage different behaviour, it seems reasonable to treat the services you design and the content we present differently.

That’s not to say that every service or piece of content needs to be designed for every individual device. I believe that the bulk of sites can and should be built using responsive design as a default. However I also understand that there is no “one size fits all” approach to mobile design and that some services need to be tailored to specific devices and form factors, be that mobile sites or native apps. After all, complex problems often have complex and messy solutions. That’s were good design comes in.

Posted at June 7, 2011 10:50 AM


Andres Calvo said on June 7, 2011 11:23 AM

When I view a mobile version of a website on my iPhone I feel like it is almost going back in time to the days where WAP was around. One of my favourite things about SmartPhones is the way in which you can view the internet how it was originally intended and not have some “dumbed down” version.

I like the idea of responsive design but sometimes I think “is it necessary?” surely an app would be better in order to ensure the user is interacting with the information how it was intended to be used. Of course with the right design this is achievable on smartphone browsers but it just doesn’t seem right.

But that’s just my humble unprofessional opinion :p


Dan said on June 7, 2011 11:33 AM

Interesting reading, indeed.

I believe that it’s not just screen size but, more crucially, screen proportions that determine what we do and don’t feel comfortable doing on any particular device. Remember when we all had 4:3 TVs in our living rooms and movies were presented in anamorphic widescreen? Yuck! The content or task may be something really pleasurable but on a display of the wrong proportions it can feel totally wrong.

It’s the main reason I turn my nose up at the myriad of 7” tablets hitting the market. It’s not the size of the screen (Well, not just the size) but the fact that most of them are widescreen. This means if you hold it in portrait orientation you basically get the same experience you would on a smartphone and if you hold it in landscape you get an inadequate pixel height to comfortably carry out many tasks like web browsing. Those proportions on a 9 or 10 inch tablet present far, far less of a problem.

So, yes. This is where good design comes in. And I think a designers first consideration when designing for mobile should be proportions. That’s what’ll determine how comfortable a task will be to carry out. That’s what’ll direct you when prioritising content and features. Crack that, then concern yourself with dimensions.

Kirk said on June 7, 2011 11:41 AM

It’s got to the point now that my contribution to any meeting we have to discuss “mobile” is to simply say “context”. It’s so easy to forget the importance of context as we get swept away with the wonders of the many potential solutions at our finger tips.

Dan said on June 7, 2011 11:48 AM

*When I say a designer’s first consideration, I’m of course implying after considering context and whether or not a need even exists for a mobile version of whatever you’re creating.

Daniel Nordstrom said on June 7, 2011 12:09 PM

So much text. Some interesting pieces.

But as far as I’m concerned, it’s simply a matter of doing the right thing in the right context, as with everything else. We needn’t ask ourselves universally “is it this way” or “is it that way” — we need to ask ourselves what the right way is for the project/product at hand, and create individual, tailored solutions.

I don’t need yet another blog post to know that one solution never fits all — that a hammer isn’t the tool for every situation. It’s common sense, isn’t it?

But a very well-written post with good points. I particularly found the room/ceiling experiment pretty interesting as my own apartment has very high ceiling in the living room and lower ceiling in my home office. Thanks!

Mike said on June 7, 2011 1:47 PM

My take on using responsive design was that it addressed this very issue; delivering device appropriate representations, which (when using media queries) can go beyond merely reflowing text into single columns, but actually deliver a native experience.

There’s a lot to be said for designing the mobile experience first and progressively enhancing for more able devices. In a web where content is mostly disseminated via device-agnostic Google results and social media, having different URLs for different devices doesn’t make sense.

Martyn Reding said on June 7, 2011 10:30 PM

Nice article Andy.

I share your quandary. It’s difficult not to imagine one approach ultimately winning out, but realistically it may be a case of the two camps moving together in some form.

Working in an e-commerce environment and trying to ready services for future technology and mass consumption has lead me to believe UX Design is increasingly becoming about portable experiences. I no longer consider the website our property and embrace the notion that we can’t control how and when people will use it. Be it on a mobile, on a games console, via an iFrame in Facebook or on a TV. How native can we actually ever be?

Marc Nischan said on June 8, 2011 2:46 PM

Although I completely agree with the core of your post, I don’t see it as such a quandary. That there is “a way” assumes too much. In my experience, the right tool for the job usually presents itself after I’ve gathered all of the requirements. Budget, existing sites, scope of project, and timeline can make a choice obvious.

Case 1: A brand has a vast, sprawling, legacy website and now they need a mobile site, mostly for online orders. A separate mobile site would let them move forward.

Case 2: A small local business has a brochure-type site and the mobile version needs to have smaller images and a re-flowed header that puts the phone number and location up top. Responsive design solves that problem nicely.

Case 3: A company is starting from scratch, wants to include a mobile experience, but has a limited budget. This may be a good candidate for a “one-web” type design.

Thanks for yet another great post, Andy!

David Giorgi said on June 8, 2011 9:23 PM

Pixel density is also becoming an interesting part of the equation. I remember back in the early desktop days when we would religiously relate everything back to 72dpi on our beloved Macs. Now we have 300dpi+ on the iPhone 4. So the perception also relates strongly to the available ‘screen real estate’ as well as the actual physical dimensions.

When I view some of my early 600px and 800px wide web projects from 12+ years ago on an iPhone or iPad. They look stunning, almost as if they were designed specifically for those devices. :)