7 June 2011
Design Practice

Does (screen) size really matter?

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.