March 18, 2014

From Designing for Desktops to ‘Mobile First’

(Originally published on Wired Insights)

It’s no secret that smartphone adoption continues to explode with some studies estimating that 22 percent of the global population owning at least one device. That exceeds the 20 percent estimated to own PCs.

This growth trend makes complete sense given that smartphones and tablets now come equipped with computing power comparable to that of a mid-range laptops and desktops. Users are now embracing mobile devices as their primary work and personal computing devices while sacrificing few, if any, capabilities. It is no surprise that BYOD is today’s default expectation in the workplace. This paradigmatic shift is ushering in a new era for how users interact with information on their devices, but its full potential will only be realized if certain steps are taken.

With mobile fast becoming the de-facto computing platform, users are demanding improved user interfaces and experiences, similar to what they have gotten accustomed to with consumer apps. Even with hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in the development of enterprise mobile apps, end-users are still frustrated by their mobile work experience. They are no longer willing to put up with an antiquated desktop experience poorly translated into a mobile environment.

For example, until now, the primary goal of the mobile file sync and share apps has been to enable users to interact passively – to deliver simple access to files. This was, and has been, an important first step to extend access to desktop files from any device at any time. However, widespread mobile adoption is resulting in a convergence of forces including simplified user interfaces, and, most importantly, vastly improved and innovative software design that empowers sophisticated and intuitive interactions which have the promise to redefine how we interact with information.

Historically, users had to be exceptionally well organized to be productive, i.e., they needed to meticulously organize their files. In the new paradigm, the workflow is flipped with files keeping users themselves organized through follow a file, shared link, and folder, automatic insight alerts, and real-time push notifications. All these capabilities provide us the visibility into who, where and when our friends and colleagues are interacting with files.

What should be expected in this rapidly approaching mobile shift? We should expect to see two things.

First, it will be necessary to redefine, but not wholly reject existing structural work models. You don’t want to throw away the baby (or the tub) with the bathwater. Users do not want a completely new way of working -- file systems still have meaning. They want existing tools they use on the desktop to be simplified and optimized for the mobile platform, but with the same reassuring capabilities such as document creation, editing, annotation and presentation across all device platforms.

But within a smaller form factor and screen, simplified experience and progressive disclosure principles must be embraced. In this approach, the app reveals or discloses only the most necessary information in order to make it easy to complete a task.

Second, we should expect to see new or enhanced capabilities emerge which were impossible or poorly implemented in the era of the desktop, but are now reality on the mobile platform. Some of these capabilities already exist, such as voice to text recording -- ideal for content creation. Some are likely to go mainstream in the near future such as geo-location driven features where users can, for example, track or limit file access by location, or receive urgent reminders to approve time-sensitive files, or review a document in real-time with your colleagues using your tablet or smartphone

As mobile devices become further entrenched as the primary computer for the vast majority of the workforce, users are demanding a seamless experience that takes advantage of this unique platform’s strengths. The opportunities for progress and innovation are almost unlimited; from leveraging the inherent portability of the hardware, to respecting the need for simplified design, to transitioning it from consumption to a creation platform to using automation and location to eliminate mundane tasks.

Forward thinking companies will be the ones who embrace this directive and develop apps from a mobile first design principle to capitalize on delivering this new experience without time, location or access limitations.

Varun Parmar leads product management and user experience at EMC Syncplicity


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