The Framework Behind Multi-Device Design

With smartphones, laptops and tablets in tow, it’s rare to find a consumer disconnected from their devices. We’re now surrounded by “companion” technology – devices that we wake up to, work out and eat dinner with and even sleep beside. Add to this mix the looming smartwatch category (it’s own variant of quick-glance, companion technology) and we’re talking about a spectrum of devices that will encompass our day from morning through evening.

Designers are in the midst of unpacking this paradigm. Across our portfolio, heads of design are building multi-device experiences and constructing the frameworks that allow an app – perhaps one originally intended for a smartphone or desktop – to seamlessly extend across adjacent devices. Here, our teams are reflecting on a few core questions and ideas:

  • How do we think about our application experiences across a spectrum of devices? How do we think about the ecology of our apps?
  • What’s our user’s timeline? What device do they begin and end with? What is their context vis-a-vis mobile, tablet or desktop? How should the experience alter (if at all) to embrace that context?
  • What’s the appropriate way in which our app “hands-off” from one device to the next?
  • How do we prevent for designing for a device, when we should be designing for a user?
  • And importantly, how do we unify the visions of our mobile, desktop and tablet teams (if separate?)?

I sat down with the founders and lead-designers at Slack (Johnny Rodgers), Pocket (Nate Weiner) and Nest (Ted Boda) for an intimate conversation during our most recent #AccelDesign Series meetup. These are three leaders who think deeply about designing for a multi-device world. Slack is one of the fastest growing team collaboration platforms, helping users zoom in and out of their team’s dialogue regardless of device. Pocket is one of the best place-shifting and sync services for content; save an article via the web and it’s immediately available via your tablet and smartphone. Nest, of course, has thought long and hard about the ecology of their connected home devices vis-a-vis the smartphone.

How do we think about our application experiences across a spectrum of devices? How do we think about the ecology of our apps?

There were a few things that stuck out to me:

1) There are a few key (design) frameworks to consider: consistent, continuous and complimentary. Michal Levin talks a lot about this in her new book, Designing Multi-Device Experiences (if you haven’t checked it out already, I highly recommend it).

2) Consistent design is just that – maintaining a similar information architecture so the look, feel and flow of an app feels familiar regardless of device. Users should be able to follow nearly identical input flows to achieve their intended goal. For most design teams, consistency a paramount. “Users should feel at home in your application, regardless of device.” Sometimes the cognitive load of re-orienting on a new device is just the friction they need to leave.

Users should feel at home in your application, regardless of device

3) Continuous design invokes more of the aforementioned “hand-off” idea – building features or interfaces that cleanly pass a user state from one device to the next. Though you can build visual cues help guide this, sometimes those are unnecessary. As Nate (Pocket) describes, “'Cues' make users feel like they’ve been handed off. A user should change devices and feel like nothing’s different. Why alert them to something be different?”

4) We’re in the early innings of thinking about complementary design, but with the emergence of smartwatches, we could see some very interesting “complementary” products soon. The watch is an elegant, quick-glance interface that supports one, maybe two gestures. Imagine using Slack on your tablet, but getting a quick notification that you save or discard on your smartwatch. That’s complimentary design at its finest.

5) To that end, prioritize features based on the platform. And again, context matters. The goals of a tablet user may be entirely different than a smartphone user – finding this balance between design consistencies while respecting “context” is key. For Slack, this means prioritizing notifications on the smartphone vs. prioritizing messaging on the desktop. For Slack on iOS/Android, immediacy and clarity of the notification was key. Here they’ve solved for any number of contexts (out on the road, on a train, eating lunch). But, on the web-app, when teams are more likely in the context of meaningful collaboration, it’s been critical to prioritize the features around messaging.

The goals of a tablet user may be entirely different than a smartphone user – finding this balance between design consistencies while respecting “context” is key

6) Context (device) switching may happen with greater and greater velocity in the future. Something to ponder!

7) Bridging iOS and Android design conventions can be challenging, but the persona of an Android-phone, iPad-carrying user is becoming more commonplace. Finding least-common denominators across the two platforms is good practice. Consider that the "back" button on your iPhone app may be software, but could very well be hardware on an Android phone. Be mindful of these conventions.

8) It’s helpful to think about your user’s timeline, and their device-arc throughout the day. How does a user enter your ecosystem? How do they exit? With three devices, there are nine potential timeline paths to think about. With four devices, there are 16! Balance your “prescribed” timeline with the flexibility for a user to experience our ecology the way they want.

9) User testing will be super critical in the multi-device world, but requires new frameworks and methods for data collection. You’re no longer viewing their habits on a single device , but rather you’re watching them hand-off in contexts you hadn’t thought of yet. Find a way to build scale into your UX research teams to account for this.

The multi-device world is exciting and new technologies will continue to streamline our connected lives. We'll continue the conversation here on the blog, and throughout our future #AccelDesign Series events.