Three Layers of Mobile User Experience
Published: May 23, 2011
In comparison to traditional cell phones, smartphones do a much better job of letting users stay connected on the go. They have bigger screens and higher-resolution displays, and their industrial design is more fashionable. Common features of smartphones include, but are not limited to touchscreens, high-megapixel cameras, global positioning systems (GPSs), and many gaming and entertainment options. Smartphones enable people to engage in a wide range of activities, including communication, entertainment, personal-information management, and social networking.
What’s driving the industry forward? An ever-improving mobile user experience is the key. When looking at what makes mobile user experiences successful, we should consider the multiple layers of a mobile user experience. Each layer involves different factors and affects the user experience on a different level. Back in 2006, Virpi Roto  discussed the multiple layers of mobile usability: hardware usability, browser usability, and the usability of the Web sites that mobile users visit. Since then, mobile user experience has evolved significantly, so it’s time to reconsider their three layers. Let’s look at the three layers of mobile user experience depicted in Figure 1:
- the hardware user experience
- the operating system user experience
- the mobile application, or app, or mobile Web site user experience
Figure 1—The three layers of mobile user experience
Overview of the Three Layers
What constitutes each layer of a mobile user experience?
- First Layer: Mobile device hardware—This layer of the mobile user experience comprises the hardware with which users directly interact, such as capacitive touchscreen support, the sensitivity of the touchscreen, the size of the screen, the presence and design of a button set, the size and shape of the device, and the length of its battery life. Other factors in this layer include how fast a communications network is; a device’s support for different types of connectivity, stereo Bluetooth, and data tethering; how quickly videos load; and how vivid the colors are in photos. Both a device’s industrial design and its internal hardware’s level of advancement greatly impact this layer of mobile user experience.
- Second Layer: Mobile operating system—This layer of the mobile user experience encompasses a mobile device’s operating system and a user’s interactions with it. Features of a mobile operating system might include applications’ ability to run in the background, background notifications, push mail, a WebKit Web browser, a browser’s Flash support, a mass-storage mode, turn-by-turn navigation, copy and paste, universal search, MMS messaging, and its app store experience.
- Third Layer: Mobile applications and mobile Web sites—This layer of mobile user experience constitutes the native mobile applications and mobile Web applications that run on a device. Considerations for this layer include the following: Are its tasks prioritized for mobile use? Are its workflows and navigation easy and intuitive on a mobile device? Does a Web site’s information architecture match users’ understanding of its information space? Is a mobile Web site simply an abbreviated version of an organization’s full site, or does it account for the special considerations of users’ context when using a mobile device?
Key Factors for the First Layer: Mobile Handsets and Network Technology
Handset manufacturers include big names such as Nokia, RIM, Apple, HTC, and Motorola. Each of these handset makers develops and targets their products with a specific market segment in mind. Through extensive market research, the handset manufacturers know what characteristics are appealing to certain market segments. Recent advances in mobile hardware include much higher-resolution screens, which provide superior gaming and viewing experiences for gaming enthusiasts or people who watch video on their mobile devices.
Advances in communications networks enable users to get quicker access to the Internet and other data services. According to Leland Rechis,  a UX designer at Google, there are three types of behaviors that are characteristic of mobile users:
- repetitive now—Mobile users check the same information repeatedly to get live updates—for example, to get stock quotes.
- bored now—Mobile users use mobile devices to kill time—for example, while waiting in line or riding on a train.
- urgent now—Mobile users need to find specific pieces of information or complete certain tasks using their mobile device, in a limited period of time—for example, to check on a flight or find a hotel.
No matter whether users are eager to get updated information, are simply bored, or need to do something urgently, they can use mobile devices and the advanced communications networks that support them to achieve their goals.
The Second Layer: The Mobile Operating System
The operating systems running on mobile devices contribute substantially to the mobile user experience. Mobile operating systems include Symbian, Android, Microsoft Phone, Apple iOS, Blackberry OS, and webOS from Palm.
Although most mobile operating systems offer similar functionality, their user experiences differ to a greater degree. Figures 2 and 3 show the user interfaces for the iOS and Android operating systems. While iOS currently holds the advantage with its abundant apps, the Android system benefits from its seamless integration with the Google product ecosystem, including Google search and Gmail. However, it is impossible to separate the usability of these operating systems from the specific tasks users perform while using mobile devices, which is what I’ll talk about in the next section.
Figure 2—iOS user interface
Figure 3—Android user interface
The Third Layer: Mobile Apps and Mobile Web Apps
Mobile apps include both applications that are on deck, or come pre-installed on mobile devices, and native applications users download to their devices. Mobile apps like the eBay app shown in Figure 4 can provide rich functionality similar to that of a Web application on a desktop computer. Often, mobile application developers develop native versions of the same application for various platforms and offer them for purchase from different app stores to gain a larger audience. Users can purchase and download mobile apps from various app stores—either on-deck app stores for specific operating systems—like the Apple iOS App Store, Android Market, Symbian Ovi Store, Palm App Catalog, and Windows Marketplace—or an off-deck app store like GetJar.
Figure 4—eBay native mobile app for an Android device
Developing a mobile Web application offers an alternative way of going mobile. Users don’t have to purchase or download anything from an app store. They can access a mobile Web app on their smartphone in exactly the same way they would get to a Web site on their computer: by typing its URL in their browser’s address bar or searching for it using a search engine. Mobile Web apps and sites usually feature a slimmer design, with less visual content, to ensure they display well on the smaller screens of mobile devices. Ideally, mobile Web apps and sites include only features that support crucial, time-sensitive, and location-aware tasks. Unlike native mobile apps, mobile Web apps work across all mobile operating systems. Figure 5 shows eBay’s mobile Web app.
Figure 5—eBay mobile Web app on an Android device
Comparing the user interfaces of the eBay native mobile app and mobile Web app, we can see that their designers considered mobile users’ different usage patterns when accessing a native mobile app versus a mobile Web app. Generally, a native app is intended for more frequent use than a mobile Web app, and its use is more goal driven than that of a Web app. On the other hand, the intent for a mobile Web app’s use is for general browsing and updates.
In eBay’s case, their native app offers functionality that lets an eBay member log in and check on the items on which he has placed bids and perform other tasks. The mobile Web app offers content and categories that are very similar to those in the eBay Web application and lets users look up specific items and engage in other types of pre-sale browsing activities.
When you are developing your mobile strategy, understanding the multiple layers of the mobile user experience can clarify your strategy and tactics for going mobile. To ensure your mobile strategy is healthy and strong, look at how each layer plays with the others, as well as how each of them affects the overall mobile user experience, and conduct user research to understand your target audience.
 Roto, Virpi. “Browsing on Mobile Phones.” Nokia Research Center, May 10, 2005. Retrieved January 27, 2011.
 Wellman, Stephen. “Google Lays Out Its Mobile User Experience Strategy.” InformationWeek, April 11, 2007. Retrieved January 27, 2001.