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Build a Mobile-Device Lab!

Mobile Matters

Designing for every screen

A column by Steven Hoober
January 9, 2017

People—whether clients, conference attendees, or just friends and coworkers—often ask me what my favorite phone is. I have always told everyone that, professionally, I have no opinion. I have a lot of devices and switch between them regularly—not because I am indecisive or must always have the newest and best thing, but so I can stay familiar with the variations between devices and operating systems. I need to understand how real people use digital products and services.

I don’t want to be unique in this. I think this is something every digital designer should do. It’s a crucial part of being aware of design trends and having a bit of empathy for all your users.

Not One Device or the Other, But All Devices

I’ve been making sure I keep up with mobile-device trends for a long time. I share this knowledge publicly, pulling out my phones to demonstrate points when I speak or showing my collection—an ad hoc shared lab—to local Meetup groups. I travel with a half dozen devices, and make a point of having a good representation of the current market. Nevertheless, in conversations with other speakers at a recent overseas conference, everyone was baffled about why I carried so many devices.

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Through a bit of explanation, I got everyone to understand this, but I’m not sure any of those designers are going to adopt my plan. Everyone seems to like their iPhones—and I worry this sets a bad precedent in a world where 80% of the smartphones in people’s hands are Android devices. Today, Samsung, Apple, Huawei, and Oppo are—in that order—the top four most-used smartphone brands. As Figure 1 shows, I currently have at least one of each of these.

Figure 1—Examples of phones currently in my device library
Examples of phones currently in my device library

Another reason I’ve been thinking about this multi-device principle is because of the surprising backlash against Apple’s releasing a new MacBook Pro. I’ve already ordered one because my MacBook Pro was old, but a number of notable designers have publicly switched to Windows as a result.

I don’t quite get this either because I use a Windows PC every day alongside a MacOS computer. Right now, my biggest client has issued me a PC—and it’s a convertible tablet no less. But I also have an Intel tablet that runs both Android and Windows RT. I’ve pretty much always had a Windows computer as well as a Mac. As Figure 2 shows, they sit side by side on my desk in my home office, and I switch between them constantly throughout the day.

Figure 2—My Mac on the right, my PC in the center, and my many phones and tablets on the left
My Mac on the right, my PC in the center, and my many phones and tablets on the left

I try not to pick one or the other digital device or platform. For design and what I carry and type on, I try to sample and use everything I can. I love digitizing tablets, so have a large Wacom on my Mac, but I made a deliberate choice to use a normal mouse on my PC, so I have that everyday experience most people have.

Device Diversity Reflects Human Diversity

A common lament since the start of the smartphone era is fragmentation. This refers to the many sizes of phone screens and other differences in phones’ capabilities. Instead of just setting up Photoshop to use one set of pixel dimensions, you now have to design for all the phones people use—and that’s hard.

This used to be an easier gripe for all the iPhone-only designers and developers—when they’d had only one size of phone ever. But Apple products have now fragmented, too. Why? Because people have different needs and wants. Designing for a single screen size is like doing medical testing only on white men. It simplifies data analysis, but entirely misses the point of providing adequate service to everyone.

Respect user choice. Devices are different, because people’s needs are different, and this is reflected in the ways people use their devices. How do they use them? Try some other devices and see how you use them differently. Don’t design to pixels for one screen size either, but that’s another discussion entirely.

Device Connectivity, Onboarding, and Services

The key experience of periodically switching phones is the switching itself. Smartphones are not self-contained products, but connected devices. When you start using them, you link up all sorts of accounts, add your apps and sign into them, customize the settings, and more.

Every step of this switching process reminds you of what it is like to be a new user. You can learn from this experience—much more often than from the two-year upgrade cycle you might naturally follow otherwise. What problems do users encounter when they first use your product or service on their mobile phone?

A worst-case example is installing the software for a Pebble smart watch. Every time I install the app onto a new phone, it asks for my sex, height, and weight, as Figure 3 shows.

Figure 3—Pebble asking for personal information
Pebble asking for personal information

This sort of experience is a great reminder of how terribly annoying it is to have to do this. Of course, they should be saving customer information and preferences that rarely change to cloud storage and populate that data whenever a user signs in. I always want to speak English and, while my weight is slowly increasing, my height and sex are pretty stable. With this constant annoyance, I can never forget about this problem, and when I need to prove this point to clients, I show them screens like this, and they get it.

Building a Device Lab on a Budget

One of the issues I hear a lot about when trying to build a device lab for clients is their fear of high costs. But, if you do this right, that’s largely an unfounded fear. You have to remember that you aren’t buying a lot of phones for individual team members to carry around for two years, but a whole set of phones to switch between, on which to test.

You don’t need a service plan for each phone—just a handful of SIM cards to swap between devices. These days, all carriers use SIMs because that’s part of the 4G LTE standard. So, as long as your phone is compatible with the network, you can swap out a SIM and have one line for many phones. Ideally, someone at your organization will actually learn about wireless carrier bands, but I haven’t and get by googling each phone I want to use.

Do get at least one SIM for testing. Especially when you’re checking Internet speeds or doing a lot of technical testing, you may not be able to get by entirely with Wi-Fi. Mobile networks work very differently from Ethernet, so you should be careful about relying on users having good Wi-Fi all the time. For a robust technical test, you should test on many networks, which can add up, or you might want to try services such as Device Anywhere just during your test period.

You don’t need the newest or best devices. Not everyone carries around a just-released, top-tier, flagship model device, so you don’t need to either. When doing your research, try to find out which models your users use most, then buy those for testing. Don’t pay attention to sales numbers, but installed-base figures. You want to know what is actually in use, not what is buzz-worthy or selling this week.

Even keeping to the cheaper models, mobile devices are expensive. So I often buy used phones. I’ve bought good, functional phones for as little as $27, shipping included. More typical prices are between $100 and $250—especially if you buy refurbished or used phones. Sites like eBay are your friend here. I’ve even bought lightly broken devices. But be careful about purchasing stolen, hotlined, or locked phones.

Apple devices tend to hold higher resale values, so it’s more expensive to acquire a lot of those, but you don’t need a lot. One iPhone and one iPad can cover most cases.

My Mobile-Device Lab

Since people often ask about this, let’s cover what devices I use in detail. When I am at the office, my phones are all plugged in and ready to go—just a few inches from my left elbow. As Figure 4 shows, I’ve arranged them in small desktop vertical letter file, use a specific Pluggable brand USB hub that I’ve found works well for powering everything, and a set of short cables, all of which keeps clutter down. There are also racks that are made specifically for storing and charging multiple phones.

Figure 4—Desktop charging and storage of my phones and tablets
Desktop charging and storage of my phones and tablets

Although my primary device set changes regularly, it’s currently as follows:

  • Apple iPhone 5c—This covers the small form factor for iOS.
  • Apple iPhone 6—This is one of the larger form factors for iOS. The Plus is very expensive, and I haven’t encountered it often in the wild, so I haven’t bothered to buy one of those.
  • Huawei P8 Lite—This huge Chinese manufacturer dominates its market and has a very different OS overlay. For example, there’s no app drawer; instead they give icons a boxy background. It’s interesting to see how different your app can look on this device.
  • Nexus 5—This lets you get the pure experience, which is convenient when communicating with any developer who says a bug on another OEM is their fault. Plus, it’s good to monitor what Google thinks the world should be like. My wife has a Nexus 5X, so I do also have access to a newer one if I need it.
  • Oppo F1f—Lots and lots of phones that we do not see in the US are available in the huge Chinese market, so I decided to stretch even more and get this one, with yet another custom OEM overlay. There are many other brands in China with their own versions of the OS.
  • Samsung Galaxy S5—I’ll need to get a new Samsung Galaxy some time, but this one has pretty current software and has the hardware buttons, so it works fine for its purpose.

At the moment, I am carrying the Oppo as the phone in my pocket, but I’ll probably switch back to the Huawei or Samsung soon.

When I’m traveling, I stuff all of these phones into a multi-pocket US Army rifle magazine pouch, in which they fit surprisingly well, so I highly recommend it. I keep a full set of SIM ejector tools and SIM adapters in a bag in there as well, so I always know where they are. SIMs come in several different sizes, so you need adapters, which vary in quality. Oddly enough, this actually matters, so get the good ones, not the cheap ones.

If you’re on a really tight budget, you can sell your older devices. You won’t get a lot for them, but if you’ve treated them nicely and kept the box and all of the accessories, you’ll get top dollar because you didn’t carry them around every day—as most people have done with all the other popular models that are for sale. You’ll get something for them.

I prefer to keep all of my devices. Mostly because, in the old days, I did sell them off and now regret it. I worked on the first MP3-player phone ever. I addition to working devices, I ended up with some marketing mockups. I sold all of them on eBay after a while, and I came to regret this, so now I simply keep everything. As Figure 5 shows, all of the mobile phones, tablets, and PDAs in my collection have gotten to be a lot of devices. I keep my devices that are currently active in the top two rows.

Figure 5—My current collection of devices
My current collection of devices

In addition to my past regrets, I now keep everything because there are many self-aggrandizing lies and over-simplifications in our industry. Talking about my experience helps, but when I can prove something by pulling out an example device that had GPS long before that was common, an external camera dongle, or a capacitive touchscreen, it adds some weight to my arguments and keeps me honest about the lessons we can learn from our old hardware and software.

Empathy Starts at Home

In my last column, I talked about the value of regularly getting out into the field and seeing how people live, work, and use your products. Pretty much all of us know this is a laudable goal, but we still go back to our cubicles and design from our own frame of mind.

Instead of just referring to PowerPoint reports, I find it helpful to try to live the broadest range of experiences your customers have every day. Try using your phone the way your users do. Sign up for and use every new social network and service.

Don’t just use your favorite phone or computer, set up with your favorite Web browser and apps. Instead, broaden your experience to what typical users use. 

References

Ahonen, Tomi. “Q3 Smartphone Market Numbers, Top 10 Brands, OS Wars, Installed Base.” Communities Dominate Brands, November 21, 2016. Retrieved December 18, 2016.

Montague, Destiny, and Lara Hogan. Building a Device Lab. London: Five Simple Steps Publishing Ltd., 2015. Retrieved December 18, 2016.

Jenson, Scott. “Paradise Lost: My Mac2Win Journey.” Medium, December 3, 2016. Retrieved December 18, 2016.

President of 4ourth Mobile

Mission, Kansas, USA

Steven HooberFor all of his 15-year design career, Steven has been documenting design process. He started designing for mobile full time in 2007 when he joined Little Springs Design. Steven’s work includes Designing by Drawing: A Practical Guide to Creating Usable Interactive Design, the O’Reilly book Designing Mobile Interfaces, and an extensive Web site providing mobile design resources to support his book. Steven has led projects on security, account management, content distribution, and communications services for numerous products, in domains ranging from construction supplies to hospital record-keeping. His mobile work has included the design of browsers, ereaders, search, Near Field Communication (NFC), mobile banking, data communications, location services, and operating system overlays. Steven spent eight years with the US mobile operator Sprint and has also worked with AT&T, Qualcomm, Samsung, Skyfire, Bitstream, VivoTech, The Weather Channel, Bank Midwest, IGLTA, Lowe’s, and Hallmark Cards. He is currently User Experience Architect with diesel engine maker Cummins, in addition to running his own interactive design studio at 4ourth Mobile.  Read More

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