Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Modal Nature of Mobile Applications

Probably the most typical design error made on any mobile application development is facing it as a traditional desktop development; especially, regarding the user experience side.

As we can see during almost any mobile development, achieve a good user experience is the hardest goal we have to face. On that way, we should prioritize "simplicity" in our applications.

The simplest user interface you have the best user experience you get. And here, as in most of the mobile development topics, we should get the right balance.

Simplicity for a mobile application UI means:

  • Show less graphic elements as possible, but show all the information required.
  • Show few options but enough to let the user do what he need in the less number of steps possible.

Windows Mobile is a very different environment compared to a desktop platform where you can have a 15" or bigger screen. Due to this constrain, a Windows Mobile application, even each form /dialog on the application, should take ownership of almost all the screen in order to provide the best possible user experience. Actually it's not weird to find full screen applications.

If we need almost all the screen to show any form or dialog, then we can only show one form/dialog at the same time. This is what defines the modal nature of mobile applications. Having a modal approach, a mobile application is closer to get simplicity.

That's the reason because dialogs are full screen by default in any Windows Mobile device. But screen size is not the only constrain on that way, input devices are also constrained and it makes almost inviable a modaless mobile application. Background operations on mobile applications are typically limited to synchronization tasks, and even sync should be performed in foreground very often.

It doesn't mean the user cannot switch between apps. If we don't have explicit business constrains regarding it, multitasking is a good feature and it's not only welcomed, it should be preserved.

Today is highly common to find devices with cellular telephony support. Smartphones and Pocket PC phone edition require the application let the user switch easily to and from phone features.

Multitasking is the reason of having a smart minimize button on the top right corner of Pocket PC forms, or the reason of having a back button on smartphone switching between apps. Home and Phone buttons also allows switching to the device main screen or phone functionality.

On that scenario, our modal mobile application should also be prepared for multitasking, and be prepared for handle the background state preserving processor and battery.

Line of business applications use to have a transactional-approach and high memory consumption. It makes essential in many cases to have an explicit "exit" option. It allows you to verify the complete business operation during the application usage, and free taken resources for other applications.

Next time you design a mobile application, remember: a mobile application should be simple. Being modal it's closer of being simple. But it should also interact with a multitasking environment.

No comments: