Small Screen- Big Dreams

We all grew up being told that we are the masters and shapers of our environment, our destinies, and everything in between. We really liked hearing that.

But then neuroscience and psychology got together and said "just kidding"- it's actually the environment that shapes us, quietly, all the time. This is happening in such subtle ways that not only do we never even have a chance to suspect any foul play, we may never know where to find those controls even if we wanted to.

Why mention this?

Because it's good to understand how some of that control can be taken back- at least where technology is concerned. It's there presumably for our benefit and convenience. Especially since we are the ones creating and using it. It's a vicious circle really...

Take the meteoric growth of demand for mobile apps, their use and accessability for example. There has been a great push to move as many functions as possible into a mobile format- and in many cases with great success. Uber, GrubHub, Snapchat, Wayz (to name just a few)- we will never leave home without them again. While on-the-go and only having a few moments to perform a task, nothing beats quick access to a friendly tool that can take us from a sudden idea to a finished goal with just a few screen taps.

"How great would it be if we could just shrink all the controls of our lives, activities, and needs down to a mobile app?"- say enthusastic tech marketers when they run out of other ideas. "Shouldn't ALL errands and tasks be taken care of with a few swipes of a finger (instead of minutes, hours or days of consideration)?"

Or should they?

The main purpose of mobile apps is to complete a function in as few easy steps as possible. Granted, it does require a few preliminary steps to achieve the purpose- but those can be combined into a nearly seamless experience so the process doesn't feel like a mental feat. Our main goal is to make the user experience feel effortless. Even if the set up might require some input like setting up a payment or answering a few questions- it's kept to the bare minimum of deliberation. Internal struggle is an app killer.

Practice shows that the size of the mobile screen has proven to be neither ergonomic nor conductive to reading through long paragraphs of text or handling complex application fields. Between the obvious eye strain, 'fat-finger' factor and the joy of auto-correct glitches, there is a reason why mobile experience leans toward concise and as close to instant gratification as possible. The size of the tool still very much determines the function and our 'relationship' with it. Just as you wouldn't use a toaster to cook a 5 course dinner (though some can double as an alarm clock)- we regard our hand-held gadgets as either a 'quick fix' or something to be used as a 'time filler' when we are between tasks.

Practically everything we do depends on our frame of mind and that mind is apparently quite easily influenced or distracted or both. If you only have 15 minutes to grab a snack from a corner deli but your elevator stops on every floor, and the front door is blocked by a delivery guy, and then someone is trying to decide on a lottery ticket as the cashier line grows longer- you realize your 15 minute task is now turning into a 30 minute nuisance. You give up on the whole thing, slightly hungrier, feeling rushed and annoyed. You are now just focused on getting back to whatever you were doing. You are less concerned with the details- you just want to catch up on the lost time. Which is when we start paying less attention to quality in favor of just getting it "over with".

Studies show that when we experience stress (anger...frustration), the rise in our cortisol (aka, stress hormone) levels will make us more focused, but mainly on the subject of the stress itself (here- an unlucky snack trip). All the while we become considerably less attentive to other matters until the stress levels go down. We will be more likely to feel distracted and make unexpected mistakes- which in turn prolongs cortisol production, and its negative effect on our activities and cognitive functions.

These findings are of great interest to the topic of experience and usability. UX and responsive design directly affect how we understand a task or a function we are about to undertake when using mobile technologies as tools (or any technology for that matter). UX design and the mental environment it creates will determine how we prepare for the said tasks in their anticipation, as well as how we are affected by the process and the end result of the experience.

Typing a short note takes no time at all, right? What if you need to check the thesaurus? Maybe you need to check on some numbers before quoting them- that means a few more minutes, and going to another application. But what if the application you're using has an update that adds an unfamiliar interface, or makes unclear suggestions that require you to constantly toggle between windows? Are you still on your phone? At this point you are more likely to wait until you can open all the windows you need so you can process and compare your data in an ergonomic way, more conducive to fulfilling your needs.

One of the great examples is the popular topic of online website building.

It's interesting to note how greatly users' expectations and understanding of the process vary when it comes to choice of media, such as desktop vs. mobile. While there are quite a few companies out there that promise mobile website solutions, few can actually guarantee a full-scale mobile experience. And that's where psychology throws in a wrench.

It appears that users who created their site via mobile application vs. desktop (using the same provider) were much more likely to be surprised and disappointed by the disparity in final appearance when viewed on different devices. While this can sometimes be attributed to the mobile device being the only available tool, the majority of complaints showed that the mobile users had more trouble understanding the process and had spent less time planning the content of the site as a whole.

These difficulties could have been easily predicted due to the fact that most of us (even non designers) know that in order to make a 'right' decision we require the ability to compare potential outcomes. We NEED to be able to compare appearances side by side to fully realize our preferences, which is not possible with mobile technology- no yet. We are not likely to give much consideration to something we can only be comfortable dealing with in short bursts- like when using a phone as a design tool.

Limiting the visual and spatial cues we require to process information under the flag of fashionably compact minimalism will not help us process the information faster or better. Quite the opposite. Our psyche tends to squirm whenever it gets suspicious about being manipulated. The result is frustration, stress, and cortisol coursing through our veins and getting in the way of orderly conduct.

So- for the sake of exerting some control over technology as well as our ourselves, we truly need to give quite a bit of consideration to HOW we are going to do something before we actually dive in. If history teaches us anything- it's that 'fashionable' and 'popular' don't necessarily mean 'ergonomic' or 'necessary'. Just look up "bustle if you don't believe me. They were all the rage at some point.