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Mobile-Only: Time to rethink mobile design?

Vito MargiottaVito Margiotta

Expectations setting: This article is more focused on generating a discussion about the way we do mobile design for mobile-only economies, more than providing informative facts and solutions to the questions provided.

I am lately more and more involved with the design of mobile interfaces and with a sharp focus on mobile-only economies and to the needs of all those users that live all their digital lives and run their companies exclusively on a mobile device. They never owned and will never own a Desktop PC, and this makes them very 'special'. With no preconceptions on how a device should work and no established digital habits and biases created by the previous interactions with a computer, these users are fast becoming the new reference point for any designer to keep in mind.

They are many (2 billions more of them are coming online by 2020 only!), they have a brand new mobile device (which also most likely happens to be their first one!), and most importantly they are fast learners and the most skilled users of mobile I have ever seen in my life (suggestion to any biz owner or to any designer reading this: please please please do a user testing session with them, as the experience will most likely blow your mind :).

They are the mobile-only user, and they are too many and too cool to be ignored.

“They are the mobile-only user, and they are too many and too cool to be ignored.”

And yet, I believe that we may be doing design for mobile-only users completely the wrong way, and it is time to re-think it. And it all boils down I believe to one single point:

Know your target audience

We all know and preach about the importance of 'knowing the user' before doing design.. And we all know very good at least one user: ourselves, alongside with the user-persona we represent. Great starting point, but that does not bring us too far when designing an app for a mobile-only user somewhere in Africa, Latin America, or Asia, for instance.

Vast majority of all apps are currently designed by someone in Europe or the United States (where the concentration of app publisher is consistently and significantly higher than the rest of the planet), and then usually rolled out globally with little to no local adaptation besides, maybe, language localization.

And with the average designer not really mastering (yet, and understandably) how to do mobile-only mobile design, and most likely undervaluing the gigantic size and value of this mobile-only user population, I believe it is of the upmost importance to think about how to spread the knowledge and understanding of this mobile-only economy at first.

Here are few questions / proposals I believe we should think about:

I believe that this lack of a deep understanding and proactive attitude in understanding the mobile-only market continue, it will lead to a major reshaping of the mobile industry as it is today.

Besides few noticeable 'western' exceptions like Facebook (according to me, so far the only Fortune500 which is actually understanding and leading mobile and adapting its local offering accordingly), mobile is becoming more and more a local play, with the few local developers in mobile-only economies consistently producing way better experiences.

Think for a second about the beauty of Flipkart, or WeChat, or endless other local apps in these economies, project this widening of mobile understanding into the future, and picture a new list of Fortune 500 mobile companies that are now headquartered not anymore in Silicon Valley, but in Nairobi, Bangalore, San Paolo, etc.

Designers are in the best position to lead this phenomenon, and I think it is definitely time to re-think how we do mobile design, so to account for this upcoming transition to a mobile-only userbase and economy.

It is an exciting time to live in :)