Planning for a Specific Platform
Once the basic wireframes of an application are drawn up, it’s time to move on and begin preparing for the intricacies of a specific platform. Now, you should start thinking about how an application will look and feel on one specific mobile device or another.
First, it’s essential to find the developer documentation for the appropriate platform. The human-interface guidelines will be the most important document for a designer, along with any other design-specific documentation available from the platform’s developer center. For iOS or Android, Apple and Google frequently update documents on human interfaces much like they do for API and other technical processes. Major mobile platform developers also have other documents available detailing how to implement specific looks and feels for common interface features, and they often update these style bibles after a major operating system update. Even if you’re comfortable with a platform’s interface guidelines, it’s always important to check back with the developer’s recommendations to see if anything has changed. Human-interface guidelines are most definitely a living document, sometimes even more so than the platform programming guides themselves.
While reading over a platform’s documentation, it’s valuable to make sure that one or more test devices are available at a designer’s disposal. Ideally, a minimum of one fairly new and up-to-date physical device should be handy, and some virtual devices should be installed and loaded. These can be things such as an iOS simulator that’s prepackaged with Xcode, an emulated Android device from the Android SDK, or something similar that allows a designer to run test applications on a computer. These vary by platform, so visit the manufacturer’s developer resources page to learn what options are available.
Once you get your hands on a device, ensure that you’re comfortable using it. One recommended strategy during app development is to carry the targeted device as your primary phone or tablet for at least a week. After using it for several consecutive days, you’ll become familiar with its common interaction practices and begin to appreciate how users work with the device in professional and personal settings.
New designers often make the mistake of using only screenshots or the human-interface guidelines document to draft their interface work for a new platform. Interaction design, though, is less about the look of an application and more about the feel and flow of how an application works. It’s impossible to accurately judge what feels natural on a platform based solely on screenshots, and the guidelines document is written using colloquial terms that only make sense after using a device for a couple of days.
In Apple’s human interface guidelines for iPhone and iPad, for example, the author uses the following sentence: “And, although people might not be aware of human interface design principles such as direct manipulation or consistency, they can tell when apps follow them and when they don’t.” Users will know if an application feels out of place, and there’s no way for a designer to know if he or she has implemented principles correctly unless the operating system has been used personally for day-to-day tasks.
Once a device is in your pocket or backpack and you’ve studied up on an interface’s official documentation, take a look at some third-party development resources such as books or blog tutorials on the design for your target platform. Although the interface guidelines will be your rulebook going forward, and the device itself will help you experience how to use the platform, advice and instruction from leading developers is one of the best ways to learn about real-world user expectations. Follow some top developers and designers on Twitter or RSS feeds to get a constant flow of information on how platform design changes daily. The mobile development community is still a very tight-knit group, and many bloggers or book authors are approachable and more than willing to discuss your interaction plan online or over lunch at a conference, so don’t hesitate to reach out and ask for help.
And again, don’t underestimate the power of social interaction. Find local groups or meet-ups with like-minded mobile developers; most medium- to large-sized cities have clubs with monthly meetings to discuss trends and evolutions in the industry. Getting together to chat and interact is crucial for members of an industry known for having its fair share of people working alone at home. You’re designing for some of the hottest platforms in the world, and people love offering up their opinions, so go out and be social.