On the Device Context Continuum

Written by Jason Grigsby on

The fact the Apple may soon release an App Store for TVs has me revisiting a couple of questions that have troubled me these last few years: Where does the common device context continuum start and end? And more importantly, how do we know?

But before I look at those questions in detail, let’s talk about device context.

The Device Context Continuum

We now design for a continuum of devices. Responsive web design provides us with the techniques we need to design for varying screen sizes.

But responsive web design techniques wouldn’t be effective if there wasn’t a common context—or perhaps more accurately, a lack of context—between devices.

Put a different way, if people did demonstrably different things on mobile phones than they did on desktop computers, then responsive web design wouldn’t be a good solution.

phone-tablet-desktop-continuum

We design for different screen sizes confident in our knowledge that people will do similar things whether they are on phone, tablet or desktop devices. This is our common device context and the continuum that it applies to.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

The Mobile Context Debate

In the early days of responsive web design, people often debated whether or not mobile context was a thing that should be considered in our designs.

At the time, I wrote about my conflicted thoughts on mobile context. I advocated for keeping context in mind. But by 2013, I had concluded mobile context didn’t exist.

Now we have a lot of experience to back up this perspective. Chris Balt, a Senior Web Product Manager at Microsoft, told Karen McGrane and Ethan Marcotte on the Responsive Web Design podcast:

Our data shows us quite plainly and clearly that the behavior of those on our mobile devices and the small screens is really not all that different than the behavior of those on the desktop. And the things they are seeking to do and the tasks they are seeking to accomplish are really quite the same.

Karen and Ethan have been doing a weekly podcast for a year. In that time, regardless of the company or industry being discussed, people say that they see no difference in what people want to do based on whether they are using a mobile, tablet or desktop.

I still think Luke Wroblewski nailed it when he wrote:

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in observing people on their mobile devices, it’s that they’ll do anything on mobile if they have the need. Write long emails? Check. Manage complex sets of information? Check. And the list goes on. If people want to do it, they’ll do it on mobile -especially when it’s their only or most convenient option.

What about new devices? TVs? Watches?

It seems that not a day goes by without a new device form factor being introduced. Watches. TVs. Virtual reality goggles. Augment reality glasses.

Where do these new devices fit in on this device context continuum? Do they share the same context?

continuum-question

The consensus at the moment seems to be that they are not part of the same continuum as phones, tablets and computers. When you read the guidelines for designing for watches or TVs, designers are advised to take context into consideration.

At Responsive Day Out, Rosie Campbell, who works in Research and Development for the BBC, gave a compelling presentation entitled Designing for displays that don’t yet exist. She shared research on what it would take to build a compelling smart wallpaper experience in the future when such technology might become commonplace.

In the talk, Rosie made two comments that I’ve been thinking about ever since. She addressed what we need to do as screens get weirder:

It’s not just about making content look beautiful on those different screens. We also need to think about what is appropriate for each device because you’re probably not going to want the same kind of information on your smart watch as you want on your smart wallpaper.

This makes intuitive sense to me. For whatever reason, my Apple Watch feels very different than my phone or my computer.

But Rosie also used browsers on Smart TVs to illustrate a point that just because a technology makes something possible, doesn’t mean that we should design experiences around it:

Suddenly, we all got Smart TVs. And it was great. We got Internet on our TVs. But actually browsing the web on the TV was a really clunky experience. It was not very pleasant. And no one really wanted to do it especially when you’ve got a mobile or tablet next to you that makes it easier.

Again, what Rosie states here is the popular consensus that people won’t browse the web on their TVs. Steve Jobs famously said that:

[People] don’t want a computer on their TV. They have computers. They go to their wide-screen TVs for entertainment. Not to have another computer. This is a hard one for people in the computer industry to understand, but it’s really easy for consumers to understand. They get it.

I’ve spent the last three years researching the web on TVs wondering about exactly this question. And it isn’t clear cut to me whether or not people will browse the web on TV screens in the future.

The consensus on mobile context has changed

The popular consensus used to be that no one wanted to browse the web on their phones. If you dared to build something targeting phones, you were advised to keep the mobile context in mind:

  • People are on the go.
  • Devices are slow and clunky.
  • Phones are hard to type on.

Even after the iPhone came out, people argued that yes, the iPhone had a good browser, but that we’ve had browsers on phones for years and no one used them. People simply don’t want to browse the web on their phones.

This seems laughable now, but it was the accepted consensus at the time.

The reason we had a debate about mobile context when responsive design first arrived is because responsive design challenged the widely accepted idea that people wanted to do different things on their phones.

What do we know about how people will use new devices?

Rosie shared solid research on smart wallpaper. The BBC tested their theories and watched people interact with prototypes. Those observations led to their conclusions about where that future technology would go.

But I found myself wondering what researchers in the early 2000s found when they observed people using their phones. Might they have said something like this:

Suddenly, we all got Smart TVs phones. And it was great. We got Internet on our TVs phones. But actually browsing the web on the TV phone was a really clunky experience. It was not very pleasant. And no one really wanted to do it especially when you’ve got a mobile or tablet next to you computer that makes it easier.

I’m not picking on Rosie here. I do this myself. My gut instinct is to agree with her in many ways.

I find myself thinking, “Well clearly watches are a different thing.” I have similar thoughts about screens in odd places like refrigerators. They don’t feel like they part of the same device context continuum.

But how do I know? I used to think that phones were a different thing.

Predicting future behavior is difficult

Because I was on the wrong side of the mobile context debate, I’ve become leery of our ability to predict future behavior.

In 1994, the New York Times published an article asking “Has the Internet been overhyped?” People were looking at usage of AOL and Prodigy and trying to understand what the impact of the web was going to be.

On a smaller scale, we’re often told that a web site doesn’t need to worry about mobile because the analytics show that people don’t use that site on mobile.

To which I counter, “Why would anyone use your site on mobile if it isn’t designed to work well on those devices? How do you know what people will do after it has been designed to work well on small screens?”

I now have a fundamental rule: we cannot predict future behavior from a current experience that sucks.

Where does the device context continuum end?

All of which brings me to back to my original questions: Where does the common device context continuum start and end? And more importantly, how do we know?

I’m uncomfortable with the current consensus. Particularly when it comes to TVs. It feels like Justice Potter Stewart saying “I know it when I see it.” It makes me wonder if we’re in the feature phone era of TVs.

I want some guidelines to help me know when something is going to be part of the device context continuum and when it won’t. Some questions we can ask ourselves about devices that will help us see if our current views on a particular device’s context are real or simply artifacts of a current, flawed implementation.

And I wonder if what I wish for is simply impossible in the present.

Thanks to Tyler Sticka for the illustrations.


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Comments

I love this quote, "I now have a fundamental rule: we cannot predict future behavior from a current experience that sucks." The quote also applies to all things mobile banking as I'm sure it does in other industries. Banking industry reports said that users only wanted to check their balance on their phone or their history and pay bills on their computer. Well if that is all the industry is offering and your report is looking at what people use today, then of course that is all that will show up as what they will use.

Really interesting take on the topic. Glad my talk was provocative!

Regarding your point about smart phones and the web, I think it backs up my point that you have to think about the user experience first, not just assume current tech will suit any device. I do remember trying to browse the web on an early smart phone and thinking 'this is awful!', but I think the turning point was when people realised you can't just display a desktop site on a mobile and assume it will be fine. Once we specifically started designing mobile experiences, suddenly it all fell into place.

So the point I'm getting at is that if we had thought about the user experience in advance and started designing mobile sites/web apps before or alongside the smart phone explosion, mobile internet wouldn't have had such a bad reputation initially. Which is why we need to think about what will be next, and think about the UX now.

Looking forward to seeing what comes next for web TV!

Rosie Campbell

Replies

Great article! Regarding the question of browsing the web on a tv, my "tv" is a 37" Samsung monitor for my Mac Mini, and browsing is perfectly comfortable standing directly in front of it. The difference is that tv with a remote control is oriented toward sit back experience, not the lean in experience of a computer. People with traditional tvs do not stand 12 inches from the screen as I do, and do not have a keyboard and mouse to navigate content. So graphical and mechanical user interface are critical factors in determining usage.

Two comments.

"People simply don’t want to browse the web on their phones.
This seems laughable now, but it was the accepted consensus at the time."

Accepted consensus in the west perhaps, but iMode in Japan had been highly successful for about six years at this point so it certainly wasn't a global consensus. Was Japan an anomoloy? I'm not sure, but one can't deny that there was living proof the people absolutely will browse on their phones at this time.

"The consensus on mobile context has changed"

It is of course true that people will do everything and anything on their mobile devices and one should think very carefully before limiting options on mobile. But I think it's hasty to conclude that the mobile context doesn't exist, at least to some extent. To write it off completely feels wrong. I think that the *propensity* to do different things in different contexts differs—the likelihood of certain use cases absolutely does change. Google is an interesting example:

http://imgur.com/ldYgP3T

There are large differences in these pages from a HTML point of view, even if they look superficially similar.

I agree that these "contextual propensities" may be slight, but they exist nonetheless, and may be worth optimizing for.

Two comments.

"People simply don’t want to browse the web on their phones.
This seems laughable now, but it was the accepted consensus at the time."

Accepted consensus in the west perhaps, but iMode in Japan had been hugely successful for about six years at this point so it certainly wasn't a global consensus. Was Japan an anomoloy? I'm not sure, but one can't deny that there was living proof the people absolutely will browse on their phones at this time.

"The consensus on mobile context has changed"

It is of course true that people will do everything and anything on their mobile devices and one should think very carefully before limiting options on mobile. But I think it's hasty to conclude that the mobile context doesn't exist, at least to some extent. To write it off completely feels wrong. I think that the *propensity* to do different things in different contexts differs—the likelihood of certain use cases absolutely does change. Google is an interesting example:

http://imgur.com/ldYgP3T

There are large differences in these pages from a HTML point of view, even if they look superficially similar.

I agree that these "contextual propensities" may be slight, but they exist nonetheless, and are absolutely worth optimizing for for some companies.

I think one key here is the word "continuum." I assume most behaviors will fall towards one part of this spectrum. I expect there are behaviors that may happen on watch and phone, but for which wallpaper and TV will be too large. So far our experience has been in only a small part of this continuum.

https://twitter.com/hatsharpener/status/639884121494306816

More important is the difference in input methods. Finger pointing and mouse point are pretty analogous in many ways, so we can get away with the same interface for both. However, waving your entire arm across a wall or detecting your pulse—these are very different input methods. You would never swipe your hand from floor to ceiling scroll through content. (Read about how tired Tom Cruise got filming minority report from having to keep his hands above his heart.) Similarly, sitting a dozen feet from the screen is very different than having it strapped to your wrist. I think input methods will eventually define the "breaks" in this continuum.

I think the UX is what really causes & enables people to use "an experience".

People didn't use mobile browsers en masse until the UX presented to them worked. Now they embrace mobile usage because the UX supports it.

I see the same thing happening for both "lean back" TV and tiny watch screens. Once design discovers how to embrace those experiences, the traffic will follow.

In the mean time, our design for existing experiences is also evolving. Remember the effort to avoid FOUT? Now design is trying to find how to bring it back - to give back a perception of performance. What about ad blocking? Content owners embraced personalization & ads for short term good. But it crossed the line and is ruining the UX, so solutions are being developed to reign that back in.


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