When It Comes to Designing Websites for Mobile – I’m All Thumbs

Picasso never had to deal with this crap.

That’s right, I said it. We were all thinking it, but someone had to say it.

For a millennia, artists’ creativity has been kicked off with this one, bounding idiom: “You start with a blank canvas.” While the canvas might be blank, there are still countless ones to choose from, in all different shapes, sizes and materials. Just find the one that gives you the room to work and go to town. Just pick one. The right one. The one with the perfect height. The one with the perfect width. The one canvas that will always hold your work and showcase all of its glory exactly how you envisioned it. When the audience looks at your work, it will be your canvas that frames what they see. The one that you picked. The one that will never change.

But for a certain set of artists in this world, their canvas has changed. Their canvas is not chosen by the artist; it was chosen by the audience. Do you think that audience got together to agree on the size of this canvas? Did they have themselves a happy little Twitter poll? Not so much. Each and every one of them opted for something unique. Something personalized. An expression of who they are. And it is in this highly individualized world of the audience’s personalized canvas that the digital designer works.

Design for Content First

I freely admit that there is no phrase in the world that I hate more than, “design for mobile first.” If I’m ever interviewing you for a job, just know that going in. I think it’s a crutch that designers and non-designers alike throw out there to show that they are in the know. Yes, by all means you need to be aware that there are principles to follow when designing for mobile. But what you should really understand is the content.

The goal of a digital designer is to move the audience. It is possible to achieve this emotionally through a stunning display of pixel manipulation. But more importantly, the designer’s purpose is to move the audience from point A to point B to get to the end goal. And the only way to do that is to know what motivates them. Aspiration? Features? Testimonials? Price? You have to know what will push their button … so they’ll push yours.

Whatever the motivating factors are, you need to: (1) itemize them and (2) prioritize them by importance. For example, let’s say you know that some of your users will have a hair trigger, while others will need mountains of reassurance. You’ll need to find the right mix of presentation vs. exploration to meet the needs of both of these groups. When it comes to content, some of it is mandatory at all times for all audiences, but you have to determine how much real estate on your website it deserves. And this must be balanced against what other information can be revealed to, and explored by, potential consumers who need more guidance before converting.

With your content pecking order dialed in, it’s time to start designing.

Putting Pencil to Paper

There are a multitude of tools to start wireframing an elegantly designed solution. XD, Photoshop, Sketch, Just-in-Mind, Axure. They all have their place in the world. But for me, the tried-and-true method is putting pencil to paper. Specifically, paper with various form factors pre-printed to scale for phones, tablets, laptops and desktops. I usually opt for the smallest viable version of each platform. I want to be able to physically touch and hold the design. I want to be able to work through my flurry of ill-formed ideas at the speed and tenacity of a kindergartner while using the same tools. Pencil. Paper. Markers. Scissors. Tape. Glitter Glue.

Quickly ideating (there’s a word I hate almost as much as ‘synergies’) until I’ve got a solid grasp on a completely bulletproof solution that nobody could possibly find fault with.

Fire Away

But digital designers are not creating free-flowing explorations of art. We’re creating usable, informative and actionable experiences. Not for ourselves, but for a broad audience of uniquely expressive, canvas-carrying individuals. Find a small, diverse group of coworkers (or random people in a bar) and walk them through your paper mâché masterpiece. If you get a lot of nodding heads then it’s time to move your design into the digital space.

The next step is to create a functional prototype and get it into the hands of a much wider audience, to people outside of your bubble. You must honestly share your work with an expanded circle of nonfriends and accept their feedback. It’s not their fault they couldn’t figure out what to do next – that they didn’t realize that they could interact with that cool thing – or that they got tired of scrolling. It’s your fault. You’re the designer. You made it. Now fix it.

Make It Memorable

With the most thankless and taxing part of the design behind you, it’s time to bedazzle this bitch. I mean be – freaking – dazzle. Take the time to let loose and push the bounds of what is or isn’t acceptable interactive design. And then, after a day or so of letting it marinate, dial it back a notch. Maybe two.

Users love a great experience. One that is magically unique and unexpected. But give them one that challenges every bit of working knowledge they have for how to navigate a website, and they will curse your unborn child.

Find the balance. Leave them dazzled, not dizzying. Get them from point A to point B.

Does that all sound like a lot of work? Let us do the heavy lifting in our Phoenix integrated advertising agency.