5 Questions: Marshal Datkowitz on Mobile UI Design

Last month Marshal Datkowitz penned a Web feature for MSDN Magazine titled A Mobile Phone Is Not Just a Small Computer. A senior user architect in the User Experience Group at Infragistics, Datkowitz warned that developers who aim to simply shrink PC applications to mobile device form factors are "missing the point." He says developers must commit to simplicity and elegance if they want users to get the most out of their applications.

I caught up with Datkowitz after we had published his article. Here is what he had to say.


Michael Desmond: Do you find that new mobile developers fully appreciate the unique character of handheld platforms like Windows Phone?

Marshal Datkowitz: I think Windows Phone is a whole new ball game for developers. First they need to bone up on Metro, which is very different from anything they have ever seen before. To many, this OS is a totally different paradigm that they need to learn. Secondly the physical challenges and advantages of the device must be learned and embraced. I have found there is quite a learning curve to climb, but once done, developers really excel.


Desmond: How would you compare the transition to mobile app development with previous sea changes in application design and development, such as with the introduction of the GUI and browser-based applications?

Datkowitz: I think it is similar but not as radical. The mobile device is still a GUI but with hardware and human factor differences. This is more evolutionary than revolutionary change.


Desmond: It seems like mobile developers must adopt a less is more approach with a mobile UI. How can developers go about making good decisions when working to pare down the interface so users can get in and out fast?

Datkowitz: In general, less is more in most situations. I have yet to see any application that could not be made more simple and subsequently more elegant. In the mobile space simplicity is more critical; we don’t get a second chance here. We must all be that more focused when it comes to mobile.


Desmond: Is there a particular application you know that has done a great job of mastering the principles you wrote about in your article?

Datkowitz: There are a lot of really good applications coming out. One that I recently took note of is the new Fidelity Investments app. They did a great job of taking an already comprehensive and easy to use Web site and focused on making it work in the mobile space. It doesn’t do everything, but that’s good -- it can’t. But what it does, it does very cleanly.


Desmond: One issue that intrigues me is the challenge faced when you try to port (or at least surface functional elements of) a desktop business application to a mobile platform. It seems there can be so many constraints -- in terms of data presentment, complexity of the targeted task, etc -- that it may be very difficult to really mobile-enable these kinds of apps. Any general thoughts on how developers might start thinking around that problem?

Datkowitz: I have been involved with several projects just like that; I’ve found that trying to move each function over just doesn’t work. The best thing to do is to look at the function and then consider how best it can work on the device. Many functions need to be redesigned from the ground up, others can just never be ported in the first place. Go back to what the user really needs in the environment and re-imagine how it can be accomplished. Think about the hardware, think about the visual space, and think about how best to address users’ needs.

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