DiBi #1: Designing for users, not devices

Last week, I got to attend the 2016 Design it Build it (DiBi) conference at the Hub in Edinburgh. This is one in a series of three posts about my adventures.

One of the early talks at DiBi was by Anna Debenham on Games Console Browsers. Usage on these might be a bit higher than you think: Anna quotes that 26% of 14–24 year olds in the UK use consoles to visit websites. Interestingly, in an effort to get pages to render normally, most console browsers tell lies in their user agent strings – so it’s actually quite difficult to measure usage on them. But it was this slide that showed a tweet by Will Roissetter that really stood out:

A student completed their Student Loan Application on a Nintendo DS

The Hub filled with laughter from all the delegates at this seemingly strange behaviour. But then a memory stirred, and I began to feel a little… uncomfortable.

In August 2012, I completed my final student finance application using an Xbox 360.

Yeah, yeah… laugh it up.

My excuse at the time was that my laptop had died and had been shipped away for service. As to why I didn’t use my phone: no idea. But the point here is that I doubt this was a scenario Student Finance accounted for – but it worked.

Anna quickly pointed out that while she would go into detail on some of the console based browsers – her talk wasn’t really about games consoles. It was about how every screen can (and in many cases has) become some sort of web browser. Traditional “mobile” devices aside we now have web browsers on digital cameras, printers, cars, exercise equipment – even taps.

Now this is not a pitch to drop everything, go back and make everything you’ve ever built support a web browser in a digital smoothie maker*. The warning here was to not fall prey to designing things for the current three “device silos”.

This theme was echoed a lot in other talks: when designing for the web, design for users not for specific devices or specific screen resolutions. Not only will you create something that is much more future-proof, but it will help reduce technical debt. Ryan O’Conner, UX Creative Director for BBC News digital, spoke of his regrets when redesigning the BBC News app which launched early last year which – though it is responsive in its design – had loads of different “templates” for specific different devices and resolutions. They had quickly thrown in lots of variants and tweaks for very specific cases – and this has already become unmaintainable.

Because, silly device examples aside, the broad categories we’re becoming familiar with – mobile, tablet, computer – don’t make sense any more. Tablets and phones come in pretty much every shape and size now with the lines blurred between them (I will not use this word, ever). Combined laptop / tablets are becoming more popular. A desktop connected to a large screen can’t really be considered identical to a tiny netbook.

So destroy the silos, comrades! We can’t play catch-up forever designing to whatever device is “in” right now, or assuming everyone will or won’t do things on a specific device.

There will be more to follow on my exploits at DiBi over the next few days: apologies it’s taking me so long – I insisted on writing this on the web browser built in to my new internet enabled pepper mill**.

* Author not thorough enough to check if this was a thing or not.
** Patent pending.