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Nailing Down the Mobile Context

Posted Feb 2, 2011

Couch Mobile Phones
Mobile means "the couch" as often as it means "out in the world." Photo by Luke Redmond.

The most important software design work happens before you even start pushing pixels or slinging code. Design starts with figuring out what your app does... and why. In that process, the most important starting point is to ask, what makes my app mobile? The answer crucially boils down to tailoring your app to specific mobile use cases. Why, for example, would someone use your app on a phone instead of a traditional desktop machine?

Trouble is, the mobile context is so potentially huge that it's difficult to pin down. Mobile apps can be used anywhere and anytime, so the potential environments and scenarios seem nearly infinite. Sure enough, mobile means "on the couch" or "in the kitchen" at least as often as "out in the world." Bring needed focus by crafting a solid idea of who your audience is and how they use their devices. The best way to do this is to ask and observe. Wherever possible, rely on actual data and research instead of hunches.

Mobile stats maven Luke Wroblewski helps us all do just that by boiling down stats on when and where people use their mobile gizmos:

Since mobile devices are (just about) always with their owners, time and location play a big role in defining their context of use. And because mobile devices have the ability to talk, text, IM, and email people (plus an address book!), social rounds out the triumvirate of mobile context. When you design for mobile you are designing something that can be used anywhere, anytime, and be instantly shared/discussed with other people. But I promised a more concrete definition so let's look at where and when mobile devices are used.

Where are people using mobile devices?

  • 84% at home
  • 80% during miscellaneous downtime throughout the day
  • 76% waiting in lines of waiting for appointments
  • 69% while shopping
  • 64% at work
  • 62% while watching TV (alt. study claims 84%)
  • 47% during commute in to work

Source: Compete's Quarterly Smartphone Report

Here's one other tidbit, possibly to be filed under "too much information": one-third of mobile phone users admit to checking Facebook in the bathroom, according to a study by AIS Media. And we're not talking kids: bathroom Facebooking is most popular among 30- to 49-year olds. (Never fear, I promise I'm writing this post from the comfort of my desk.)

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