Just market the word 'Google' with any event these days and you can pretty much bet it will sell out. Last night I was at a presentation by Google on mobile user experience. If any other company gave this talk, maybe 40 or so people would show up. But because the speaker was from Google and the event was in the company's New York City nerve center, over 250 people packed out the Google auditorium. For those of us lucky enough to get a ticket, we received an upfront look at how Google designs its mobile applications.The event, "Google Presents User Experience & Mobile Apps," was co-hosted by the New York City chapter of the Usability Professionals Association.
Google user experience designer Leland Rechis started his talk by re-iterating Google's mission: Organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. Rechis added that mobility is fast-becoming the key to making information "universally accessible," but he warned that without a solid user experience, there is no way mobile applications can be useful.
Rechis said that when Google plans to launch a mobile application, it looks at the potential app through six layers:
1. Understanding users, anywhere, anytime
2. Fits in your pocket
3. More personal than the PC
4. Consistency across modes
5. Localization is intensified
6. Integrated devices, modes, products
Rechis then broke out the company's mobile development and optimization strategy by each level.
Understanding users, anywhere, anytime
Rechis said that Google breaks down mobile users into three behavior groups:
A. "Repetitive now" B. "Bored now" C. "Urgent now"
The "bored now" are users who have time on their hands. People on trains or waiting in airports or sitting in cafes. Mobile users in this behavior group look a lot more like casual Web surfers, but mobile phones don't offer the robust user input of a desktop, so the applications have to be tailored.
The "urgent now" is a request to find something specific fast, like the location of a bakery or directions to the airport. Since a lot of these questions are location-aware, Google tries to build location into the mobile versions of these queries.
Fits in your pocket
Rechis stressed the limitations of mobile phones. He pointed out that any mobile application has to be able to fit on a small screen and cannot require complicated text input. Also, since the third screen has no X-axis, layout has to clean, simple, but maintain the basic usability of the parent desktop application. Rechis also stressed that the "density of information" changes on a mobile phone, requiring designers to identify only the most essential parts of any given application. Obviously, juggling all this isn't easy.
In order to achieve usable mobile applications, Fechis reminded the audience that they have to be willing to test and re-test applications with users. Otherwise you can't get it right.
Also, building successful mobile apps requires developers and user experience people who are passionate about their subjects. He pointed out one Google employee who went to great pains to make sure that Google Maps gave directions correctly for Japan. Since street signs and markers in Japan are different than in the West, this employee had to go to great lengths to make sure that the app rendered maps and gave directions in ways that are useful for that country.
Google always strives to keep the look and feel of any Google application consistent, both within the type of function (i.e. all blog search results look different than map search results) and on devices (a map search on a desktop looks and feels like a map search on a mobile phone and vice versa). If mobile applications are to be universal, then developers have to maintain patterns and designs across all screens.
Localization is intensified
Rechis said, bluntly, that the mobile Web is balkanized, "The Pangaea of the Web is gone." And don't expect this to change anytime soon, either. Thanks to carrier portals and off portal applications, there is no one mobile standard to develop for.
In the mobile world developers have to be prepared to optimize for different devices, browsers, languages, carriers, countries and cultures.
I was struck by a couple of things during this presentation. One, I didn't realize just how much care Google takes in creating its new applications. They are really dedicated to making things as simple and easy to use as possible. The second was how much Google seems to thrive on its vaguely anarchist internal structure. Rechis pointed out how Google structures its development teams and the process seems to account for a lot of internal dissent and even debate. I was amazed at how different this is from most development efforts I have ever been a part of.
The third thing I was struck by was the level of Google's commitment to mobility. I know they've been talking about it, but last night I was impressed by just how much they are working to build a truly useful mobile Web. I think everyone else out there making mobile applications should take note.