The Importance of Curation in a Successful Mobile UX

May 2011 Newsletter

Mobile Development, Newsletter, User Experience Comments (0)

It’s easy to see that the web-connected smartphone (basically, the post-iPhone market) signaled the end of the individual being unable to answer the trivia question at the pub with their friend. Virtually any piece of information is available to an inquisitive user no matter where they are. It also in many ways signaled the end of the “less is more” approach in terms of content curation for mobile design that was present in the WAP days due to low-speed connections and low-powered feature phones with limited input options.There is no question our phones have gotten faster, and our connections to the mobile web have too. Why then, is information retrieval time on task for mobile web content still lagging steadily behind the PC? The simple answer: we’re enamored with the power. The easy access to deep content anywhere, anytime is making us drunk on information and makes it take far too long to access our end goals. A carefully crafted content strategy that includes curation as a core concept, is crucial in help the user find the right information.

Consider Your Focus

Curation in relation to content strategy is the process of selection of and presentation of the content that will be used. How does a mobile learning strategy that includes content curation help? Think for a moment about the worst-case scenario. This is the proverbial “drinking from the firehose.” A real world example: envision a Content Management System with 200,000+ unique nodes or pieces of information with all of it laid out for every visitor to the website, regardless if that user is using a PC or a mobile device. This type of content strategy, or rather, lack of, creates the endless category tree user interface (UI) design pattern and requires ceaseless querying to return the newly filtered result-set as the user traverses the information on a mobile device. The primary alternative to a browsing experience, the search, can be hit-or-miss depending on your content indexing and the search capabilities of the platform being used. Relying on this as a key use case to overcome the flood of content is not wise.

Even on a smaller scale, this sort of content dump approach can be a deadly combination to the user experience. Consider the possibility of putting a 200-slide PowerPoint deck being used as a sales tool or performance support onto a mobile device. It’s a lot of content, sure, but is it the right content? You’ve probably had to endure the 2-hour unedited and unsegmented video with no index, chapter points or searchability. You may have seen a technology project executed that focused on providing unfettered access to a cavernous SharePoint server and expecting a positive experience. This content dump approach can be an inexpensive way to go mobile, certainly, but the consequences are dire.

So, what is it that is wrong with any of these scenarios? Hopefully, it should be obvious that without having a clear concept of the user’s goal, the unique context of their situation, no guide for their decisions or use of curation to assist the content to bubble up in the right spots it is going to be very difficult to achieve a successful user experience. Simply forcing an overabundance of content into a small screen is an untenable solution. Remember, a content strategy that doesn’t cull the content to meet the needs of the mobile user is ineffectual. Not having curated content that allows a focused, directed experience is not economical from a total cost of ownership or lifecycle perspective due to lost productivity or sales, perceived failure and damage to your brand. The bad, or even unsatisfying, user experience will cost users and lead to a possible redesign or worse, the killing of the project.

Research Paper Equivalents

So what should be done to make content usable and to make the user experience as good as possible? The first step is acknowledgement. You must recognize that the context for the mobile user changes the user’s content needs and desires dramatically. Oftentimes, PC-based access to the content is for ahead-of-time need, and is performed under less restrictive technical and physical constraints. The bandwidth is higher, the processor is faster, the screen is bigger, the user input is often more precise.

Mobile access on the other hand is done under a “micro-tasking” mindset: you know, “Get in, get out, get on with your life.” You must understand and design for the fact that accessing a wealth of uncurated data on a device is difficult. Input constraints, data throughput and connectivity issues necessitate that you design and think differently about your content. In the non-digital parallel, think about how these types of information and performance support tools work. At-a-glance reference cards, laminated phone directories, cross-tabulated mileage charts, etc. – these common documents all share a common thread. They are designed for easy, quick use on the go and they contain only the information needed for the task at hand.

Some of the more advanced examples of these mobile references you may have in your possession have index tabs, spinning discs with revealing die cuts or other intelligently designed information revealing tools that allow the user to quickly filter a curated list of data or options. They may reveal deeper layers of information, but only as needed and only by careful design. Consider how you can emulate not the physical design via some contrived skeuomorphic metaphor, but rather capture the essence of the piece and translate it to a mobile user experience.

Cull the Content

How do we get past this content access issue and provide better, more usable, user interfaces and experiences to our mobile users? We must realize that even though we have rich Service Oriented Architectures (SOA) with deep data stores that we can tap into regardless of the platform the user is on, that a successful user interaction is as much about the irrelevant content we leave out, as it is about the information that is accessed. The signal-to-noise ratio is what we are getting at here. In short, content curation is vital to the mobile user experience because it provides focus and reduces time on task.

You must aim to augment, attempt to support, or intend to provoke a thought in providing your content. Assist the user in speed, accuracy and safety in retrieval. The key to this is to cut the content until you have the minimum you need to provide true utility and timeliness. Consider this: are you providing only actionable information to your users, or is there a lot of fluff along for the ride? What is the least amount of information you can provide and still be useful, providing real value to audience? If you have more information available than that this self-imposed limit, or if you are considering to supply more content or are getting pressure to display chart junk or useless metadata along with the real focused information, you must resist the urge to throw in the kitchen sink. Go back to the personas you have crafted, reread the use cases you wrote and make sure that you haven’t over served the content needs simply because you could or were receiving pressure from sources not close enough to the real user goals.

In your next project try this: resist the urge to “get it all out there.” Don’t let ubiquity in access cloud your judgment in shaping the available information for your users. Finally, get support! Mobile still needs curators. Don’t count them out just because you are no longer chained to a desk. Craft a curated experience and you’ll find engaged users able to locate the important information you need to share.

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Chad Udell is the Managing Partner, strategy and new product development, at Float. There he leads his design and development teams to successful outcomes and award-winning work via a strong background in both disciplines and a singular focus on quality. He has worked with industry-leading Fortune 500 companies and government agencies to design and develop experiences for 20 years. Chad is recognized as an expert in mobile design and development, and he speaks regularly at national and international events and conferences on related topics. Chad is author of Learning Everywhere: How Mobile Content Strategies Are Transforming Training and co-editor and chapter author, with Gary Woodill, of Mastering Mobile Learning: Tips and Techniques for Success. His newest book, Shock of the New, co-authored with Gary Woodill was released in April of 2019.

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