With the proliferation of small screen devices like the iPod and the Blackberry comes the need to design interfaces in a very different way. As an interface designer himself, Kevin Shoesmith of Venn Communications says he’s interested in where the field of interface and interaction design is heading. We asked Kevin to interview Paul Hibbitts of Hibbitts Design to get the scoop on designing for the small screen.

KS: Is small screen device design/testing a growing field?

PH In the past several years I have definitely noticed a renewed interest in making business application data available for a mobile audience. The prevalence of small screen consumer devices, such as mp3 players and mobile phones, has also dramatically increased in that time. That being said, I think that the field is still in its infancy, and we have quite a way to go both in terms of designing truly effective small screen interfaces and developing lower-cost Internet connected devices.

KS: What exactly is a small screen device and what kinds of companies need small device design?

PH: I would define a small screen device as one with a screen size smaller than 6×4 inches, and which is usually mobile in nature. It is pretty clear that companies with employees out in the field, such as sales and service people, can realize significant benefits by providing mobile access to business data and applications. What is often not clear is how these same people can optimally view and interact with business data remotely!

KS: Who is the leader in small screen devices?

Paul: In the past this would have been a fairly straightforward question to answer in terms of general purpose mobile platforms, as the Palm OS® was the recognized leader in this field even just a few years ago. Now, however, Microsoft Mobile Windows®, formerly Pocket PC®, and most recently the Blackberry® have gained significant mind share. With the release of the Blackberry Pearl™ it is likely that their presence in the consumer market will also increase. The Symbian OS, while quite popular in Europe, is still just catching on here in North America.

KS:How do designers need to think differently when designing interfaces for small devices?

PH: My experience with designing for mobile interfaces (starting in 1999 with WAP applications) dramatically changed the way I design all my user interfaces, including those for desktop software and Web applications. With the reduction of screen real estate comes the need to be highly focused in all areas of the design process, from user needs research to interaction design to usability testing. You can’t just rely on putting a large amount of information on the screen in the hopes that something there will be what the user wants to see, as the small screen size will simply not let you. Having this very limited display space also means that knowing who your end users are and what they want to do is paramount.

While working on Infowave’s mobile email application Symmetry Pro (Pocket PC and Palm OS), I wanted to make sure that our customers, whether they may be in the back of a cab between appointments or waiting before a client meeting, would be able to access office data quickly and conveniently. As such, we needed to provide an application that was not only easy to use but required minimal user effort to use. A user’s attention is always in short supply with mobile small screen devices, so by minimizing user effort we could minimize the need for focused attention when performing tasks. In addition, it became apparent that by minimizing user effort we also often ended up with an application that was both easier to learn and faster to use.

Based on my small screen design experience, I started to collect and share some of the design lessons that I learnt along the way. Since there are only a few good books out there about small screen design (such as Designing from Both Sides of the Screen by Ellen Isaacs and Alan Walendowski), most of the lessons that I learnt involved working on real projects. This collection of experiences, which I call “Small Screens: Big Lessons” concerns topics such as the three keys to success (product relevance, interface clarity, and designer empathy) and flow (as defined by behavioral psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “flow” is a state of optimal experience that people reach when they are totally absorbed in an activity). Interested readers can view a recent presentation about flow and check out my extensive collection of small screen design links.

KS: Are there online tools that help designers see what their design will look like when its transferred from the design to the small screen device?

PH: One of my favorite tools for previewing how a Web-based application would look on a mobile device is the Small-Screen Rendering™ feature found in recent versions of the Opera™ desktop browser. Using this feature I can get a pretty good idea of how a Web page would be rendered on a small screen device by one of the most popular mobile browsers, Opera Mobile™.

KS: Where is the field of small screen design heading?

PH: I see small screen design utilizing more hardware interface elements, some examples of which are the Blackberry® thumbwheel and the Apple iPod scroll wheel. Additionally, I feel that greater usability will continue to become a predominant marketing factor in small screen devices, as their popularity drives more intensive competition. Just as users of business applications have become accustomed to and demanding of easier to use products, these same expectations will drive the design of new and improved small screen interfaces.

About Paul Hibbitts: Paul D. Hibbitts has specialized in user interface/interaction design for over 12 years, producing design solutions for small screen devices, desktop applications, and the Web. He served as User Experience Design Manager at Infowave Wireless Messaging, and has developed and taught user interface design courses at several Canadian universities and colleges. Most recently he has been developing techniques to better conduct user studies of a software product when its users are located at a distance. Through his consulting company, Hibbitts Design, he provides custom design and training services for a wide range of clients.

About Kevin Shoesmith: Kevin Shoesmith is an Information Architect & Experience Designer in Vancouver, BC. Learn more about Kevin and his business.