Serving the digital omnivores

I just discovered that I’m a “digital omnivore,” at least according to ComScore, who use this term to refer to people who are “able to engage seamlessly with a steady stream of digital content across different platforms.” In my case, it was the Kindle Fire that made me really omnivorous; since I bought it, I’ve been more interested in finding apps and services that work across all of the screens I use every day: phone, tablet, and desktop computer.

As you might expect, this requirement for the same services everywhere creates huge challenges for designers and developers. How exactly do you deliver the same features, or  perhaps the “best” features, in a consistent way on 4″, 7″ and 19″ screens?

One option is to make assumptions about what your customers are most likely to do on a phone, for example, and deliver an app or web site that only supports those features. This is the approach that LinkedIn has taken; their mobile app offers only a subset of what the full web site supports, and emphasizes the social networking parts of the service as opposed to job searching and profile management (both of which are very important to me right now).

As Stephanie Rieger writes, however, these assumptions can get you into trouble. As your customers get more “omnivorous,” they will want to do anything, anywhere, on whatever device they have at hand, even things that seem extremely difficult (Stephanie’s example: filling out a life insurance form).

Fortunately, smart designers are figuring our interesting ways to satisfy the omnivores and manage the constraints of different screens. I saw an excellent example of this earlier in the week, when I updated the Hipmunk app for Android. I’ve used Hipmunk for a while through Google Chrome on the desktop to find flights. It has perhaps the best user interface I’ve seen for this task, plus a friendly dancing chipmunk.

For the mobile app, they have reproduced the essence of the flight search and selection interface, and added a really clever feature; an option to complete the purchase of your flight on a bigger screen (i.e. a computer) using a pass phrase to retain your results.

I like this solution; it still gives you the option of typing in your credit card number on a tiny screen, but provides a reasonably elegant way to move to a larger screen to complete the task without losing the data you already collected.

I’m working on an analysis tool that I hope will make it easier to develop mobile solutions, like the one from Hipmunk, that comprehend the multi-screen landscape. I call it the “Mobile Space-Time Continuum;” it’s a graphical map of screen size (space) and task time that is intended as a guide for planning how to deliver features in a way that supports various combinations of screens and attention spans.

Please let me know if you want more info on this. It’s still a work in progress, which I’m evaluating by applying it to a couple of projects I’m working on. I also hope to apply it in my future work, wherever that may be.

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