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Two Apps are better than one – but not when you’re all thumbs

thumb.jpgBy:  Konstantin Gress, IT Architecture Consultant, Hewlett Packard Company


Implementing one App twice sounds familiar. But this post is not a technical discussion such as building one native App for iOS and one for Android. This is a common mistake: selecting technology before evaluating requirements. Requirements for mobile Apps cover areas like business value, user scenarios, design patterns and personas. This article is about how and where the user uses an App.


For a user, an App is an intermediary. It is between the user and the accomplishment of a desired task in a certain context. The user’s context has a massive impact on the App and why one App should be implemented twice to satisfy expectations. Context-awareness is about including situational and environmental information about people, places and things (see Gartner definition). Different devices and technologies by themselves do not create contextual relevance. The obvious context “device type” is not a context by definition. The distinction between touch and the well-known keyboard/mouse combo is not the reason why you should implement one App twice. So when should you?


Context characteristics require two versions of one App

One of the context dimensions is “place”; where you use the App. Typically you include the current location and offer a location-based service. But for a good user experience there is another meaning of “place”: whether you use the device indoor or outdoor. When talking about devices, a smartphone is used anywhere; indoors but mostly outdoors – on the street, in the park, in the taxi/bus/car, in a café, and so on. This applies to tablets too, but you don’t carry them around as you do a smartphone. The true mobile anywhere/anytime device is a smartphone. The others, although part of the modern systems of engagement, are mostly used indoor.


A tablet is in-between, but also mostly used indoor. Couch surfing is the biggest tablet use case along with point of sales in a store. All other devices are even more stationary by design. You carry a laptop only from your desk to the meeting room. A desktop, kiosk or a Microsoft PixelSense desk will never be moved. Why does this matter? Outdoor usage has much higher requirements in terms of font, contrast, and design simplicity.


One major impact of devices is the size. The screen size itself has a major impact on how information is displayed. But the distinction of consume vs. create content is not relevant any more. You can do both on any device. The many experiments like “30 days only with my smartphone / iPad / whatever” demonstrate that you can do nearly everything you need to with one device. But the size results in another significant difference. A smartphone is mostly used with just one hand. Thumbs play a major role here. Most other devices are used with two hands. One finger or two hands indeed makes a big difference. Gestures and complex inputs are not possible; a thumb, however, can easily reach main areas on the screen without contortion.


The following graphic shows two main characteristics when designing an App: one hand vs. two hands and outdoor vs. (mostly) indoor usage.


 body graphic.png


The result is the need to implement two versions of an App based on the place of device usage:  outdoor-enabled (e.g. one hand optimized phone App) and indoor-enabled (e.g. two hands for a larger screen App). The payoff for implementing two versions of the same App based on these characteristics is that your users get the experience they want where they want it.


Sure, you can run smartphone Apps on tablets. But neither looks good nor can be used as expected on iOS or Android. Windows 8 has completely separate operating systems for exactly that reason. In turn, Apps designed for larger screens cannot shrink everything down to a 4-inch smartphone screen and be still clear and readable.


What to do

To manage this situation, incorporate the tough smartphones requirements into your design guidelines. Enhance your Design Guidelines to include requirements such as:

  • narrow and readable screen font
  • high contrast/color requirements that make the screen readable outdoors in the sun
  • button arrangement that is compatible for one-hand usage (thumb)


A recommended first step is to initially design for smartphones. This will help determine what the most important content is, thereby improving the user experience. Design the desktop last, since it has the most screen real-estate. When going hybrid with web technology, you can likewise use one version for tablets and PCs.


Two Apps for the best situation-aware user experiences

To summarize, both types of Apps have totally different design requirements. Incorporate this in your design guidelines and implement one App for each scenario, starting with a smartphone. This will enable your Apps to provide the best experiences for your users for any device in any location.


Your thumbs will thank you!


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About the author


Konstantin_Gress.jpgKonstantin Gress, IT Architecture Consultant, Hewlett Packard Company

Konstantin is an IT Architecture Consultant focusing on Enterprise Architecture, Enterprise Mobility as well as Application Transformation. He helps customers in applying innovative and disruptive information technology for business purposes.




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