Mobile Planet by Luke Wroblewski
It’s the afternoon of day two of An Event Apart in Seattle. The mighty green one, Luke Wroblewski, is here to deliver a talk called Mobile Planet:
With 3.5 billion active smartphones on Earth, we’re now faced with the challenges and opportunities of designing planet-scale software. Through a data-informed, big-picture walk-through of our mobile planet, Luke will dig into how people use computing devices today and how the design of our products needs to adapt to this reality. He’ll cover key issues like app on-boarding and performance in enough detail to give you clear ways to improve first time and subsequent use of your mobile apps and sites.
Luke has been working on figuring out hardware and software for years. He looks at a lot of data. The more we understand how people use technology in their daily lives, the better we can design for them.
Earth is the third planet from the sun, and the only place that we know of that harbours life. Our population is at about 7.7 billion people. There are about 5.6 billion people in our addressable market (people over 14 years old). There are already 5 billion mobile subscribers in there. That’s interesting, but which of those devices are modern smartphones? There are about 3.6 billion active smartphones. Compare that to about 1.3 billion active personal computers—the vast majority of them Windows devices (about 1.2 billion). Over the next four or five years, we’ll have about 5 billion smartphone users and a global population of 8 billion.
The point is that we can reach a significant proportion of the human species. The diversity of our species makes it challenging to design for everyone.
Let’s take a closer look at these 3.6 billion active smartphones. About 25% of them are iOS devices. 75% of them are Android. Bear in mind that these are active devices—what’s actually being used. That’s different to shipping devices. Apple ships 15% of smartphone, and Android ships 85%, but the iOS devices tend to have longer lifespans (around 2 years for Android; around 4 years for iOS).
The UK has 82% smartphone penetration. Compare that to India, where it’s 27%. There’s room to grow.
Everywhere you look, the growth of these devices has led to a shift of digital things overtaking analogue. Shopping, advertising, music, you name it. We’ve seen enough of these transitions happen, that we should be prepared for it.
So there are lots of smartphones, with basically two major operating systems. But how are people using these devices?
In the US, adults spend about 2.3 - 3.5 hours per day on their mobile devices. Let’s call it an even 3 hours. That’s a lot of time. Where does that time come from? Interestingly, as time spent on mobile devices has surged, time spent on other media has only slowly declined. So mobile is additive. It’s contributing to more time spent on the internet rather than taking it away from existing screen time.
Next question: what the hell are people doing during those 3 hours per day on smartphones? Native apps get about 169 minutes of time compared to only 11 minutes on the web. There are about 2 million native apps on Apple, and about 2 million native apps on Android. But although people have a lot of apps, people only use about half them. Remember folks, downloads does not equal usage. Most apps don’t make it past the first opening. Only a third make it past being opened ten times.
Because people spend so much time and energy on these apps, and given the abysmal abandonment, people start freaking out about “engagement.” So what do they reach for? Push notifications. Either that or onboarding.
Push notifications. The worst. I mean, they do succeed in getting your attention: push notifications do increase the amount of time spent in your app …but there’s a human cost.
Let’s look at app onboarding. Take Flickr, for example. It walks through some of the features and benefits of the service. But it doesn’t actually help you much. It’s a list of marketing slogans. So why do people reach for onboarding?
If you just drop people into an interface and talk to them about it, they’ll say things like “I don’t know what to do. I’m lost.” The Intuit team heard this from people using their app. They reached for onboarding to solve the problem. They created guided tutorials and intro tours. Turns out that nobody would read these screens and everyone would try to skip them. What the hell, people!?
So they try in-context help, with a cute cartoon robot to explain the features. Or they scribble Einstein’s equations over the interface. Test this. People respond with “Please make it stop.”
They decided to try something simpler: one tip that calls out a good first step. That worked.
Vevo used to have an intro tour. Most people were swiping through without reading. They experimented with not running the tour. They got a 10% increase in log-ins and a 6% increase in sign-ups.
Vevo got rid of their tour, but left the sign-in/registration step. You can’t remove that, right?
Well, Hotel Tonight experimented with not doing registration. Signing up was confusing people—it’s Hotels Tonight, not Accounts Today. When they got rid of accounts, they saw a 15% increase in conversions.
Google Photos used to have an in-depth on-boarding experience. First they got rid of the animation. Then the start-up screen. Then the animated tutorial. Each time they removed something, conversion went up. All that was left from the original onboarding was a half screen with one option to turn on auto-backup.
Get to your product value as fast as possible. Of course that requires you to know what your core value is. And that’s not easy to figure out.
Google Maps went through a similar reduction, removing intro screens and explanations. Now they just drop you into the map.
It’s not “get rid of everything”. It’s “get rid of everything that gets in the way of the core user action.”
Going back to the Intuit example, that’s exactly what they did in the end. That one initial tip was for the core action.
But it’s worth discussing how to present this kind of thing. If you have to overlay a tooltip for an important UI feature, maybe that UI feature should have a clearer affordance. People treat overlays as annoyances. People ignore or dismiss overlays when they’re focused on a task. It’s like an instinct to get rid of them. So if you put something useful or valuable there, it’s gone.
The core part of your application should feel like the core part of your application. It’s tough because stakeholders want to make things “pop.” We throw contrast, colour, and animation at things. But when something sticks out from the UI, people ignore it. Integrate the core action into the product UI. When elements feel foreign to a product UI, they are at best ignored, or at worst dismissed.
These is why cohesive design matters. It’s not about consistency. It’s about feeling integrated. In many cases, consistency can be counter-productive.
Some principles for successful onboarding:
- Get to to the product value as fast as possible. Grubhub needs your address. Pinterest needs your interests.
- Get rid of everything that doesn’t lead to that product value. Ruthlessly edit. Remove all friction that distracts the user from experiencing product value.
- Don’t be afraid to educate contextually. But do so with integrated UI.
Luke talked a lot about what’s happening in mobile apps, and mentioned that the mobile web only gets 11 minutes to the native’s 169. But let’s dive into this, because people sometimes think that a “mobile strategy” comes down to picking between these two. 50% of those 169 minutes are spent in your most used app (Facebook). 78% of the time is spent in the top 5 apps. Now the mobile web doesn’t look so bad. It turns out you can get people to a mobile web experience much, much faster than to a native one. The audience size is much, much, much higher on the web (although people will do more in a dedicated native app). So strategically both are useful—the web can attract people to native.
Back to our planet, and those 3 hours of usage on smartphones every day. People unlock their phones around 80 times a day. The average time people sleep is about 8 hours. So for every 12 waking minutes, you’re unlocking your phone. Given this frequency, it’s unsurprising that most sessions are very short—most under 30 seconds.
Given that, if things are slow, you’re going to really, really, really hate it. Waiting for slow pages to load is what really pisses people off.
The cognitive load and stress of waiting for slow pages is worse than waiting in line in a store, or watching a horror movie. That’s an industry that’s all about stressing people out by design! But experiencing mobile delays is more stressful! Probably because people aren’t watching horror movies every 12 minutes.
Because mobile delays are such a big deal, many mobile apps reach for loading spinners. But Luke saw that adding a spinner to his product increased complaints of slow loading times. Of course! The spinner is explicitly telling people, “Hey, we’re slow.”
So the switched to skeleton screens. This should feel like something is always happening. Focus on the progress, not the progress indicator. Occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time.
A lot of people have implemented skeleton screen, but without the progressive loading. Swapping out a skeleton screen to a completely different UI all at once doesn’t help. The skeleton screens should represent the real content.
This is a lot of work; figuring how to prioritise what to load first. Luke isn’t talking about the techical side here, but the user’s experience. Investing in getting this right makes a lot of sense.
Let’s look a little closer at this number: people interacting with their phones 80 times a day. The average user touches the device 2,617 times a day. A power user touches the device over 5,000 times a day. Most touches are within one app.
90% of the touches are dealing with one thumb. Young people tend to operate with one hand. For older people, it’s more like 60%.
This is why your interface targets need to work for the thumb.
On phones, 90% of the time you’re dealing with portrait mode. Things at the top of the screen on larger devices are hard to reach. Core actions gravitate to the bottom of the screen.
Opera Touch is a new browser designed specifically for one-handed use. The Palm Pre’s WebOS was also about one-hand usage. Now that’s how iOS and Android work: swiping up from the bottom.
So mobile usage is:
- In portrait mode on large screens.
- Design accordingly.
What’s next? What do we need to be aware of so we don’t get caught with our pants down?
We can use the product lifecycle chart to figure this out. There’s an emergent phase, then a growth phase, then consolidation in a mature market, and then that gets disrupted and becomes a declining market.
- Mobile devices—hand computers—are in a mature consolidated market.
- Desktop and laptop computers are in a declining market.
- Wrist computers and voice computers are in a growth market.
Small screens get used more frequently, but for shorter periods of time than large screens. Wrist and voice computers are figuring out what their core offerings are.
In the emergent category, it’s all about exploration. We have no idea how things will turn out. We just don’t know. But we do know that we are now designing for lots and lots of different devices.
For today, though, focusing on mobile is still a pretty good idea.
- It’s a mobile planet.
- Understanding real world usage helps you design.
- Prep for what’s next