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Last updated on 5/18/20

Design for the device

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There is not a universal experience across all devices. The experience is affected by the device itself, its dimensions, its purpose, and its functionalities. Not only must designers design for different devices, they must also increasingly consider how devices are linked to systems.

Wireframe for different devices

Wireframes can be used to sketch out all sorts of digital experiences including:

  • video games

  • computer software

  • websites

  • mobile versions of websites

  • apps (don't forget Apple vs. Android have different sizes across versions)

  • smart watches (some are square, others round)

  • smart refrigerators (yes, these are real!) 

  • car navigation

This isn't even an exhaustive list of the different devices you may find yourself designing for. There's a good chance that in the future you'll be designing for products that haven't even been invented yet!

For each device or platform, now think about the dimensions, shape, and context and how each aspect has an impact on the user experience. The size of the device limits the amount of information that can physically fit on the screen (app vs. watch), and the context changes things, too (in a car you don't want to distract the driver from the road). As phones have developed over time, physical buttons have disappeared. This changes both the tactile experience, but also the spatial experience; there is now more screen space for additional information, including a digital keyboard.

From physical buttons to touch screens, phones have changed over time.
Cell phones have evolved over time. Tactile buttons have disappeared in favor of touch screens (and less battery life 😂 ). 
There is variety within types of devices as well. Not all smart watches have the same shape
There is variety within types of devices as well. Not all smart watches have the same size or shape, which impacts the content layout, and how much can fit on the screen. 

Let's examine how websites work from a UX perspective. Computer screens are horizontal. They're usually at least 11" wide, and can be much larger as well. Website windows open horizontally, but can be adjusted by the users. Pages with a lot of content have a scroll function. Additionally, there is a set of navigation to help you move around the content of the website. You can fit A LOT of information onto the page of a website, and across the website itself.

Now, think of the mobile experience of when you look at the website on a smartphone. Some websites are "responsive" which means they adapt according to the device in which the content is viewed. For some sites the navigation is different, while some mobile versions of websites have less information than the main website. Some decisions are conscious decisions by designers and developers. Other times, it's the default mode. 

A device like a tablet was designed to have an integrated keyboard and be handheld. Although it wasn't conceived of in the initial design, users may use external keyboards, so it's important to consider how this may affect the experience.  The orientation of the device – vertical or horizontal – as well as how the content adapts it is something to consider.

App that only has a vertical version despite being viewed horizontally with a keyboard.
Whoops! 🤦🏽‍♀️ Whoever developed this app forgot that someone may use their tablet with an external keyboard. Perhaps some usability testing would have caught this!

Next consider a mobile app. This is often different from the mobile experience (opening a website in a browser on your phone) because it's designed with specific actions or activities in mind. Apps don't need to adapt across devices, however, they may need to be developed for different platforms (Apple and Android) in order to reach a wider audience.

Each device has an impact on design and layout. The size of buttons change. The amount of information is adapted. The experience changes. Observe these changes through your wireframes.

Integration across devices

We live in a connected world. Increasingly, devices need to be able to "talk to" each other in order to enhance the user experience.

Different devices are linked to enhance the experience.

A lot of new technology, products and devices have entered the marketplace in recent years. They offer new user experiences, and integrations with connected devices.  Let's examine a few examples.

A speaker with no screen and a few buttons? How does the user know what to do?
Would you know what to do if you were encountering this for the first time? Do you need instructions to figure it out, or would you be able to figure it out on your own?

Samsung mobile screen of what is visible to user when trying to play music.
It's in fact a speaker system that relies on a bluetooth connection. Now consider the experience when the devices are connected. This is the screen you see when determining what music to play on the box.

One of my favorite experiences is when my exercise wristband sends me alerts on my phone telling me I've walked my 10,000 steps for the day. I particularly love the "gamification" aspect where I receive badges that I don't even know I'm working towards (but there's an element of delight when they arrive). The feedback that my exercise app gives me makes me more competitive and pushes me to get more steps. Also, I have the option to "share" the badges, which is free PR for the brand 😉.

FitBit device and achievement badge.
FitBit device and achievement badge. (This is also an excellent example of copy to help make the product more engaging. It's a very clever message to help encourage users to keep getting steps.)

Similarly, a smart watch can "talk to" an app (where settings can be changed), or desktop platform. The person wearing the watch may feel a "haptic" (sensory) signal, while the app vibrates, and the desktop version has an audible "ding".  It's all part of a large system and designing for each part involves different design considerations.

Devices are integrating. Updates for a smart watch happen through a smart phone.
Change the settings for a smart watch on a smart phone. The size of buttons and the amount of "white space" [black in this case] changes for each device. 

Look for these integrations in the most basic sense (boxes!) as you document existing products through wireframes, keeping the devices in mind. How is messaging adapted across platforms? What are the conventions for alerts? How big are buttons? Small design decisions can make a big impact; see what you can uncover by sketching wireframes.

As a designer you do not need to be able to design for all kinds of devices and platforms, but you should have a deep understanding of how what you're designing for functions, how it used, and how devices may work together for a more cohesive and integrated system. You also may consider eventually specializing in one kind of device, such as mobile. Either way it's important to keep up with technology and look for new innovations. There's a good chance that in five years you will be designing for a device that doesn't exist today!

Mini challenge

Pick a digital product that has a website AND an app. You’re going to wireframe for different devices:

First, draw the homepage of the website as it appears on your computer.

Then open the website in the browser of a smartphone and sketch the mobile version to see how it has been adapted for the different format. Pay close attention to the navigation in the mobile version. If applicable, include sketches of when the navigation is condensed and when it is expanded.

Finally, make wireframes of the app of the same product. How does the design connect across devices?

If you want to take it a step further, sketch the smartwatch version.  If you don't have one, see if anyone you know has one you can see in action. Otherwise,  work from photos or even look at the screens that are displayed in the app store!

Wireframes capturing layouts on different devices.
This is one of my favorite apps. Here I explored the app, mobile version, website and smart watch screens. When a screen scrolls you can use a dotted line to show where the screen view breaks. Without looking at the title, can you guess which app it is? 

Example of certificate of achievement
Example of certificate of achievement