If you read tech blogs ever (and let’s face it, they’re unavoidable), you’ve seen some of the talk about how mobile usage continues to skyrocket, and how many online businesses and platforms are investing heavily in mobile divisions.
In some parts of the globe like the African continent, many people haven’t ever used a desktop computer, but they are active Internet surfers using text-based browsers on mobile phones. In these nations, the growth of web platforms will depend on the ability to create a compelling mobile experience, not a desktop one.
Knowing that a mobile interface is an essential challenge for the survival and continued growth of WordPress, and even Matt Mullenweg acknowledges mobile is a crucial focus for Automattic and the WordPress.org community to focus on in 2013.
Isaac Keyet is the team lead for WordPress mobile, and the man responsible for making sure WordPress mobile is viable and stays ahead of the curve. Isaac has been with Automattic since the 2008 acquisition of IntenseDebate.com, which he co-founded in 2007.
The WordPress Mobile Team
The WordPress mobile team Isaac leads is responsible for developing mobile apps for the 6 mobile WordPress apps, which include iOS, Android, Blackberry, and Windows, with a heavy focus on iOS and Android, since the lionshare of mobile users are on those two platforms.
WordPress Mobile exists for a clear purpose: to keep up with what Isaac calls “The New and Fancy” in mobile. Whatever the latest tech is, and how WordPress can learn from and exploit for the sake of their users, are important trends for Isaac to keep tabs on.
I was in the Automattic offices recently, and spoke with Isaac for a bit before he went back to playing with the still very new iPhone 5, comparing the screen size and differences with an iPhone 4s. It was fascinating to see how differently he interacted with the device than the average user. Appreciating and noticing the design, applying it to WordPress mobile.
I asked him what he loved about the phone, and got to hear some insight from him about not only the future of mobile, but how he thinks an entire paradigm shift in UI design is on the horizon, and will change how we think of computers forever.
WordPress Translated to Various Interfaces
WordPress mobile is designed to make publishing on the go easy, and where appropriate, to closely mimic the functionality of WordPress on your desktop. Demographic data for who uses WordPress mobile is in its infancy, but I personally find it useful to be able to dash out a 300-word blog post from my phone and publish it while I’m riding the Muni.
Knowing that anyone can fix typos and even write HTML on a smartphone, and access the full WordPress Dashboard from a phone is an important feature of the mobile app. You can even write a draft post on your phone, and have the draft synced to finish later.
That’s on the publishing side. WordPress has also stayed current with mobile trends, starting with mobile conversion apps like UppSite, WP Touch, and other plugins that convert a “full” WordPress theme into a mobile one. However, more and more themes are built to be responsive, or fully mobile, right out of the box. TwentyTwelve is one of the chief examples.
The Mobile Publishing Experience
If you haven’t logged into the WordPress mobile app to publish a post or look at the dashboard, you should download the app and explore. The iOS app is a really cool cross-section between a responsive website and an app designed for mobile.
The “new post” screen is similar to the minimalist screen you can use to write, and if you want to flip over to the HTML editor, you can. The code does begin to get smushed together. The dashboard is not designed as a mobile app yet, and instead is responsive, removing text labels leaving only the icons to indicate where the menu items are.
Adding Functionality to a Limited Interface
Isaac explained to me how screen size is the paramount constraint when designing for mobile. Basically, the interface of a desktop computer is comprised of the objects on the screen that you can experience visually and interact with, as well as the keyboard and mouse or trackpad.
However, the interface of a smartphone eschews the keyboard and mouse, and also drastically reduces the screen real estate. In spite of these constraints, we still expect to be able to click and interact with our phones the way we do with our laptops, which presents an interesting challenge to design the same level of functionality under greater constraints.
In the same way that a 6-lane highway can serve more traffic than a 4-lane one, a larger screen will simply provide more space for a designer to arrange and lay out the objects a user will interact with, so the task of designing robust functionality for a very small screen is a rather ambitious one. Particularly when screen sizes vary from device to device.
Designing for Screen Size
The change in size from MacBook Pro to iPad, or iPhone 5 to iPad is not one-to-one, however, and grows in complexity when you cross from iOS to Android to Blackberry. Isaac’s team grapples with how to bring the WP-Dashboard, with its rich functionality, from your desktop browser, to your mobile device, and still preserve an experience that is pleasant enough that you actually want to come back and use it again.
To accomplish this, the mobile team asks, what functionality or abilities are actually important for a user to have, for this screen, in this context, for this device. Then, they consider how to arrange things intuitively so users just “get it.”
They ask questions like: Are the mobile apps supposed to mimic everything in the WP-Admin or not? Can you access the full media library in your install? Not yet. Can you edit your functions.php file from your iPhone? Should you? Does everything need to be accessed from the app itself? In a perfect world, it would be.
The Future of “Mobile Design”
Isaac told me that he thinks designers go in the wrong direction when they think about design in terms of “mobile first,” or “desktop first.” He points out, “there is only one web, and all devices are connected to it.”
Designing from one perspective or the other often means two (or more) versions of a website, one a bastardized version of the other, i.e., a text-only mobile website that retains none of the original design, and often has a fraction of the content of their sister sites.
Isaac’s belief is that the type of device you’re delivering WordPress to should not matter. Every viewer should see the same site, and be able to achieve the same publishing and viewing goals, no matter the device. If the designer assumes that one device will NOT be used for a certain task, like an iPhone would *never* be used to write a 1500 word post, then the designer will make decisions to constrain the user inappropriately.
A very good example of designing for multiple devices is when Apple began cross-pollinating iOS6 with Mountain Lion and ultimately strengthened both operating systems by bringing aspects of mobile to the desktop, and vice versa.
The app store from the iPhone suddenly showed up on the desktop, and operated on the desktop in a way that was remarkably similar to the mobile experience. A user from one device could switch back and forth without having to re-learn how to download something from the app store. Suddenly, mobile design and desktop design began to merge back together again.
A Return to Browser-Centric Design
When I asked Isaac’s predictions about the future of mobile design he told me that the app-based approach to mobile UI was a temporary detour, and that we’re going to see mobile apps disappear and return to a browser-based system.
As proof, look closely when log in to your WordPress app and you’ll notice that WordPress Dashboard is available in a semi-responsive form. Some zooming and scrolling is required, but it works nearly as intuitively as the parts of the app designed for mobile, and also very closely resembles the desktop design, particularly the design of 3.5.
So as we see whether Isaac’s near-term prediction come true, and mobile apps return back to the browser, what’s his prediction for the long term? How will design evolve in the next decade, for example?
Can you imagine the first WordPress App for Google Glass?
That’s exactly where Isaac thinks design is headed, and faster than we might imagine.
“Personally, I’m a fan of augmented reality. Soon, we’ll be thinking in terms of designing for the entire visual field rather than for a device with a tiny screen.”
Democratizing Publishing Before Your Very Eyes
Imagine the democratization of publishing happening in your field of vision. Rather than publishing a blog post on the bus from your Android, you’re writing the post as you’re walking down the street, never taking your eyes off of what was in front of you. Imagine taking a “screenshot” of your field of vision, cropping a piece of the action in your field of vision, and live blogging your experience of riding a roller coaster as it happens.
Imagine doing all that on your WordPress-powered blog, directly from your augmented reality glasses. Your website is limited only by your imagination, and the tools to code and publish are laid out, literally right in front of your eyes.
It’s all a bit poetic, don’t you think?
Image Credit: Sheri Bigelow