No more ‘Mobile’

In this industry, we speak a specialist language; some terms and phrases are firmly embedded in our craft, whilst new ones emerge daily.

It’s important that we understand each other, collaboration is common, whether its designer to developer, client to supplier or agency to freelancer.

One term that really confuses me each time it’s used is ‘Mobile’.

What do we mean by Mobile?

Sounds obvious right! But the thing is, you can’t be 100% certain what someone means when they say ‘Mobile’.

Are they talking about device type, small screens, low bandwidth, device capabilities or people in the park?

Do we mean context?

Is the term ‘Mobile’ solely reserved for a user’s context - people accessing the web whilst they’re on the move?

The pioneers of ‘Mobile’ had context in mind when they set out to deliver a tailored experience for mobile users - designing products for specific scenarios.

User: “Whilst I’m waiting for my train I’ll look at that engagement ring I saw on Tiffany and Co, last night.”

Website: “Ah, you’re on a mobile phone, you must want a map and directions to our nearest store.”

This approach changed when mobile web browsing increased and we realised that users wanted the ‘normal internet’.

Luke Wroblewski sums it up nicely…

What was formerly becoming the “mobile context” is becoming increasingly difficult to define. Context can’t predict the way a user is going to use the site. Mind reading is no way to base fundamental content decisions.

Do we mean Mobile web?

The term ‘Mobile Web’ emerged when there was a need to differentiate between the web on a Mobile device and the web on a Desktop device. We referred to this as ‘The Gap’, and approached each side differently.

Then we learnt that users expect to see the same content regardless of what device they accessed it on. Since realising our mistakes with context-based design decisions, we’ve put features and content back in to products.

The gap has now closed. Some users probably never even had an awareness of the gap and when we (the designers) look back and reflect on this era, I’m sure we’ll conclude that it was us that opened the gap in the first place.

Do we mean Mobile Phone?

More often than not, when people say ‘Mobile’, they mean Mobile Phone - wrapped-up as:

But these attributes aren’t exclusive to mobile phones.

What about tablets? They have small screens, they’re handheld and they’re touch enabled. What about tablets with keyboards, or phones with keyboards for that matter?

We’re comfortable using the word ‘Mobile’ to mean mobile phone, but if you mean mobile phone say it. Better still, say smartphone, cellphone or iPhone if that’s what you really mean.

Do we mean small screen?

A lot of people use ‘Mobile’ when referring to small screens.

“Have you done the mobile stylesheet?”

“Let’s use a ‘Mobile first’ approach” translates to “start with 320px wireframes” or “use min-width media queries”.

‘Mobile’ isn’t synonymous with small screens anymore.

Smartphones are getting bigger. Tablets are getting smaller.

Some smartphones have a resolution of 800px, some tablets upto 1280px. These are ‘Mobile devices’, yet most people would say a 1280px screen sits firmly in the desktop camp.

Drawing the line between device groups has become complicated, as Jason Grigsby explains in his article on the Cloud 4 blog.

There’s also the issue that ‘small’ is a relative term. When does a screen become ‘small’? If Apple release the iWatch do we call these screens ‘Super-Small’?

What about Daddy, Mummy, and Baby screens? It sounds ridiculous but it’s more clear than ‘Mobile’.

We should stop using the term.

Mobile was a useful term when it was new and niche. You could use it in a conversation to narrow things down. Now it’s so broad it’s fast becoming meaningless.

Mobile Users will become ‘Users’, Mobile Web will become ‘Web’, and they’ll be so many devices in so many sizes that deciding what to ring fence as a Mobile device will become impossible. I’d argue that it already is.

Not convinced? Well this news popped up today, ‘Google just blasted away the wall between Desktop and Mobile Ads’, which is a big indicator to change.

New words please.

It’s important that we understand each other, crossed wires can lead to project delays and even financial penalties.

Mobile has become a buzzword, we should bite our tongue the next time it spills out of our mouths.

Let’s try using other words to narrow down what we actually mean.

When we mean context
- Less engaged users
- Location based tasks

When we mean device type
- smartphones
- handheld devices
- portable devices

When we mean screen size
- Small screens
- Low res screens
- Narrow viewports

These are off the top of my head - what are your suggestions?

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