Designing for Small Screens

For UI designers with a taste for cool colours and unfeasibly small fingers

Book review I can remember when "real programmers" didn't worry to much about the user interface (UI) to their systems: if all the fields in the database were on a screen somewhere, the users could count themselves lucky and were expected to be grateful! This attitude is changing - and is just unworkable when designing for the small screens and advanced interaction elements in mobile phones and the like.

Which makes Designing for Small Screens a useful read for developers, and not only those in the mobile phone game - although it is about design issues, not application coding.

It credits a design team called Studio 7.5 rather than specific authors (although the team members are listed on the back cover) and the book itself is a bit of a design exercise – it is very colourful and each chapter is split into three colour-coded sections devoted to theory; practice; and reference information. This makes it easy to dip into and will probably suit students very well; I liked the design, but I suspect that some hard-boiled programmers may find it a bit arty.

Subjects covered range from the history of miniaturisation, through practical interaction with small devices to the mental models and metaphors behind small-screen UIs. There are chapters on text and icons in small screens; and on the use of layout and colour. It covers the implications of choosing different interaction technologies (click wheels, jog dials etc) well.

I particularly liked this book's plentiful illustrations using real devices, such as the iPod and including some esoteric Japanese devices, which you can mostly buy and (try to) use today (it's possible that this will date, but I think it will remain useful); and the last chapter, dealing with ways of exploring and prototyping designs on a "paper computer".

I guess working professionals will have simulations of the devices they're targeting to work with; but the simulation may channel designs down a conventional route. As the book puts it: "The fact that this takes place [on the paper simulation] outside the digital arena encourages practitioners from a variety of disciplines to ignore the potential technical limitations and instead focus on a solution that bests suits the content."

This book would also be a worthwhile general read for designers of conventional PC systems, although many of the advanced interaction tools won't be available to them, of course. True, with plenty of CPU power and screen real estate, it is hard to design an absolutely unworkable large-screen PC interface (although, God knows, people try), while mobile phones are already appearing which are probably too small for adult fingers to operate reliably (which may be a selling point, of course). However, even a PC UI which is designed without reference to the foibles of the wetware sensory interface may make data entry slower and encourage human error – which then limits the practical results even from excellently coded systems. ®

Designing for Small Screens

Verdict: A useful book concentrating on the important “user experience” aspects of design for small screen devices – certainly good for students and of some interest outside of the world of small-screen design too. However, some programmers may not like the book design – although others will probably find it “cool”.

Author: studio 7.5 (Prof Carola Zwick, Prof Burkhard Schmitz, Kerstin Kühl)

Publisher: ava

ISBN: 2940373078

Media: Book

List Price: £17.95

Reg price: £14.36

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