Question About Apple Products and Mobile Assumptions

This week’s question comes from Peter Stone-Thompson.

Is the high usage of Apple products bad for our industry by encouraging assumptions about mobile & tablet devices?

Sherpa Aaron Gustafson answers:

I think there is a tendency in our industry to focus on the latest and greatest technology, which many would say includes Apple products. That should come as no surprise though. Most web professionals are “early adopters” because:

  • We need to keep on top of the latest trends to remain employable.
  • We tend to earn more income on average and can afford to take risks on new technology.
  • Most (if not all) of us work on the web because we love technology and have a genuine desire to learn all we can about every new gadget on the market.

Perspective Is Everything

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with this, but it does affect our world-view when it comes to web design. Our understanding of how people experience the web is often colored by how we experience the web. After all, we are users too (and often the beta testers for new products and start-ups).

It’s important we remember that our experience of the web is not everyone’s experience. This is the fundamental tension between graceful degradation’s “build for the latest and greatest technology” and progressive enhancement’s “create a layered experience that adapts to the capabilities and needs of the consumer.” And it is a tension that is emerging in the world of mobile.

Limited Smartphone Focus

Though I would never make a blanket statement that all web professionals share a myopic view of mobile, it seems many companies (both large and small) tend to view mobile as just iOS and Android. This likely stems from the reality that most of the staff (or at least their superiors … you know the ones who keep them employed) use one of these devices. Folks who are a little more informed may also consider Blackberry and Windows Phone in the equation, but in my experience that tends to be a negligible percentage.

It also seems few companies extend their testing matrix beyond smartphones, despite the fact that smartphones only account for about 20% of mobile web access worldwide. Perspective is everything, and our industry’s perspective is pretty skewed towards smartphones.

Limited OS Focus

It’s much the same in the tablet world. Most web professionals build for iOS and Android and, in most cases, are only considering the large form-factor of the original iPad and Galaxy Tab 10.1. I’ve only seen a handful of companies testing on 7” tablets, which is a shame because that too is a significant portion of the market (no doubt driven by the affordability of the Kindle Fire and Nexus 7).

Of course building great experiences with iOS and Android in mind is not a bad thing. Both are solid OSes boasting good overall UX and very capable WebKit-based browsers. This ubiquity, though, doesn’t mean web professionals only need to test in one mobile WebKit browser. The truth is not all mobile WebKit browsers are created equal.

Mobile Testing

Which brings me to my last observation in this area (at least for now): testing on mobile is hard.

Many of us struggle to come up with realistic QA strategies to cope with the myriad device options out there, but the testing itself is not the problem. The problem is having devices to test on. Devices aren’t cheap and, depending on the size of your company and/or the budgeting hoops you need to jump through, it can be really tough to gather a good cross-section of devices to test on. 

Because of this, many of us choose the emulator route. Emulators can be great for testing design and functionality, but it’s important to understand their limitations:

  • They don’t give you an accurate sense of what it is like to actually interact with a web page on the real device.
  • They rarely approximate the speed of the processor on the real device.
  • They are no help when it comes to seeing how the device deals with touch, because most must be manipulated using a mouse, which is a far more accurate pointer than your finger.

Another option is to build or join a local open device lab. Many companies with device labs of their own are starting to open them up to other local developers. Notable examples include ClearLeft and CloudFour.

By pooling resources, access to devices becomes far less expensive. There is even a resource that will help you find or organize an open device lab in your area, and help you reach out to device manufacturers in order to drive the cost of new devices as low as possible: Lab Up.

Bottom line: I do think our industry’s fondness for the latest and greatest gadgets (Apple products included) skews our perspective. As long as we are aware of it, though we can work to correct it.