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Why Platform should influence, NOT dictate mobile product design

When a company chooses to engage its customers through mobile channels, the dilemma of designing the application to be consistent with existing products or to conform to the design patterns of a platform will inevitably come up.

Companies can spend millions of dollars refining and perfecting their product’s brand through consumer-facing user interfaces and experiences. After this enormous investment, they are faced with platform developers such as Apple, Microsoft, BlackBerry, and Google, who have spent even more inventing and refining their mobile platforms and user-behavior patterns.

This prompts the question:

Should we build around the platform user interfaces and experiences, or should we force the platform to behave according to the product interface and experience?

When Platform Comes First

Designing an app around a platform’s style guide or recommended behavior means that there’s an easier learning curve and fewer barriers to entry for a user who is comfortable with the platform’s interface and nuances. If the app behaves in the way that’s best suited for the device, then it’s easier for the user to pick up and start using your product immediately.

Generally, apps are also rewarded for following a platform’s style guide with increased attention on the platform’s store and in some cases, a speedier app submission process. Ideally, you’ll be able to place the most essential features where platform users would look first.

When Product Comes First

Despite the benefits of platform consistency, these style guides can severely restrict a product’s look and feel if followed to the letter. Choosing to follow the style guides implies sticking to rigid platform guidelines that may not be suited for your brand. Today’s users embrace intelligent and thoughtful design and are drawn to creative interfaces.

Developing an interface that is so well constructed that it becomes a part of the brand is a goal that all brands should strive for.

Achieving this level of product excellence will result in a user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) that transcends platforms such that customers would come to expect the same design across platforms. Furthermore, the benefits of platform consistency are beginning to matter less as people who have been using mobile devices for multiple years begin to mature and instinctively know what a mobile device is capable of.

Building an app focused on the product means that layouts and graphics will be consistent throughout all variants of the product, regardless of platform rules; it will place the product design and brand image above all else.

Cineplex is an example of this. Cineplex places product and brand consistently first. Users are met with a consistent UI/UX throughout the app while taking advantage of subtle platform features. For example, one of the key navigation features of Android-based devices is the presence of a hardware back button. On other platforms these back buttons were programmatically added to the interfaces to aid in app navigation; on Android these buttons were simply designed out of the app.

Another great example of product and brand taking precedence over platform is the Webby Award-winning Shutterstock iOS app. This app does a fantastic job of offering an interface and experience that sets their product and brand apart from their competitors. One example of this is the app’s navigation wheel. This creative and innovative approach to navigation really separates the app from others that rely on the standard navigation bar.

Walking the Fine Line…

In my opinion, the emphasis of design must be rooted in the product and brand. As a rule of thumb, I suggest that 80% of the design should be based on the product, and 20% should follow the platform’s style guide. Nonetheless, both types of methods need to be fused together in order to deliver an excellent UI and UX.

It’s important to join the strengths of each approach to design. Today’s consumers are becoming more and more likely to engage with your product on multiple platforms. Neilsen reports that users have an average of 41 apps on their smartphones. Make yours stand out with an excellent design that highlights your product and represents your brand well, and leave enough room to respect the strengths of the platform you’re deploying to.

Connect with Matt on Twitter.

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