“Chunking” Enables Better User Interfaces for Mobile Apps

Desktops applications designed for Personal Computers in a Microsoft-dominated era have become bloated in terms of their sheer size as well as their user interface. The availability of huge amounts of cheap memory, increasing CPU speed and large screen sizes encouraged application developers to create huge applications that aimed to provide a lot of information and functionality on one screen. The most successful example of applications in this model is Microsoft Office. This is large and powerful application. One can even argue that it is an industry on to itself. The design objective of Office is to enable everyone to do everything. Successive version of Office provided increasing functionality and the application and its user interface became more and more complex. The vast majority of Microsoft Office users only used a small fraction of its capability. That became the Microsoft model and many other vendors clamored to adopt the same model. It is not surprising that Microsoft Windows Mobile and its predecessor Microsoft Windows CE were based on a similar model to address the needs of the growing number of mobile smartphone users.

Then along came Apple with a totally different minimalist approach based on the notion that less is more. Apple’s success with the iPhone resulted directly from its success with the iPod and the unique, innovative user interface of the latter which evolved from a deep understanding of what users really needed. It was also based on a clear realization that smartphones are very different from desktops, and the users have different expectations when dealing with either type of device. It did not make sense to take applications developed for desktops and simply port them to smartphones. What Apple did was to re-think the entire user interface and adapt it to the characteristics of mobile users. One of the most significant differences is that mobile users work in short, discontinuous bursts and do not have the time to navigate complex user interfaces. The essence of the iPhone software and user interface, like its predecessor the iPod, is minimalism: provide users with small chunks of information and simple decisions which they can respond to quickly and move on. In essence it is the same approach as wizards used in many desktop applications, but wizards that are highly granular.

At Chatty Solutions we enable the development of such granular user interfaces for applications. We have our own name for it which we think our users will easily understand. We call the approach “chunking” or creating a user interface that is broken down into many small “bites” or chunks that are more suitable for smartphones. Any large and complex user interface can be chunked into small bites, and these bites are then presented to the user in a logical sequence governed by a flow chart and rules. Chatty Apps enable the rapid creation of such chunked user interfaces.

There are numerous design benefits of chunking for smartphones and creating minimalist interfaces:

  1. Chunking enables the user interface to fit the size of the smartphones. One can create one set of chunks for the iPhone, another for the Google NexusOne, a third for the Windows Mobile device, and a fourth for the iPad, and so on. Each set of chunks can be optimized for the size and functionality of each device.
  2. Chunking provides the user with a simple piece of information or task which can be done quickly and in the time that mobile users have to focus on it. A series of such small steps can result in the completion of a complex task.
  3. Chunks can downloaded quickly as they are smaller in size as compared to the entire user interface. Fast response directly correlates with better user experience.
  4. Data is saved as each chunk is completed by the user. Since mobile users are interrupted frequently, this means that they can stop in the middle of a task and restart later from where they left. They are not forced to complete the task in one session.
  5. Since the user can stop and restart in the middle of a task, it follows that the user can actually restart using a different device. A user can start a task in the iPhone and then finish it on his laptop at a time and place that is convenient to him.

In Chatty Apps we have perfected the art of chunking and making powerful, minimalist user interfaces for Web and SaaS applications. We not only allow the application developer to design the chunks or bites, but also provide the other tools needed for such an interface which include a flow editor to make the flow charts, a rules editor to define rules, and an actions editor to define server-side actions that enable smartphone user to interact with enterprise applications via SOA and Web Services.

Watch this video to see the concept and benefits of chunking in action.

Rashid Khan

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