Application too complex to design for mobile. Try harder.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard someone say over the last 10+ years in software ‘that would never work for our industry’.


What they really mean is I could never make that work for our industry, another to add to the list of self-fulfilling prophecies. After hearing this enough times you swear you’ll never say it yourself but late last year I found myself saying exactly that.


I had the good fortune to meet with an amazing UX designer (and overall product guy, Andrew Chen) who helped me in a number of areas which I blogged about previously which you can read here. He also suggested I look at mobile, work out what our mobile strategy should be and understand how our proposition would work on a mobile.

At the time I debated the relevance of mobile to the use case and even now I believe we will get a lot of our users from the web/tablet optimised experience we provide today.


In early December we launched our beta to the public and went from a handful of users to hundreds of users in the following weeks. When people asked me before the launch what I expected I replied


“I see one of four outcomes..

1) worst – people not only dont like it, but can’t see why we’re even solving the problem

4) best – people absolutely love it and it goes bananas

or the two options in between being

2) – people can see what we’re trying to do but we have improvements to make the product amazing

3) people like the product and we start seeing traction

… and that it will likely be somewhere between 2) and 3)


This has been the case and we identified the overall UX as being at the core of what would shift us towards 4)


So, I revisited the ideas & advice of ‘design for mobile’ .. with our current beta as a starting point. Another designer who I know, is kind enough to give me a coffee catch up about once a month. He had a look, and while not providing a design, provided me with 3 simple functional objectives to achieve with any design


1) How to get the user to complete the individual workflow on the current interaction

2) How to communicate how the interaction fits into the overall workflow

3) The single amazing outcome that your user gets from using the tool

We spoke about possible techniques to achieve this but the main breakthrough in how to design for mobile, came in reducing the scope of the objectives. The more specific and focused they were the easier it became to reduce the design to meet these objectives.


I wont ruin what is set to be a great surprise in the future when we launch v2 of our software but the learnings from the last month are already clearly evident.


1. Get Users – it took for us to see users, enough of them, actually using the tool to confirm some of our beliefs and open our mind to others. In our case we went from 10s of users in our prototype & showcase to 100s of users, this was enough.

2. Define one critical user outcome that you can safely say will be important to most if not all of your users and ask at every step ‘does this interaction or screen or even field help achieve that outcome’ .. if not, question the need for it to exist yet. In our case, being an application to make better financial decisions we reduced it to ‘will I run out of money’. Simple, binary.

3. Question if the things (interactions, screens, fields etc) that you treat differently are in fact the same. This will help you work out  how to simplify your design in having more standardized approaches to what are in essence the same problem/challenge/step. In our case we realised that your current data and future data are not really that different (that will make more sense when we launch v2)

4. Find the quick user wins. By this I mean work out that the final objective is like the war and the steps to get there are the battles. Work out how to get users a win in every battle. These wins might seem petty or insignificant. They might also be colorful and fun if you let them, get creative.  It will probably mean breaking your application into smaller steps that the user can the iterate through as opposed to the ‘efficiency’ of having it all on one page

5. Constrain yourself. There is a saying that a garage is always as full as it is big. I set a constraint of not having more than 8 fields on a screen total and went to bed every night thinking about how to work that out. It was 1am. then 2am.. then 3am .. one evening when I worked it out… I then spent the next 2 days hitting up our UX/UI adviser to share the good news about having cracked the design… he fortunately concurred.


So, for those designing software, especially that which might typically be considered as too complex for mobile I’d say remember this.


Complexity is entropy’s half-brother. That which you use as the baseline for your design is probably trying to do a lot, too much, none of it well. If you can reduce the objectives of your software to one primary over-riding outcome that the vast majority of users will value, you have the basis for your mobile inspired design.


If you want to know more about our experiences or the process we went through here feel free to get in touch

(originally published at






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