The Complexity of Mobile Software

Like most folks who work in technology, I get roped into helping non-technical friends and family out with their software woes. Though once in a while this would be a legitimately technical task (e.g., trying to remove spyware from my parents’ PCs), more often than not it’s really just teaching them how to use their fancy new machines. Surprisingly, not much as changed even as everybody has moved to buying and using mobile devices.

On the surface, this should not be the case. Mobile devices are more accessible to non-technical users, with the simplified operating systems to finger-friendly gestures to cheap hardware combining to add more users to computing than ever before. My two-year-old son knows how to unlock the iPad, load the Youtube app, and look for and play his favorite baby songs.

Breaking it down further though, the main revolution in mobile interfaces is in its much gentler learning curve. The swipe and scroll and tap mechanisms are intuitive even to babies, and they’re core to navigating the system. Apps that focus on singular tasks are also easy to understand, and iOS/Android/Windows Phone all come with great default apps to cover the basics for a new-to-computing user.

Things get a bit trickier beyond the basics, however. There are too many disparate accounts and services that a mobile device links to for its various apps1. Finding and installing apps remains a difficult hurdle for new users, who don’t really understand all the privacy and notification settings blasted onto them once at install and again at launch. Watching new tablet and phone users use their new devices, it’s clear that they have trouble just understanding how each app and service manages its photos collection, where the technical limitations and product delineations outrun their mental model of how photos ought to work.

I try to keep things simple, but I typically end up in the same place as I did with desktop computers: going through the process slowly, and having them write down every step, every esoteric modal prompt and navigational mystery, to complete their common tasks. For all the simplicity of finger gestures, they’re just input mechanisms to a very complex computing model underneath. Beyond the surface there is still a massive depth that new users have to overcome to make use of their mobile devices.

  1. Non-American apps, most notably Wechat and Line, made the tradeoff in putting everything in one app and capturing everything via one account and one destination.

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