When we design applications to be used in the new world of cross channeling, we need to take into account a lot of different factors. Not only do we need to address in which environment the app is used. Desktop applications are often used in a user focused mode, while mobile applications are used in motion, in short time frames and possibly performing tasks in a non consistent mode.

Looking inside out its easy to think that a desktop app and a mobile app should be consistent in behavior and design. The more Application centric the design is, the easier it is for the user to find their way and perform actions.

Looking outside in, the opposite is true. Using a desktop app on Apple, Windows and Linux computers should follow conventions on each OS. The same goes for mobile devices where an Android app is different from an iOS app etc.

I've always lectured the latter method that following OS convention is always right (games excluded). Like this comment from yesterday:

"... in my book Unified Design is App centric and breaks convention on devices. Instead User centered design is the way to go. Users know their devices, but not your app. That's why Snapchat is so hard to learn."

Posting it got me thinking. What if this is wrong? Could application consistency be preferred over OS convention?

  • "Desktop applications are often used in a user focused mode, while mobile applications are used in motion, in short time frames and possibly performing tasks in a non consistent mode." Are you sure about that? Literature on task interruption in HCI shows information workers focussing for 1-2 minutes and switching continuously between multiple apps on desktop (Gloria Mark and Victor M Gonzalez would be good starting points). – Steve DL Dec 29 '15 at 21:55
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Like you'd I'd generally lean toward OS-consistency. But here are a few questions that can help illuminate the tradeoffs.

  1. How often do you expect users to access the app from more than one platform? If you find that you have distinct audiences using the mobile vs. desktop version, then consistency between those versions is less important.

  2. How specialized are interactions with your app? If it mostly involves OS-standard actions like filling out forms or selecting items from menus, then users will benefit more from adhering to OS conventions. If the actions they perform are more specialized to your app, then the OS will provide fewer contextual cues and they're more likely to draw on knowledge from other interactions with your app.

  3. Do users use the desktop and mobile versions for the same tasks? If so, there's more of a case for cross-platform consistency. If the most common activities differ between platforms, then users are less likely to notice, or care, if they differ.

I think there's a distinction to draw between the platform's visual design conventions and its interaction design conventions.

Taking iOS 7+ as an example, conventionally apps are typeset in Helvetica Neue and predominantly white with relatively few brand elements. Buttons are generally borderless by default and use the app's default colour as a cue that the elements are clickable.

But I would argue that there are very well designed apps on the platform that go against every one of those conventions.

The established interaction design patterns, though, probably shouldn't be violated by a single app. That means you should probably avoid hamburger menus on iOS, or rolling your own keyboard or date picker, or changing the animations to indicate a different content hierarchy.

While there are arguably apps that have successfully implemented a foreign interaction mechanic on iOS (Google Maps is one, as is YouTube), but they have the luxury of providing exclusive access to a significant kind of content online; users are pretty much forced to work around what they get from Google. Add to that the fact that Google has its own fairly mature mobile platform and design language, so they're more motivated than most designers to violate the target platform to reinforce their way of doing things.

  • If there are rules, there are always good exceptions to rules. You are absolutely right about the distinction between design disciplines. My question is mainly on interaction design as the dominant one where the visual design is secondary and less important in the meaning that it just has to be implemented. It doesn't make it unimportant but it reflects my focus as Information Architect. Great insightful answer! – 4rchit3ct Dec 26 '15 at 6:32

We are having a similar discussions for our projects these days (also few years back as well) and one of the few questions that came up were

1) Won't the same user who has used the app on one platform (say windows) be irritated/confused if he opens the same app on another platform (say Mac or Android) since the tasks are going to be similar? After all Gmail app should still look like Gmail app on all platforms (iPhone or Android).

Also, the OS conventions may get modified/evolve with its releases. Will it worth spending hours making the same app look like the app for that OS without really adding any other value to the app?

2) Unless the OS impose some Don'ts vis-a-vis the app design (and look and feel) which will have to be respected and implemented to get the app certified (like Apple Store), why would you even follow the OS conventions? Your app should its own identity, not the OS's identity.

One senior member of our team actually gave this input to the UX team that the App should NOT look like an iPhone app or Android app or a windows App.

  • ... and the reply from the UX team was? – 4rchit3ct Dec 24 '15 at 8:21
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    @BennySkogberg as embarrasing as this may sound, they never came back with anything specific on that input. So we ended up designing the product ourselves first while taking their feedback and keep implementing them iteratively. – gurvinder372 Dec 24 '15 at 8:24
  • I'd like to point out that UX conventions on OSs exist to improve the productivity of users by helping them to discover shortcuts, access preferences and manipulate resources in consistent ways across apps. It's not at all a question of whether someone will punish you but whether you will disrupt or help your users. For instance, many multi-platform apps violate standards on how to choose the user's default application, or how to notify the user about an event, or use counter-intuitive keyboard shortcuts. – Steve DL Dec 29 '15 at 22:00
  • Besides you're more likely to often use an app on one platform with other apps than to use that very app on multiple platforms on its own. – Steve DL Dec 29 '15 at 22:00

Specific to device interaction and considering the users’ perspective: my preference for approach is “When in Rome (do as the Romans do).”

I advocate for this approach because users develop comfort using a specific device platform and following the interaction convention of the device platform reduces the burden of learning. Users don’t want to have to learn another platform’s interaction model to use the app on their own device.

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