I just finished reading #iPadOnly, a book by Augusto Pinaud and
Michael Sliwinski. The authors share their experience using an iPad as a
primary computing device. They mention plenty of software and accessories, but
I really like what they have to say about workflow:

“On a traditional computer you write the email message
first and then attach your document. The iPad works differently. You begin with
the ‘attachment’ and later write your email. Sounds trivial, but it’s an entire
paradigm shift.”

It seems to me that’s really
the big shift underway. Mobile devices enable new workflows.


Most apps on mobile devices don’t work the same way as
installed apps on desktops. Fluent users of traditional desktop apps may find
mobile apps limiting. People who start “smartphone first” might find
most browser and desktop apps equally foreign.

What a desktop user sees as a deficiency, a mobile user
might view as an asset. The differences may be a matter of perspective.

  • Desktop user: “You
    can’t run two apps at once”
  • Mobile user: “Why
    would I? I can only focus on one thing at a time.”

Mobile and desktop workflows become habits, or patterns of
behavior. As the #iPadOnly book points out, the difference between the two
worlds can be as subtle as the order of tasks.

Commenting in Google Docs

The importance of sequence and habits struck me when I asked
my spouse to review and comment on an article I drafted in Google Docs. She’s
used to editing Google Docs on the web.

To comment on a Google Doc in a browser, there are two

  1. Click on the “Insert
  2. Choose “Comment”
    from the drop-down menu.

On the web, select Insert, then comment on a Google Doc

Another way to comment on a Google Doc in the browser is to:

  1. Place the cursor where you
    want to insert a comment, then
  2. Click the “Comments”
    button in the upper right.

Or, place your cursor where you want to comment, then click the “Comments”

But this time, she reviewed the document on an iPad mini.
The workflow is reversed in the mobile app: choose the text, then action.

To comment on a Google Doc while editing the document on
Google Drive on either Android or iOS:

  1. Select text.
  2. Tap Comment.

On mobile, comment options appear after selecting text in a Google Doc

She called me, instead of inserting comments. (To be clear,
I enjoy talking to my wife. I’d almost always prefer she call me instead of “inserting
comments” online.)

But the point is that on mobile devices, the workflow is
reversed: select text first, and then choose the action. While the method that
works on mobile works in the browser (e.g., select text, then choose Insert |
Comment), there’s no “Insert” menu on mobile. The feature isn’t
visible until text is selected. There’s a reason for the many menus in
Microsoft Word: the menus make features visible, even if they’re not always
easily findable.

Mobile first

The workflow is subtly different: insert, then comment,
instead of select, then comment. Both work smoothly in the native setting, but
someone accustomed to desktop comments might not easily discover mobile
comments. Replicating the desktop workflow on a mobile device wouldn’t help. No
one wants to tap through menus.

However, there are some indications that mobile app
workflows can improve web or installed app usability. As evidence, note that
social media apps, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, all of which have
evolved in the mobile era, work well on both mobile devices and in browsers.

Mobile app developers face a very real short-term challenge:
to design apps that work well for both “desktop first” users and “mobile
first” users. In the next few years, mobile-first users will far outnumber
desktop-first users. So the next time your users struggle to use a mobile app,
pay attention. There might be an opportunity to explore a new workflow and
develop new, “mobile first” habits.

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