UX Design In A World Of Ever-Changing Screen Sizes: Tips For Staying Ahead Of The Curve

The move to mobile changed UX design at its core, and the move to portable devices of all sizes (and now, shapes) continues to keep designers on their toes, providing key challenges and opportunities. Designing for desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and wearables, all of the different sizes and allowing different aspect ratios, can seem daunting. Yet UX designers across the industry are keeping up, and reacting to hardware changes in their own creative ways. Here’s some of their advice to keep up with an ever-changing screen size landscape.

Mobile is Challenging, but Keep It Priority #1

Mobile devices are seeing the greatest growth in screen sizes and device form. As desktop screen sizes have reached their maturity, mobile screen sizes are diversifying more and more, and that has led to shake-ups in UI design.

“Designers are moving their key actions in their interfaces closer to the bottom part of the screen in response to devices becoming larger than our hands,” said Ivan Tolmachev, senior product designer at Onfleet. This is especially true of the most recent smartphones, according to Tolmachev. The new screen size of the Apple iPhone X, for example, is forcing Apple to move to more swipe gestures in its latest iOS, with the focus on the bottom part of the screen. In the end, the company is adapting to what’s easiest for humans to use. It’s a major cue for designers–as phones grow larger, apps and websites must factor in what inputs and interactions are natural and comfortable for the user.

At the same time, the number of Android users worldwide continues to increase at a rapid pace, along with the number of new screen sizes and forms in the global marketplace. This has made it virtually impossible to test designs on every device out there. Adobe UX Designer Manasi Agarwal says organizing these different devices into categories is the easiest way to succeed in this challenging environment.

“It’s virtually impossible to test designs on all of these Android devices. This has led to a logical chunking of screen sizes into micro (mostly wearables), small (more phone screens), medium (tablets), and large (desktops, laptops, and TVs),” she said, adding that designing by categories has helped her a lot.

Changing Aspect Ratios and Designing for On-Screen Interaction

As the number of screen sizes and shapes grow, so do the challenges in creating consistent experiences across multiple aspect ratios. This is when it becomes key to test your designs on multiple devices; as fragmentation grows in the mobile industry, the stakes get higher if you get the design wrong.

“Designing for a touch device is especially challenging since it’s both designing for the input and the output. You can still get away with stretching your interface to cover a bigger screen, but you really shouldn’t approach it that way. You have to make sure you test your product on a device your users have and adjust the product accordingly. New aspect ratios introduce difficulties,” said Tolmachev. He is encouraged by the latest round of iPhone announcements, noting that the iPhone X and the Samsung S8 have a lot of key similarities in screen size and display, hopefully making designing for both an easier experience.

This supports Agarwal’s point about there simply being too many devices to test them all, so instead, she relies on a key guiding principle that has served her well.

“Aspect ratio is a major factor to consider especially when designing with images and video content. I’d suggest keeping in mind the two most used ratios of 4:3 and 16:9 while working, to avoid useless rework and save time,” she said.

Evolving Hardware, Predictable Users

Mobile devices have changed considerably over the past two decades, not just in size but also in shape. Over time, innovations in form are generally judged on their overall usability, with non-practical changes being discarded over time. For the time-being, designers are constantly challenged to adjust to new forms, but Tolmachev sees a shift in the future to more harmonization.

“Moving forward, we can expect more manufacturers to follow a common paradigm of inputs and interactions, but as of today we should be grateful to have a chance to be on the front-line of design innovation, shaping the way people use digital products in the next five years and after.”

Matt D. Smith, design director at Studio MDS, says this constant adaption is nothing new in UX design. Since mobile devices became a large part of the market, he says designers have been adapting to changing forms and sizes, and a good knowledge of mobile and responsive design fundamentals should allow you to easily conquer any device. He says, instead, designers should focus on content, and how to get it to users easily.

“New aspect ratios and screen sizes should quickly take a back seat compared to the way content and messaging should be handled in those situations. Unlike screen sizes, people haven’t changed all that much. They still look at phones, tablets, and their desktop computers at semi-predictable times throughout the day,” he said, adding that the removal of friction to get to that content should be a top priority.

“People are now on their phones all day, often times right even right in front of their computer. Considering that use case when designing becomes more and more important.

Sometimes it’s easier to do something on a mobile app than it is on the full desktop website. Users will flock to the solution that provides an answer to their problem with the least amount of friction.”

The rise of wearable devices and their relatively recent ability to effectively replace your smartphone could provide the next frontier for UX design. At its September announcement, Apple introduced the Apple Watch Series 3, which adds cellular capabilities to the device even if you don’t have your iPhone nearby. The Apple Watch now joins devices like the Samsung Gear S3 and LG Watch Sport with LTE capability, meaning calling, texting, and using data can all be done right on the watch without any additional technology required.

As the number of these wearable devices and their popularity continues to grow, UX designers will have to consider that their users may simply turn to their watch to access all digital products and services. And you know, those users are going to expect a frictionless user experience right on their wrist.

How are you adapting to the UX challenges of multiple screen sizes, aspect ratios, and mobile device forms? Let us know in the comments below.