Multiple Form Factor Software Design

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

I have been giving a lot of thought lately about designing software in a Multi-Form Factor paradigm and felt I would share some initial thoughts on the subject. Keep in mind much of this is still quite new and subject to change; however, I have made an attempt to isolate what I feel will remain constant moving forward.

First, User Experience Design

My initial thoughts on the implications of what an ever growing Multi-Form Factor paradigm will have on the way we think about the design of software are primarily concerned with User Experience Design. While using CSS3 media queries to facilitate dynamic layouts will be needed for most Web Applications, I do not believe these types of solutions alone will allow for the kinds of compelling experiences users have come to expect, especially as they will likely compare Mobile Web Application experiences to their native counterparts. Sure some basic solutions will be needed, and for some simple websites they may suffice. However, in the context Web Applications, as well as just about every application developed specifically for a PC, too, I believe UX Design will need to leverage the unique opportunities presented by each particular form factor, be it a PC, smartphone, tablet or TV. Likewise, UX will need to account for the constraints of each form-factor as well. Architecturally, all of the above presents both opportunity and challenge.

To further illustrate this point, consider the fact that it is arguably quite rare that a UX Design intended for users of a PC will easily translate directly to a Mobile or Tablet User Experience. The interactions of a traditional physical keyboard and mouse do not always equate to those of soft keys, virtual keyboards and touch gesture interactions. Moreover, the navigation and transitions between different views and even certain concepts and metaphors are completely different. In simplest terms; it’s not “Apples to Apples”, as the expression goes.

With this in mind, as always, UX Design will need to remain at the forefront of Software Design.

Second, Architecture

Multi-Form Factor design obviously poses some new Architectural challenges considering the growing number of form factors which will need to be taken into account. The good news is, most existing, well designed software architectures may have been designed with this in mind to a certain degree. That is, the key factor in managing this complexity I believe will be code reuse; specifically, generalization and abstraction. A common theme amongst many of my posts, code reuse has many obvious benefits, and in the context of Multi-Form Factor concerns it will allow for different device specific applications to leverage general, well defined and well tested APIs. A good example being a well designed RESTful JSON service.

Code reuse will certainly be of tremendous value when considering the complexities encountered with Multi-Form Factor design. Such shared libraries, APIs and Services can be reused across applications which are designed for particular Form-Factors or extended to provide screen / device specific implementations.

Some Concluding Thoughts

In short, I believe both users and developers alike will be best served by providing unique User Experiences for specific Form Factors as opposed to attempting to adapt the same application across Multiple Form Factors. One of the easiest ways of managing this complexity will inevitably be code reuse.

I also believe the main point of focus should be on the medium and small form factors; i.e. Tablets and Smart phones. Not only for the more common reasons but, also because I believe PCs and Laptops will eventually be used almost exclusively for developing the applications which run on the other form factors. In fact, I can say this from my own experiences already.

While there is still much to learn in the area of Multi-Form Factor Design, I feel the ideas I’ve expressed here will remain relevant. Over the course of the coming months I plan to dedicate much of my time towards further exploration of this topic and will certainly continue to share my findings.

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