Things I’ve learned while designing interactions across multiple mobile platforms

So I’m currently on my 6-week practicum at Idea Rebel, an interactive agency in Vancouver Gastown. Last week, I was working on the interaction flow for a mobile application project. This was my first experience designing an app that will be available on iPhones, Androids and BlackBerries. I would like to share the things I’ve learned with you.

1. iPhones, Androids, BlackBerries… they’re more similar than you think

Despite the differences in their form factor and people’s perceptions, the three platforms surprisingly share a lot of commonalities when it comes to how users interact with them. I was able to easily take features from one version of the app and place it within another with only minor adjustments.

I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising since users all have similar “basic” needs (e.g. make calls, check email, find info etc), and phones have similar input methods (touchscreen, buttons, keyboards, scroll wheel). Naturally you will get convergence in design and work flow. There might be many ways of doing something, but some make more sense than others.

If I have to put the modes of user interactions on a spectrum though, I would say:

iPhone (pure on-screen interactions) —- Android (on-screen interactions with persistent buttons) —- BlackBerry (mainly menu + scroll wheel operations)

The iPhone has the most visual interface, the BlackBerry through the scroll feature facilitates scanning of large amount of information and the Android sits half way in between.

2. Following the “standards” make life much easier

User interface design guidelines and design patterns are godsends for me when it came to designing mobile apps. This goes back to the comment that there are many ways of doing something, but some make more sense than others. Having guidelines set up for you mean you don’t have to wonder if the user will “get” how to use something. They’ve used something similar before, which make your new app that much easier to pick up.

3. Persistent buttons are cool, use them!

The Menu (aka “Blackberry”) button on the Android and Blackberry made it super easy to store actions for a screen without taking up screen real estate. As a result, the Android (and to some extent the Blackberry) versions of the app are tidier and more compact as compared to the iPhone version. There’s also no need for the onscreen “Back” button to get in the way.

Also if the features are available, we should use them if they fit in with the interaction flow. Just think of it from the user’s end… Wouldn’t, “Hey, this app is built for my device and everything works exactly the way I expect it to.” be better than “Oh it’s just another badly ported iPhone app”?

Your experiences?

Has anybody else been doing work across different mobile platforms? Especially work with the Windows 7 Phone? I haven’t had a chance yet and would love to hear your thoughts.