Sorry, Devs – User is The King – Get Over It!

Discussing Mobile OS User Experience

Lately, I have been under fire on Twitter for saying that Apple’s iOS offers the best user experience among mobile platforms. This cannonade comes particularly from the developers’ side of the equation, not the UX professional one. I guess this is more due to the perception that I am some sort of fanboy when it comes to this particular brand. I might be to some extent and I certainly find myself subconsciously biased on occasions. After all, I’ve been using Apple products since 2006 on a personal level and many others in my work – Microsoft, Dell, Android, Blackberry, HP, etc… None of the latter has ever offered me a user experience getting even closer to the one that iOS has.

I am getting here on the wrong foot, am I not?

A professional UX designer should never rely on his/her own perception of a product’s user experience. In fact, one should be looking into research findings, user needs, platform objectives, target audience, market share, platform design restrictions, and ease of task performance. So let me take a step back from my previous statement about iOS.

What is User Experience?

“User experience (UX) involves a person’s behaviors, attitudes, and emotions about using a particular product, system, or service. User experience includes the practical, experiential, affective, meaningful, and valuable aspects of human-computer interaction and product ownership. Additionally, it includes a person’s perceptions of system aspects such as utility, ease of use, and efficiency.” – According to Wikipedia.

Now, this is a starting point. And every discussion on any UX perception should be starting from here. (However, I wouldn’t limit this interaction strictly to human-computer. Offline products offer user experience as well – your iron, washing machine or Moleskin notebook).

I found it always rather unnecessary to state that user interface (or UI, as it is also known) is only a small fraction of the user experience. A small, but the rather striking fraction that is. I tend to attribute it to the fact that the normal user sees it as UI and does not have in mind the process that goes behind UX design.

But to put a visual shared reference when it comes to UX, let’s use Jesse James Garett’s “The elements of User Experience” diagram!

Jesse James Garett's "Elements of User Experience"
Jesse James Garett’s “Elements of User Experience” – Source:

What is the User Experience POV?

There is only one – the way the target audience perceives the ease of use of your product and the overall satisfaction it gets from doing so. Not yours as a designer or manufacturer, but the one that gets experienced by the final and ultimate everyday user – your Joe Smith persona. The user will most likely never feel or understand the pains and worries you went through while designing the product or service. He does not care about that. He cares about his time, effort, and ability to perform tasks swiftly and successfully. At the end of the day, the only POV (Point Of View) that truly matters is his – the users. Yours (the designers) should stay at home or shared with a professional audience in a forum, conference, or blog post.

How do I define the mobile OS user experience winner?

General Remarks

Although more Android based-devices are sold than any other (78.9% in 2013), iOS remains the most used mobile OS according to (56.47% in 2013). And here goes my argument – this previous sentence is the root cause of any discussion concerning market share and research. Try to disagree on this, if you can! I thought of bringing the argument that usage beats phones sold when it comes to UX. Well, if the user buys an Android device or an iOS one and usage remains thereafter limited to the green and red buttons only, there is isn’t room for discussion on the “devices sold” pillar.

Here I also have to say that I am not including, in purpose, the less used mobile operating systems, such as MeeGo, Firefox OS, or others mentioned here. I also have very limited knowledge of Windows Phone (still waiting on my Nokia Windows Phone to arrive). But I did attend MobX 2013 in Berlin, where I’ve got to learn a lot about designing for iOS, Android, Blackberry 10, and Windows Phone. It kind of made me wish I had all the different devices on my desk and could just play around with them.

Visual Design

Windows Phone and iOS have been offering design guidelines for their third-party apps from day one. Android and Blackberry 10 are getting there, but they started late. There is still inconsistent experience offered when one uses the OS and an app that was not built-in with it. Reaching a point when the UX will be presented with the seamless flow is a utopia, in my humble opinion. The OS is changing and improving constantly. Expecting that all designers will be updating their apps every time shortly after the release of a new OS is, indeed, a ticket to Trapani.

However, with the introduction of flat design and close monitoring when approving apps in the App Store, iOS stays a step ahead of Android. On one hand, Apple offers an agreeable visual representation of the platform’s core features and on the other, it pushes third-party developers towards following the general guidelines.

Information Design

The information flow on all mobile operating systems counts on linkage to different databases, third-party platforms, apps, and sources. Since the trend is to move more and more into the cloud, everyone is offering more and more cloud hosting – OneDrive, Google Drive, iCloud… So far, the latter is the one that is able to synchronize (not yet in a perfect way) the update, device backup, and transfer of data between multiple devices (computer, tablet, and phone). This gives Apple a clear advantage in information design.

Additionally, iOS is focused on app and Notification Center clustering offering a simpler information design than the Android one – apps, widgets, and notifications. The former and more minimalistic approach is probably the reason why the iPhone gets more point.

Interaction Design & Information Architecture

iOS is probably the most restrictive platform to design for, mainly due to the considerations presented in the previous paragraph. However, the average user does not care about this. He just wants to perform his tasks and finish them as quickly as possible. I read somewhere that 75% of the users never changed the default settings of the online services they use. (Too bad, I couldn’t find this research while I was writing the post. So, do excuse me please!) I believe this is exactly what Apple was aiming for while designing the user interface and the number of touches needed to perform the most common task – phone call, email, Internet browsing. The developers seem to never have concerned themselves with the user’s ability to customize swiftly and painfully the Settings. Well, Android and Blackberry certainly did not either.

Functional Specifications and Content Requirements

Content-wise (read app and system information availability) the iOS and Android are the market leaders. There are very few apps that do not cover everyday life. Well, it is a common saying “there is an app for that.”  However, the number of downloads from the App Store is way more than the one from Google Play.  That could be due to the fact that the Apple store is older than Google one. Also, with the existence of multiple Apple devices per user, the app downloaded for the iPhone gets automatically downloaded on the iPad and vice versa. This seamless downloading experience is adding much to the core iOS user experience. And it won’t be long before other platforms start to offer the same functionality.

Apple is by far not the inventor of most of the features in the iOS. They were “borrowed” from existing or other already forgotten mobile operating systems and software. However, the company has managed to bundle these functionalities in the best way in comparison to its competitors.

User Needs and Platform Objectives

iOS has everything more in line when it comes to haptic feedback (micro-interactions), task flow, and design consistency.  An interesting user experience research from the consulting company Pfeiffer Report can be found here. This shows that all the OS platforms have room to improve and it also points out that iOS 7 rules them all for now.

I also frequently ask smartphone users in my environment to share their perception of the user experience their platform offers. So far, most agreeable experiences were shared by iOS users. But this could easily be the Apple fanboy syndrome everyone is talking about. This is hardly a benchmark I’d prefer to use.


I wrote above “iOS 7 rules them all for now” mainly because this is an ever-changing environment. Nokia sells Windows Phone-based handsets with an insane quarter-to-quarter growth. The same goes for Android-based devices of ZTE, Huawei, and Xiaomi, leaving alone Samsung and HTC, which have an established market share already. All this will further push Windows Phone and Android design into better shape when it comes to user experience. After all, the user has to be satisfied. This basically means better and better user experience will be expected from these platforms and respectively form the competitors’ ones.

Finally, to paraphrase Kim Dotcom, the best mobile OS, in terms of user experience, is the one that offers a release of its core updates on all devices across the user base, with a highly successful implantation rate and at a relatively low price (better equal to $0). Sorry, Android! As a close second, you lose. You lose big time and this is your Achilles heel (UX wise speaking).

You might have a different opinion. Discuss!

Copyright © 2014 Borislav Kiprin. All Rights Reserved.