Designing a Multi-Screen Ecosystem

March 27, 2013 Kitty Shum

A desktop computer, a television, a tablet and a mobile phone used to be treated as separate devices. An application on one didn’t affect another.

Things have changed. An increasing number of people own, and use, at least more than one device; we interact in an “ecosystem of screens.”

More people are spreading their use of tablets, smartphones, desktops, and TVs. Each device offers a slightly different experience because it is used under different situations depending on the time and location context. Consumers have also grown to expect more of their devices; gone are the days when Microsoft Word on the PDA (personal display assistant, high five if you remember those) didn’t properly and consistently sync up with the desktop version.

Instead, users expect products to shift seamlessly across each of their devices. They may offer a slightly different experience depending on the device, but the general User Experience (UX) should be seamless across all platforms. We cannot design solo experiences – we have to start considering their connections and think about all these interchangeable devices as a system.

For example, early morning commuters might use a digital news reader app during the ride into work. Throughout the late morning till late afternoon or early evening, they’re accessing the news from their laptops and desktops. At night, the majority of users migrate to the tablet. In this case, the newspaper clearly can no longer solely focus on one screen. Users expect a consistent reading experience regardless of the device they are using.

How do you ensure your content flows appropriately from one device to another? Here are six factors to consider:

1. Coherence

A product needs to look and function coherently between devices. This doesn’t always mean having the exact same feature set, but the features that present the core value need to remain in every variant of the apps. Two great examples of the power of coherence are Groupon and Evernote. Regardless whether you’re using the product/service on the website, tablet or phones, they all look and work coherently.

2. Synchronization

Apps must have the ability to sync information between each variant. That means the information previously updated on one device should be simultaneously updated across the other devices as well. That can vary, ranging from a shopping cart to a word processing app. The Amazon Kindle is a good example of synchronization across devices; if you start reading an ebook on your smartphone, your tablet will automatically know your reading position. In addition, all your bookmarks and notes are always up-to-date on every device.

3. Complementarity

Complementarity is when device contributes towards the entire user experience. An example of complementarity is Scrabble, where a tablet serves as the scrabble board, and each phone simply act as a tiles rack holder where other players can’t see.

4. Device Shifting

Device shifting is when users seamlessly shift content from one device to another. If a device’s display is locked onto its screen, one way of loosening the shackles is to use technology like Airplay. Airplay enables user to shift the content from an iPhone to an Apple TV (connected TV) a Mac (desktop). This means information can instantaneously make the migration from one gadget to another.

5. Simultaneity

Simultaneity is using a mobile app at the same time as using a another gadget, such as a television or computer. This pattern often engages users on a second screen. This example can be seen in an app such as Viggle, checks in to the TV show you are watching by “listening” to your TV. Once you are checked in, you can begin earning points.


6. Screen Sharing

Screen sharing is when multiple screens are sharing a single source. An example of this is the MIT Center for Future Civic Media’s Junkyard Jumbotron, in which individual devices are part of a larger whole. Screen sharing usually results in completing a big puzzle, where each piece is displayed on different phones.

Final Thoughts

If you have the fortunate challenge of designing a mobile product, you should think of the aggregate of these devices and platforms as an ecosystem, not a collection of disparate parts.

Ponder your user flow, and how people use things differently. A huge misconception about mobile is that the features on desktop or online should just transfer to mobile. Eventually, it becomes too complex; the UX is extremely different for the device. To re-iterate, both temporal and spatial locality mean everything in understanding user pains and pleasures. It also means your users will be using different devices at different parts of the day, and expecting different things from your app.

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