Least (Lowest) Common Denominator is Bad?

5 10 2006

In my research into best practices for designing mobile learning, I’ve recently come across a number of sources that advocate, strongly, that a LCD (Least/Lowest Common Denominator) approach to designing mobile experiences is a bad thing.

An LCD approach to interface/activity design is one that caters for the widest range of platforms by creating a single, non-adaptive document designed to be viewable on the most basic and least functional of those platforms. The currently prevailing philosophy regarding resource generation for the mobile web is that documents should be designed to exploit the functionality of any platform on which they render, to maximise the user’s viewing experience. This view is strongly advocated by leading mobile web commentators, researchers and academics, and indeed, the W3C itself through its Mobile Web Best Practice standard and MobileOK project:

5.1.2 Exploit Device Capabilities
[CAPABILITIES] Exploit device capabilities to provide an enhanced user experience.

-W3C, Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0

Contrast this view with the concept of Usability, prevalent in web design philosophy of the mid-1990s – for example, see one of the leading proponents of the Usability Movement, Jakob Nielsen’s, website – which itself is an epitomisation of the principles of Usability. 1990’s proponents of Usability advocated that websites should be made to render simply , correctly, and consistently on the widest possible range of platforms and browsers, through simple and minimalist design that enhances the efficiency of user-computer interaction. For example:

Write your pages for multiple types of Web browsers–to provide trouble-free access to the widest possible audience. The World Wide Web is a multi-platform, non-browser specific medium. It should not matter whether people browse your Web pages using Netscape, Explorer, Opera, Lynx, WebTV, NetPhonic’s Web-On-Call, Mobile Telephones, or Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs, or palmtops, the little computers with screens the size of a credit card). Each browser ought to render your informational Web pages without problems. If a Web page is designed properly, blind individuals, or anyone using text-to-voice or Braille displays, can easily listen to and review your work.

– Goodpractices.com

Current mobile web practice standards encourage content providers to be sensitive to the needs of the “default” delivery context, but provide for an enhanced experience on more capable devices:

Develop sites that target the Default Delivery Context. In addition, where appropriate, use device capabilities to provide a better user experience on more capable devices.

-W3C, Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0

The clash between current mobile web design practices and “old school” usability principles is evident in a report by the Nielsen Norman consulting group, which did a study of mobile web usability and found striking resemblences with the state of the mid-1990s computer-based web (which corresponds with my own theories about strong parallels between Computer-based and current Mobile technologies).

Which brings me to the subject of Graceful Degradation.

Graceful degradation is a principle that has been around even longer than the Internet, and was always my preferred design philosophy over strict Jakob Nielsen-type minimalist usability. In this design philosophy, there is an inherent awareness of how content will change in the absence of device or software/browser capability; and content is designed so that it will render on a less capable device, but will deliver an enhanced experience on a more capable one. Graceful degradation seems to be at the heart of W3C’s Mobile Web Best Practices, but I am concerned that most teachers won’t have the technical skills and knowledge to design and implement gracefully degrading content, or worse, will misinterpret W3C’s guidelines and completely ignore concepts of designing for baseline (reduced capability/legacy) technologies.

My feeling is that web content design guidelines used to be centred around avoiding problems; current mobile content design guidelines are centred around maximising user experiences.  Both perspectives have pros and cons – what do you think?

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4 responses

6 10 2006

I think it’s dangerous to compare computer and mobile phones. In one case the paradigm is quite steady and there were only a small bunch of browsers and only one or two dominant ones. With mobile phones (which are replaced every 18 months) we have a vast difference and UI, screen size, buttons are different not only from handset manufacturer but from phone to phone. In February 2004 we opted for a solution with 4 basic type of phones and hoped to get somewhat decent renderings on the other ones. The results were not only not convincing, they were a disaster;)

Since then we clearly take the other path.

As for teachers, I think it’s really a big difference between the web and the mobile. But then the web has also brought us weblogs and wiki’s and I think less and less people bother to code their own pages in (x)html. They take a blog/wiki/cms and add what’s needed.

6 10 2006
Anne Paterson

Hi Leonard,

I don’t think it comes down to the LCD about the device, I think its more about the functionality of the whole model – e.g SMS on its own is the LCD, but can be used in a variety of ways and integrated with other technology that is not LCD but still completely accessible for educators. Eg SMS can come from Outlook, it can come to and from an auto response database like the StudyTxt model or the Mobstr model which includes a web prescence. I guess what I am saying is the technologies may be LCD but the configurations and combinations of them available to meet learners needs is anything but – see my post on http://www.participatecontributelearn.blogspot.com on Post modern models of learning, and maybe the post before it so you get the full story!
Anne Paterson
Chief Education Officer
Access and General Education Curriculum Centre

6 10 2006
Leonard Low

Excellent Anne, I have bookmarked your blog and look forward to seeing more of your ideas and discussing them on your blog and on mine. 🙂

14 10 2006
Duncan Ferguson

You need to remember that the W3C is not some higher force from above but a “by the members for the members” organization. Many of the members are vendors of high end adaptation tools (Volantis, MobileAware, ArgoGroup etc.) hence the pro-adaptation rhetoric.
I highly recommend reading the following document to anyone interested in mobile web development but with insufficient resource to implement a high end solution:

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