Why Companies in a Multi-Screen Era Must Embrace the Unknown

Last Saturday, like seemingly every Saturday this fall, I started some yard work. This time I expected to be on the roof for at least three hours. So I knew that music would be required. And that email needed monitoring. And that a friend may call. And that college football was at full tilt. I needed, in other words, to stay connected.

Thanks to Bluetooth headphones and a smartwatch, it all happened. I jammed, talked to friends, and, with voice command, responded to texts and even wrote a professional-sounding email. Later that day, I picked up all of these tasks on a mobile device, and, in the evening, a laptop. All the while, I used a watch to accomplish bits and pieces in between. 

Part of why this worked so well was because every product on every platform felt familiar. The blue bubble with white text reminded me I was in iMessage no matter where I was looking; answering a call was like, well, answering a call — green for go, red for no. But while common design patterns were interwoven throughout, the reason I could so easily pause and play music from the watch was that the application was specifically designed for that screen. Had it adopted the same layout and call-to-action buttons as a mobile device, it’d be unusable. If I had to maneuver the watch for sports scores the way I do on a laptop, I’d have fallen off the roof.   

It is, in fact, a multi-screen era we’re living in. But that’s been the case for a while now; the iPhone is 12 years old, the iPad nine. What’s becoming ever more apparent — and, from a business perspective, ever more important — is that the multi-screen experience has coalesced into one. Use cases are no longer confined and designed for just one device. Yet it’s not enough to slap the same user interface on multiple screens. Yes, a smartwatch is now a kiosk and a laptop is a tablet and a 54-inch flatscreen is an Android. But users’ needs go beyond icons and Like buttons; nuanced customization and form factor, independent of legacy configuration, are critical in successfully syncing products across multiple devices. Booking a flight, for instance, may begin on a laptop but should be able to be picked up on a mobile device for scannable boarding passes with little else getting in the way. And those boarding passes will likely soon need to fit 44mm on a wrist. Reminiscent design, sure, but tailored to meet different demands while simultaneously respecting technical requirements defined by different platforms. Put another way: a product suite can’t be designed in a vacuum and rather than thinking, say, “mobile-first,” companies need to position themselves to push “X-first,” understanding their product will have to live on multiple platforms and have individual goals that serve a common purpose. This capability requires products be airtight; any fundamental flaws or deficiencies a product contains will show and, subsequently, fail on new platforms. Because soon, there will be a new device, and it may favor voice activation. Then another that demands touch. Companies that succeed in 2020 and beyond are already prepared for this unknown future, platform agnosticism baked into their DNA.

Software is king

Software dominates our lives, and it’s going to continue. Consider Spotify, which in October 2019 reported it had 110 million paid subscribers. While streaming music online isn’t a new phenomenon, at the start of this decade Spotify had just two million paid subscribers. Around the same time, the messaging app Slack had yet to exist. In the summer of 2019, it went public with a $23 billion valuation. The trends are not unique to young start-ups riding early wins. Facebook, now 15 years old has surged in the last decade (in spite of some terrible press) to a $570 billion valuation today. All of these successes are rooted in seamless integration across multiple platforms.  

“Great design is now crucial to success for anything consumer-facing,” says Daniel Roberts, senior writer at Yahoo Finance. “These apps and services need great visual aesthetic and more importantly, great user functionality.” Roberts noted that Airbnb’s success is often credited to its functional design, along with Pinterest and, naturally, Facebook that “looks the same and works nicely on desktop or mobile or tablet.”

And this software domination means screen integration is only becoming paramount to success. Some five billion people now own smartphones (more than half the world’s population) and in the second quarter of 2019 alone, Apple shipped 5.7 million smartwatches, outselling Rolex, Swatch, and Omega combined. Cars have screens mounted to the dashboard. We can’t enter most stadiums and arenas without the use of screens. Fast food restaurants are replacing humans with touch screens. Riding the New York City subway will, one day, be a screen-only endeavor. We can now pay for Starbucks on the Apple Watch, a feature that in a few years will likely be expected from every product, especially considering the Apple Cash card has been integrated. And we use all of these screens differently, leading experts to argue that it’s a mistake to design for total parity, because what satisfies on one platform is arduous on another.

Recent studies show that Americans check mobile devices an average of 52 times a day, with those sessions lasting just over a minute. Kiosk interactions appear to be even shorter and smartwatch glances can be mere seconds. Tablets, meanwhile, soak up more than seven minutes of our time per use. As a result, delight and frustration become all the more visceral. In some cases, like when searching for hotels on a laptop, users want to see progress bars and algorithms working in real-time (people report liking the feeling that something’s happening just for them). Other times, they just want their payment to instantly appear on the watch to pay for coffee. Tracking a workout on a smartwatch is typically a good experience; doing so on a laptop is impossible. But reviewing workout results on a watch is crummy; that’s best left for a larger screen. Streaming content can be a fine experience on many platforms, but the screen interaction must differ: point and click with a television remote must be replaced by drag and touch on a tablet. That load time, too, must be fast; while they’re more patient with traditional mediums, users on personal devices tolerate only seconds of load time before frustration sets in and the task is abandoned.  

This multi-screen capability is most thought of when they’re consumer-facing since it impacts nearly everyone. But organizations serving business-to-business products face the same challenges — and opportunities — when asking employees to complete tasks across different devices. Managers and salespeople may need similar information but presented in vastly different ways; the former can lean on 15-screen PowerPoint pitch decks, while the latter need quick access to software and prototypes on handheld devices that can work offline. Reporters in the field need to be able to file a breaking story in an easy-to-use CMS while editors in an office can later add multimedia. Form-fitting at its most critical. 

Looking ahead, is it so ludicrous to think we’ll have, say, touchable hologram screens in our homes by 2030? Or that in a few years computers in our offices will be only keyboards and projection screens? Smartwatches to smart-rings? Smart-rings to smart contact lenses? Or maybe we’re going bigger? Apple recently announced the 2020 iPhone will feature its biggest screen yet. Indeed, it appears that everything’s on the table(t) at the turn of this new decade. The possibilities raise the question of how we’ll use potential platforms, for how long, and which features will need to be kept, dropped, or built anew. There’s a lot of fun ahead, but a lot of work, too.  

2020(s) vision

Like great athletes, great companies make it look easy. Facebook has. Include Dropbox. The New York Times, too. But the road to multiscreen success is paved with auto-play videos and 502 errors, poor management and shoddy decision-making. In short: creating high-quality products across multiple platforms isn’t easy. It takes discipline, a vision, and, yeah, some luck. And perhaps it’s no surprise that money dictates most everything. Technical restraints are the first squeeze; workflow and miscommunication issues often follow. At the same time, shifting market trends can be tough to keep up with.   

“A lot of times companies get started because they had one vision or one toolset that they’re very good at,” says Nick Anderson, a UX developer and faculty member at General Assembly in Denver. 

But, he says, a company rarely has a grand vision early on. 

“Let’s say that you start making iOS apps. But then you want to make Android apps. That language is different. If you’re doing iOS, you’re doing a lot of Swift development and Objective C, and then if you move over to Android users you’re doing Java. So unless you know Java as well, you’re going to hire another developer, and if you’re talking about scaling, you’re talking about hiring two, three, four developers.”

Proper scaling is a blend of art and science. Adding developers costs money and unless there’s constant work for everyone, “it’s going to tank you pretty quickly,” says Anderson. And even those companies that do scale successfully, sooner or later different teams begin working on different projects, creating silos. Walls and floors divide people. Decisions and support for crucial problem-solving gets lost. When this happens, teams of even 20 or 30 try to play catch-up and haphazardly apply the same thinking that worked on one platform to a new one. It rarely works, and few companies have the safety nets to fail time and again.

These problems, while certainly frustrating, can be avoided or at least neutralized with careful planning and smart execution. Other, less explicit complications keep companies from scaling successfully from one platform to another. While most technical issues can be addressed, sometimes development teams’ hands are tied. With an influx of applications and APIs accessing the same servers, security and compliance risks increase. For companies handling sensitive data, creating new products can become unmanageable. For others, measuring the return on investment for new platforms can be difficult, especially when the sole purpose of the app isn’t to generate revenue (i.e., Google Docs). Without understanding impact, prioritizing resources can be a tough sell. And, sometimes, it’s simply hard to keep up. By 2020 it’s said that the demand for mobile app development will be three times greater than internal IT departments can deliver. The stress is compounded as more platforms grow. With resources already stretched, advocating for new ventures and investments in unknown areas can fall on deaf ears. It can no doubt feel overwhelming. But, there’s hope, and it starts with people.

Products change, people don’t

Let’s just get the obvious out of the way: there are few solutions for not having money. The reality is that no products ship without investment. Still, companies looking to scale or reach new audiences on even limited budgets must start with installing exceptional product managers. While PMs don’t need to know how to design or write code, understanding the problem end-to-end can determine the fate of just about any product.

“The biggest single trait I can say that a PM manager or PM owner needs to have is a desire to understand,” says Anderson. “The job of a product manager, a really skilled one, it’s to know the ‘what’ and the ‘why’, not the how. If a developer comes to [them] and says ‘Our API can’t do that’, [they] need to be able to know what an API is, and why that matters overall.” 

Silos and walls are a real problem. Even with the best of intentions, teams can fall off course quickly. Bridging communication gaps is the responsibility of product managers who can maintain high visibility across organizations.

“There’s this huge problem with the idea that you think, ‘Well, I designed the spec and I made the spec and made the screens, and now everybody’s going to make it’,” Anderson says. “But there’s all these tiny little micro decisions that go into every piece of design that is going to get skewed one way or another by people who are well meaning but have a different perspective on what that should look like.”

As PMs connect teams, they should also think about their makeup. In a speech called “Working Together in Diverse Teams” at an event this fall in Denver, UX designer Farai Madzima said that “knowing where someone went to college isn’t going to help me understand how they problem-solve.” Simply put, pulling talent from the same place limits potential. Rather, he said, hiring people of different genders, life experiences, and socioeconomic backgrounds unlocks avenues of thinking that otherwise go overlooked. 

Further, insular turn of mind can stifle company growth, or, in some cases, create products that reach a mass audience but don’t protect significant portions of its users. Diverse teams bring a wider perspective. As we continue developing new products on new screens, not everyone will think about or use them in the same way. It takes a village. 

What’s next: Screen sprawl or consolidation?

The late screenwriter William Goldman once said of Hollywood that “no one knows anything.” The same can be said about the future of tech products and where they’ll live and how we’ll use them. Maybe we’ve hit peak-screen, that the future is less time in front of glowing devices; arguments to move us in this direction certainly have appeal. Maybe the four or five screens we use most frequently will quadruple, a screen for every room in the house and every aisle in the store and every block in every neighborhood. Or, maybe, we can have it both ways. That’s my guess, that we’ve barely begun to realize the potential of multi-screen integration. Future design will start by linking every (customized!) product on every platform. Neglecting this will be akin to forgetting the vowels when spelling one’s name. But also our interactions with screens will become simpler and we’ll think about them less — we might use sixteen different screens between home and office and dinner, but they won’t be unlike mini conversations throughout the day that power our lives. We embrace this unknowable landscape. But history tells us what we can rely on is that the pursuit remains about connecting with people. That will never go out of style.