Errai: The browser as a platform

Monday, August 26, 2013

Mobile design with Errai

Recently we had quite some discussions on our IRC channel about mobile user interface design with Errai. I think that what we've discussed will be interesting for a larger audience.

The question that came up was: Should hybrid applications be designed and behave like native mobile applications?

The mobile applications you develop with Errai are so called "hybrid apps", basically a native “shell” that executes HTML and Javascript. So, the UI will look and feel more or less the same on all supported devices (factoring out rendering differences) and will not be geared towards a specific platform.

We could try and emulate native behaviour but this could lead to what is know as the Uncanny valley, a term from robotics and animation that refers to the problem of an interaction or feature designed to mimic human behaviour that just doesn’t feel right to actual human observers. So, rather than providing a good user experience it causes a repulsive effect that occurs when you get very close to real human behaviour, but not quite there.

Have a look at the scary android, to 'feel' exactly what I'm talking about!

Simulating the native look and feel in hybrid applications could lead to that same negative effect. This is one of the reasons why jquery mobile is designed independently of specific platforms, although some fork it and make it look native again.

One way to easily create something that feels mobile without trying to look native is to use a CSS framework. The latest Twitter bootstrap and Foundation 4 embrace what they call "Mobile First" where you first build your user interface for mobile and then add more "complexity" later on. Errai UI is great when it comes to use CSS frameworks like these because you can quickly create your mockups and then reuse these in your app.

Here is one I've created with Twitter bootstrap for example. I'm not a designer and found it easy to build this mobile UI. I am sure anyone can create something in plain HTML and CSS that “feels” like a mobile app using these tools.

On the other hand, if you want to build a quick prototype of an mobile app you might want to combine Errai with something like mgwt. One of the reasons for frameworks to start emulate the native UIs is that users will automatically know how your app works.

There are also some popular applications that are avoiding these issues altogether by relying on their own custom look and feel (e.g. Skype and GMail). They focus on having their own brand identity aligned on all devices. If you work with good designers you can have a brand that looks great on all platforms.

So, what do you think? Should we support both hybrid and native applications with Errai? Even though there is this uncanny valley your app might fall into? Do you still want to create a mobile app that looks native? We would love to hear what you think!

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