The Principle of Functional Utility

As more businesses and brands move into mobile, they have got to be cognizant of the very different environment mobile represents to the mobile audience, and how critical functional engagement on a mobile device really is.

The Principle of Functional Utility (an expression I’ve coined), dictates that at first blush, it all makes sense. Navigation in any environment, is simple and intuitive. Functional Navigation, in a mobile environment, means that each element of the mobile, whether the device itself, the mobile site, applications, SMS based functions, possess functional utility and aid overall utilization.

Functional utility became important when I realized that I really like gadgets, not for the gadgets themselves, but for the utility they generally added to my life. Walkie talkies, handheld tvs, mp3 players, laptops, cell phones, all held special appeal to me because they offered portable utility. I could take my entertainment and communication on the go.

But what I end up liking most, about the gadgets I liked, was usually how well the device fulfilled it’s promise to make my life easier. This was what I defined as their overall functional utility.

Early on, Handspring/Palm made my favorite device, the Treo. I was attracted to the Treo precisely because it seamlessly combined function and utility. Treos were sleek devices alright. But what they really were, were dynamic little workhorse of functionality in my palm.

Treo 680

With its large and touch responsive screen, you could navigate the web, read and respond to emails, edit documents, listen to mp3s and watch mobile TV. It was the Treo that created my need for truly functional mobile devices.

Notwithstanding Palm’s current issues, when the Treos were originally introduced, they clearly understood what mobile users wanted when they picked up a ‘smart’ phone: utility.

My Treo introduction to smart phones (it really began with my infatuation with the Palm PDAs), really ruined iPhones for me. Not ruined really, but I was not as agog with iPhone love, as I might have been, had I not had Treo devices previously.

When it comes to mobile sites, they need to provide a base level of functionality in order to engage the user. I’ve outlined a few of these basic levels:

1. Browser auto detect (and redirect). Your site should be set up to automatically detect whether the visitor is using a mobile browser.

2. Simple menu. Once a person arrives at your site, there should be a few, easily identifiable tabs and/or options to help you move through the pages of the site. It’s not a website, it’s a mobile site, so no one will begrudge you if all the bells and whistles (of your 2.0 website) are absent from your mobile site.

3. Directional navigation buttons. There is nothing more frustrating that not being able to go back to a previous screen, advance to the next screen or scroll (up or down) without having a PhD in engineering. Mobile sites should be built so simply that a monkey could navigate through the pages with ease.

4. Mobile optimized images. Screens are little picture windows to our digital souls, so don’t crowd that space with large distracting images. Make sure that the artwork, illustration and graphics you use for your mobile site are designed specifically for the small screen.

Without getting to the underlying utility of your mobile site (Can I search your inventory? Compare prices? Place an order?) if you follow these simple points, you’ll score points with the visitors to your site, and will invariably create repeat visitors, because there is nothing more satisfying than navigating on a mobile site designed by someone who understands the space.

Mobile applications need to follow similar principles. Less is more, and everything should work as if it were designed for a small child. When my dauhter picked up my iPhone, slid her little finger along the arrow and unlocked the phone, I realized how simply Apple’s designs were. Now obviously, we can’t have everything be so easily accessible (such that our children destroy our precious toys), but you get the point.

Or do you?


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2 responses to “The Principle of Functional Utility

  1. Sorry Stephen, you did not coin the phrase “functional utility.” I have been using it for several products and on my personal website ( for over 10 years.


    • Roger, thanks for correcting me. I defer to your prior use of the phrase ‘functional utility’ although in the context I’ve used it, it applies to the utility of electronic (versus mechanical) devices. BTW, I checked out your site and you’re a very handy guy. I especially liked the media room – nicely done!


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