Understanding Mobile as a Lean-back Medium

A common misunderstanding occurs when designers look at a mobile device as an extension of their laptop, or, even worse, consider a mobile device as simply a smaller version of a traditional laptop or desktop computer. There is a distinct difference between how we use a traditional computer and a mobile device. Traditional computers represent a lean-forward medium, while mobile devices are essentially a lean-back medium. In this article, I'll show you the difference!


mobile lean-back

Let us start with taking a look how you use mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones. Often these are used in quite comfortable situations, such as your couch or while you're waiting in line for something. Computers are used in a different fashion. They are more commonly used in work situations rather than for simply relaxing or entertainment. Because of this natural (though not absolute) trend, entertainment is moving more and more to something consumed on a mobile device. This cultural shift also changes how we experience these media.

Lean-forward vs. Lean-back Media

The difference between a lean-forward and a lean-back medium is the difference in the user's physical posture and device engagement.

What exactly is the difference, then? We approach a lean-forward media in a far more interactive way. Regular websites (not mobile ones) are a great example. We often are more engaged when we use a computer because it's easier to participate in complex or in-depth interactions, such as those found in a discussion forum. Because it is easier to interact, there is likewise far more opportunity to engage with an online community.

A lean-back medium is a medium with a very low level of engagement or even no engagement at all. Television is the best example. While traditionally television has been a medium that lacks any interactivity at all, this has recently begun to change. For example, digital television offers more possibilities to interact. However, despite this limited interactivity, it is still classified as a lean-back medium because the typical interaction is so limited.

Lean-back and Mobile Design

In what way is this relevant for mobile design? Well, understanding that we use our mobile devices primarily as a lean-back medium is already a great start. You simply can't expect users to perform difficult actions on mobile devices or expect they will engage in a high level of interactivity while using a mobile device, particularly if that device is a phone. Apps such as Flipboard and Tumblr are quite popular on mobile for a reason. While the majority of the content is created on a computer (quite obvious as it's far easier to create content with a laptop/desktop) a lot of this content is consumed on mobile devices.

Examples of Lean-back Apps

mobile lean-back

Any application used to watch videos online is the perfect example of a lean-back application. After all, the interactivity is incredible limited and, in general, there's one-way communication.

mobile lean-back

Foursquare is another great example. Interactivity isn't limited, but it is simple. A check-in or leaving a tip are simple actions, yet they are integrated in a more complex application. You can compare locations, see what you're friends are up too and other great features. Foursquare did an amazing job at making interaction in an otherwise complex application simple.

mobile lean-back
Fruit Ninja

Many games are relaxing and lean-back. Angry Birds is a perfect example of how successful games usually have simple, limited, yet fun gestures. Fruit Ninja is another popular app which is a great example how limited interactivity can be very fun for your app's audience.

Examples of Lean-forward Apps

Naturally, there are also lean-forward applications. Does this mean that they are bad applications? Of course not. It rather means that people will use them in different (and limited) situations, and that they require far more attention to use effectively.

mobile lean-forward
Jamie's Recipes

Jamie's Recipes or other cooking applications are a great example because people are required to pay attention while using your application. They are dependent on this app while cooking. Consequently, one wouldn't use these kind of applications in a lean-back situation such as relaxing on the couch.

mobile lean-forward

Many productivity apps are also lean-forward. Sometimes developers attempt to translate lean-forward features from the computer to mobile devices. The forum application Tapatalk is an example of how a discussion forum is brought to a mobile device. Even though the target audience is more limited when compared to desktop users, people sometimes still want to have a more extensive way of interactivity on their mobile device. Translating extensive interactivity to a mobile device is very challenging, but it's not impossible.

mobile lean-forward
Screenshot of the Undercroft app

Not all games are lean-back. Some games such as Undercroft are more extensive and require thought and strategy. It's more difficult to play in a hundred percent lean-back situation and often will have more complicated methods of interactivity: navigation, movement, and gestures. Such games are usually considered hybrids, as games are in general still lean-back, but some are quite complex and don't fit the general features of a lean-back application.

Tips for Mobile Design

"Efficiency is intelligent laziness." - David Dunham

Understanding that you need to develop for mobile devices with a passive public in mind helps you to make the right design choices. It's pretty obvious that you need to keep the functionality of your application simple and accessible. Does this mean that it's difficult to build interaction into your apps? It's not necessarily more difficult, but it may require more thought. It's important to understand that you need to keep interactions simple and accessible, for example a like button (Facebook), a share button (Tumblr), and so on. By providing interactivity in a simple way you will generate far more engagement. You can't expect users to write down a comment of a couple sentences like they might on a regular computer. Here are some basic reminders for your next project:

  • Minimizing effort is they key to a better user experience on mobile devices.
  • Engagement should be simplistic and rewarding for the user.
  • Keep gestures limited and fun (e.g. Angry Birds, FruitNinja).
  • Create visual coherence to guide the user's eyes and actions.
  • Make browsing through content easy and quick.
  • Decrease navigation gestures and anticipate user behavior.
  • Keep It Simple! If it isn't needed for the task at hand, drop it from the design!


This article serves simply as food for thought. Of course, it's not fair to say that all mobile users are going to use their device in a lean-back fashion, but the majority of users interacting with your apps will likely have very limited attention spans. Make life easier on them by anticipating this and saving time whenever possible. Simplicity will create a better user experience, and mobile is all about providing the correct experience for the needs of your users. Do you agree? Disagree? Leave a comment and let me know!



Related Articles