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Top 5 Rules for Creating User Friendly Mobile Apps

shutterstock_94844608.jpg Good practices for mobile experience design are proliferating almost as quickly as the mobile devices themselves. But at the end of the day, it comes down to the user experience. So at the risk of entering the fray, I'm offering a few thoughts on what ingredients go into creating a great mobile experience.

And because I am a sucker for lists, here are the top 5:

1) Understanding the Context of Your Users

Mobile experiences are a function of several factors, some to do with the app itself, others to do with the person using the app and the context in which they are using it. For example, when you check your phone, it is typically when you’re engaged in some other activity. Maybe you’re traveling, waiting in line for coffee or just filling up at the gas station.

Most of the time you spend on your phone is during those brief moments when you’re actually doing something else. So it’s important to remember that when users pick up their phones, whether “just checking in” or looking to get something done, they’re looking to get it done in a hurry.

2) Clean Presentation

There is only so much real estate you have on the screen; your app needs to use all of it, but not too much — the trick is finding the balance. Then once you think your layout and design is good, test it in the context of a user on a terrible 3G connection, outside and in a hurry.

Can they read the interface when they are walking? Are the fonts big enough? Is there enough contrast to see the interface in sunlight? Are the tap targets around links and buttons big enough to press with fingers? Fail in any of these categories and you’ve made your app difficult or cumbersome to use.

3) Intuitive User Experience

Your app has to be easy enough that you don’t need a manual to figure it out. It needs to simply and clearly convey its capabilities. In most cases, you’re only going to get a few seconds to engage any potential new users, and if they can’t download, open and figure out the app in the commercial break during the local news, they’re gone. What’s more, they’ve had a bad experience, made an opinion and now are warning their friends about your confusing app because it makes them look smart.

4) Great Design

This topic alone could fill libraries. According to Charles Eames, “Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose,” which is pretty straightforward, however I like the way Joe Sparano thinks about design, “Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent.” Test with busy user, rinse, repeat.

5) Responsiveness

Why this ended up at the bottom of the list I don’t know, because it is table stakes for a great experience.

If your app is too heavy, if it is slow, no one will use it. If it is too "tappy" or tries to do everything on one screen, no one will use it. Mobile users are so impatient that if the screen doesn’t "paint" well (build the interface and load data while downloading) then no one will use it.

Speed is a feature, and as important as any other in the app. The rule of thumb in mobile is, if you can’t do it quickly, don’t do it (or if you have to do it, and it is slow, clearly and accurately communicate via progress bar the time to completion).

Creating great mobile experiences is more art than science. The process requires a holistic view of the people using the app, more so than designing an application for the web or the desktop where the user is typically sitting down at a desk. It requires sensitivity to several different factors, and finding the right balance.

But aside from the “best practices” and “common knowledge” that is always cheap and rarely good, perhaps the best way to ensure you are creating a great mobile experience is to use the app yourself. Use it as your users use it. Tap and swipe a mile in their shoes.

Title image courtesy of David Hammonds (Shutterstock).

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About the Author

Walker Fenton is CEO of Sepia Labs, the company behind Glassboard. Glassboard is a private social network for business, on iPhone, Android Windows 7 smartphones and now for the web. Walker has 20 years of experience in product development and management and a passion for creating user-friendly social mobile applications.

 
 
 
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