With too many apps competing for a finite number of mobile users, the name of the game to stay relevant is user experience (UX). No matter the utility that an app promises to deliver, there will always be another app or a set of apps offering more or less the same, and users ultimately end up patronizing the one that offers the best experience.
The increasing importance attached by users to UX actually creates a level playing field of sorts. With technology now available freely and creating an enchanting user experience depending more on innovation than anything else, start-ups and small firms can compete effectively with behemoths. An app vendor’s reputation is only as good as their mobile app UX.
So, to take on the big guys, consider the following.
- Adopt a “Bottom-Up” Task Based Approach
By now, most app designers would have realized (some the hard way) that a shrunk down replica of the desktop website is a recipe for disaster. A mobile app UX design has many principles in common with web and software design, but the nature of both devices and the purpose for which users access these devices are vastly different. The common principle underlying a successful design is to start “bottom up”, by visualizing the desired customer experience, and build upwards, by enhancing the app with the right elements that would realize the desired experience.
Most mobile app users seek to find a specific piece of information, undertake a specific task quickly, or browse casually. The onus is on the app designer to identify the specific features that would appeal to the targeted users, and give prominence to such features. Most users measure the success of an app by its ability to allow completion of a specific task in the smallest number of steps.
A task-based design that includes functions geared towards helping users identify and complete their tasks is a pre-requisite for acceptance. Anything that does not further this end may safely be discarded from the app. The “top-down” approach – i.e. a full-blown list of features and options, may make a website powerful but it becomes counter-productive when it comes to apps.
- Remember the 80/20 rule
The 80/20 rule apply to many walks of life and mobile apps are no exception. Regardless of how specific and narrow the app is positioned, the odds are that 80% of app users would still end up using just 20% of the available functionality. App designers would nevertheless do well to take a long hard look at the analytics that come from mobile browsers related to their site, and make sure that the 20% of features that most users access is easy and intuitive to access. It may not be wise to completely eliminate the 80% of functionality as long as a strong case for its inclusion exist. Such functionality may simply be pushed to the edges or a lesser prominent place.
- Reconcile Technicality with Usability
Technically, most designers consider style guides, interaction design patterns, visual design trends, and design templates when designing the mobile app UX, and each of these factors can influence the user experience in a big way.
Using an established design pattern, built on the collective wisdom and testing of past products not just offer users a consistent experience but also helps to reduce product development time and cost. Style guides, which incorporate well-established design principles that have stood the test of time is a good base to get started, but the designer would need to effect trade-offs and possibly deviate from such style guide recommendations when the visual branding conflicts with an interaction design pattern.
- Design for Visibility
The number one priority when designing for mobile is visibility.
Unlike conventional monitor screens where it is possible to manipulate and hover over objects to death, or drill down links to get the desired element, a user cannot and will not interact with anything on a mobile screen if they cannot tell the element is interactive, or worse, if the element is hidden from plain sight. Out of sight is really out of mind in the mobile space.
There is nothing more powerful that KISS (Keep it Simple Sweetheart) in mobile design. App designers who underestimate the power of simplicity do so at their own peril.
Simplicity manifests in several dimensions:
- Simplicity is closely synonymous with a flat design which not just offers clarity and crispness but can also handle the much needed responsive design with ease. In fact, a flat design is practically synonymous with Web 3.0.
- Simplicity is also synonymous with a minimalist design. A minimalist approach entails including only those elements that are absolutely necessary, with no added effects and a clean layout with good use of color and a focus on typography.
- Mobile users tend to be time-poor. The real estate with the developer is very limited. There is no standard screen size in the mobile space. Added to these basic characteristic of the mobile is the fact that the mobile hardware is relatively small and slow. What this means is that adding overly flabby layout, ornate layouts and feature sets that enhance the “looks” or creates awe, but services no essential purpose is almost criminal.
- Another important dimension of simplicity is going in with the flow of Platform UX. Any OS offers a consistent interaction pattern and users get habituated to such conventions, such as what would happen if they press a button, touch an icon, or swipe the screen in whatever OS or platform they use – Android, Windows or Apple. Developing custom interfaces that work differently will only serve to confuse users, slow down adoption, and get in the way of engagement. Designers need to “go with the flow” even when they innovate, by adopting the principles of the OS-native interface kit and style interface elements, without altering the underlying functions.
- Mobile users have neither the time nor the resources to read FAQs or instructions. As such, it helps if everything that is put up in the interface of a mobile app is self-evident. A clear iconography is one way to achieve this.
To cut in short, the simpler the app, the better it will be.
- Design for interruption
Mobile phones, by their very nature are meant for interruption. A call may interrupt the user doing something on an app, the user on the move may reach her destination mid-way of doing something, and many other interruptions are more the norm than the exception. The best design makes it easy for the user to pick up from where they left off. Breaking larger tasks down into smaller chunks, and putting context throughout serves this end in a big way.
- Do not Rest on Your Laurels
The mobile marketplace is constantly innovating, and only apps that are a continuously evolving entity, leveraging data from analytics, feedback, and new technological breakthroughs to constantly reassess and improve user experience withstand the test of time.
The key here is analytics, which should ideally be a never ending process. Even after one round of improvement, the designer would do well to gather analytic feedback in the form of touch input, location, environmental factors, social, and other ambient data, to better the app design at the time of the next update. Using data the user does not even realize they are giving away, to enhance their experience is a sure shot formula for success.
A good user experience is more science than art, and rarely happens by luck or accident. It is the result of painstaking research, trial-and-error, analysis, investment and continuous improvement.