Three Keys to Mobile Application Design Part 1 – Mobility

While many of you know me for my testing work, I also do product management work, including business analysis and technical design for applications. I help clarify a vague product idea into something with a clear vision that is concrete enough for programmers and designers to help implement, with the right mix of features to satisfy and delight our end users. Here are some lessons I’ve learned doing this work in the mobile space.

When you start designing a new mobile application, you are probably like me, and refer to applications that are familiar. You look at past projects, at programs you enjoy using, or have impressed you. If you are new to designing mobile applications, that often means you will look at web apps and PC apps first, because that is what you are most familiar with. Then you pull out your smartphone, and look at the apps you like and use the most there. That’s exactly what I did when I started out, and while I felt like I had adjusted to a new paradigm (smaller screens, less powerful devices, different network technology, etc.) I felt like something was missing. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was different, but the apps I use on my mobile devices, and the apps I helped create demonstrated it to me. We are going through a major shift in technology, and the software we use is moving toward a combination of mobility, social connections, and gaming and entertainment.

In this four part blog series, we will look at each of these areas of consideration when designing mobile applications.

Mobility Features

If you are new to mobile app development and use web and PC apps as your guide, you might overlook something important. Worse still, if you are used to an enterprise application development, stakeholders often just direct us create a subset of an existing web or PC app for mobile devices. While that is an aspect to consider with mobile apps due to less screen real-estate, and their one screen at a time focus, we often overlook the most obvious, and one of the most compelling characteristics of mobile devices: mobility itself.

When we are out and about, away from our desks, we don’t have the luxury of comfort and time. Think about it for a moment: these devices are used in all weather, in different locations (outdoors, in buildings) with different network strengths, while people are moving (walking, jogging, cycling, in a vehicle, flying, on public transportaion.) Imagine the difference between needing access to information or using an app on a warm sunny day in a beautiful park, vs. using it in a severe rain storm, outside and you forgot your umbrella. What effect might the different lighting conditions have on your screen design colors? Will their wireless services work better in good weather or poor? What impact might the weather have on the emotions of the user, and how much of that will be projected on how well our application performs? I’d wager that the user who is miserable in the rain will have much less patience with usability issues, or anything that slows them down with our app than the one who is relaxing in the park.

Context, and how the devices and applications are used on the move are important to take into account. Mobile devices represent a blurring of physical (hardware) and the virtual (software and services). When I’m designing an app for the web, or for PCs, I don’t think of the hardware that much other than to consider things like processing and memory. With mobile devices, we can tap into physical features of the devices to help create a different user experience that fits mobility better.

Here are some areas to think about when designing for mobility:

  1. Take advantage of mobile features
  2. Ensure your app is mobile-friendly

Mobile Features

When I’m on the move, I need my mobile device and apps to provide the following:

  • Access to information on the web (look something up, settle a friendly dispute)
  • Search for services nearby (for something to do)
  • Map and location services (so I can figure out where I am, and how to get to my destination)
  • Contact with others who aren’t with me (to communicate, co-ordinate and keep in touch)
  • Entertainment apps (play a game, watch a video or listen to music to help pass the time when I’m stuck somewhere or waiting)
  • Productivity (I’m here, I may as well see what work I can get done)
  • Utilize movement sensors (to help with most of the above)

Mobile-Friendly Design Considerations

Using a mobile device when you’re on the move has special challenges. It’s harder to see the screens, more difficult to type and enter information, and people often need to do something quickly. While you’re designing an app, here are some considerations to make your app more user-friendly for people on the move. Make sure you test your app out under different conditions while on the move, in different lighting, different weather, with different levels of urgency.

  • short workflows (don’t force people to spend a lot of time trying to reach a goal or get something done)
  • easy inputs and interaction (make things easy to see, and simple to interact with)
  • reduce typing (it can be painful to enter in too much text, so look for ways to reduce inputs)
  • colors that work in different lighting (watch out for very bright or very dark colors that could get washed out)
  • a clean, focused design (avoid bloat – keep it simple so people can work with the app easily) See: iOS Human Interface Guidelines for more.
  • great network performance on wifi and wireless broadband, with different network speeds, strengths (when I am away from home or the office, I have to depend on different networks, and I will move between them)

An app that takes advantage of mobility features will fit into the contexts that the devices are used in. An app that is just a stripped down web or PC app probably won’t. Remember: if the app isn’t easy to use on the move, it won’t get used.

Still puzzled? Spend time observing people around you, and if you can, spend time with your target users. You’ll be surprised at when and where they depend on mobile devices, and at what they enjoy, and what makes them frustrated.

(Thanks to my friend and mobile developer Jeremy Gale for helping me brainstorm mobile features for this post.)

Note: I first introduced some of these ideas in an interview with Heather Shanholtzer for Techwell in 2011: The Future is Mobile Technology.

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