Three Keys to Mobile Application Design – Part 4 Conclusion

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at mobility and app design. In Part 2, we looked at social aspects. In Part 3, we looked at gaming and entertainment features to consider with mobile app design. In Part 4, I conclude with some final thoughts, a simple example, and three people who inspire me.


What is it about some mobile applications that we use over and over, to the point of addiction? What is it about others that we seldom use? I’ve found that a mix of mobility features (and usability!), social features, and gaming/entertainment are some of the reasons why we keep coming back. We enjoy the experience of the application. It is easy to use and helps us solve problems or reach goals while we’re on the move. It helps us feel connected to our friends, family and coworkers, so we never feel alone. The app helps us quickly access information we need. It is entertaining, so we enjoy spending time in the application, and feel drawn to it when we’re away from it.

Our mobile devices have a lot of applications on them, so we have a huge amount of choice on where to spend out time. To keep people coming back to use your application, consider using the mix I’ve recommended above. To figure out that mix, make sure you observe people (but don’t creep them out!), ask questions, and spend time away from your desk in different contexts. As I mentioned in an earlier post, when I ride public transit, I feel like I’m surrounded by people using tablets with e-readers, people texting on mobile phones, or using social networking services and commenting about their trip. Others are watching TV shows or movies, or simply listening to music. When I’m in an airport, I jostle with others flocking to power stations prior to boarding the aircraft. In a restaurant or coffee shop, the people around me are staring into their screens. I observe what they are doing, but I take it a step further. If the moment is right, I strike up a conversation. Many people are happy to demonstrate their device and the programs they use, and tell you what they enjoy about them, and where they use them. As a designer (and tester), this kind of information is gold.

I also look for apps that demonstrate good mobile design, and look at what they have done well. One that has caught my eye in the enterprise space is Rypple, now owned by Salesforce. It’s a talent management app that has a mix of the three keys: mobility, social interactions and gaming/entertainment. It is easy to use anywhere, and has features to keep drawing you in. In the mass market, I look at popular games like Angry Birds, and social networking apps. What motivations to people have to use these apps? What do they do well? Conversely, what are people complaining about? Do they crash too much, or are they too slow?

Putting it All Together

Let’s try applying this thinking to a simple app. Imagine you are designing an app that provides a listing and related information for local coffee shops. Here is a brief listing of features that can help tie together a good user experience that will keep people coming back for more:

1. Mobility:

  • map integration
  • information: ratings, etc

2. Social:

  • camera and photo integration
  • social media support
  • people need to take pictures of their food and drinks so they can post them and chat about the experience with their friends!

3. Gamification:

  • unlock premium content after usage – ie. after visiting all the shops listed in the app, or for multiple visits
  • look at coupon or other deals to integrate with after app usage, or other ways to co-ordinate with local businesses for cross-promotion

A word of caution: be sure to implement these features in a way that will resonate with your user community. Make sure your mobility features work well, don’t mislead your user, and don’t have irritating defaults, such as always defaulting to their home address, even when they are traveling. With social, don’t just copy what is out there and popular and think people will like it. Take time to model the existing social connections your app users will have, and make sure your app plugs into and enhances that. With gamification and entertainment, don’t put in childish rewards for an enterprise app, or app aimed for adults, or people will just think it is lame. Again, model the space and find out intrinsic motivations, and take the context and users into account.

Good Design References

These are some abstract ideas to help you model and create your app. For implementation ideas, I look to people who specialize in mobility and are pushing the technology. Here are some people I look to for help, innovation and inspiration:

Luke Wroblewski
Brad Frost
Josh Clark

The always excellent Smashing Magazine has a fabulous piece on gamification: Gamification and UX: Where Users Win or Lose with tips on where to use gamification, and where not to use it. Smashing Mag also has a lot of great mobile design information here: The Elements Of The Mobile User Experience .

I hope you find these ideas useful as you design your own mobile apps, or work to help others. Happy app designing!

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