Design Considerations for Building Mobile Apps

Today I participated in my first Apps for Good session with a class from Holly Hall Academy in Dudley. If you’re not familiar with Apps for Good then go read about this fantastic programme that encourages school children to use technology to tackle problems for social good.

Today was an opportunity for the young’uns (13 yo’s) to pitch some of their great ideas (via Skype) to Sophie Freiermuth and myself. We were impressed with their ideas, ranging from an app that provides advice on sexual health issues to one for finding out more on bullying and harassment. There were even ideas to find your perfect hairstyle and one that teaches you the Japanese craft of origami. We then shared insight and tips to help these young entrepreneurs to further develop their ideas.

I’ve summarised some of the key design considerations we discussed with the children below, with a few extra points (not covered) thrown in.

Think about the place of use
Mobile provides exciting opportunities because it allows users to interact in more places and in a more engaging way, and at different times of the day.   It’s important to understand the environment in which your customer may interact with the application. 

For example, consider what it means to your application if your target user will typically use your app in a public space to discuss confidential topics such as sexual heath or bullying. A voice-only mode may not be discreet enough, so considering the context will recognise the need for alternative ways to interact.

Provide functionality to help your target audience achieve their goal
Don’t make the mistake of discussing what functionality to offer before you have clearly defined what the goals are for the target audience. This avoids common failings such as feature bloat, where features are placed ahead of better experiences.  It is easy to create a rich feature list but the challenge is to understand the customer and pare down this feature list so that it does fewer things, better and in a simpler way, and all with the purpose of helping the users to achieve their goal. A good motto to keep in mind, “do a few things, and do them damn well.”

Storytelling is a powerful way to communicate design ideas. The narrative will validate the importance and effectiveness of your app in solving a real need.  One group told a compelling story of the build-up to a new haircut, of their fears and reassurances, which helped to ground their app in a real context and ultimately resulted in them only suggesting content and functionality that mattered.

Observe and learn from what engages you
Mario Kart is a masterpiece in game design. One tactic that Mario Kart uses to create stickiness is to reward you for winning a cup by unlocking new levels, characters or vehicles.  It helps to understand the small individual mechanics like this that make the game so much fun.

The children should learn from the things they find fun and engaging, and see how those design principles can then be applied to their ideas.

Are you giving your audience something of value? 
A successful app addresses real customers.  For every application that is the result of a rigorous user centric design approach there will be one that fails to consider who the users are, their behaviours, and how they will interact with the application. Keep asking yourself, who is your target audience and are you giving your target audience something of value.

The children should take every opportunity to talk to their target audience, be it other school children, teachers or parents. Research is a wonderful thing. They need to go get Guerilla.

Understand user behaviour
Apps tend to be more transient experience than traditional online experiences.  Customers use them briefly and move on.  These considerations are vital when designing apps. Long complex tasks are unlikely to be completed as users are distracted or disengaged. This is why mobile apps are seldom built to rely on long attention spans.

Observe, observe, observe.  Watch people’s behaviour and talk to them as they go about their business. Ethnographic research is important to help you understand how people interact with mobile apps.

Make the app easy to use
Even when these applications do address customers’ needs, many applications fail because of a poor design execution. Key characteristics that are fundamental to a mobile app include simplicity, ease-of-use and responsiveness.

The screen size provides obvious design implications. A usable application is one where the user can focus on the essentials.  It’s about stripping out the unnecessary to create a simplified user interface, which is easy to read.  The design objective is to keep the user experience focused on the task.  Screen clutter distracts and hinders the user from performing the intended action.  This is less about minimalist design but more about focused design.

Is your app finger friendly?
The mobile browsing experience is a different beast to the online browsing experience. With such a gestural interface, precision mouse control & clicks are replaced by the finger.  This enables users to interact in a far more natural and intuitive manner, responding to gestures such as tap, flick & pinch.  Successful implementation requires supporting standard gestures such as tap, flick and pinch appropriately and providing immediate feedback.  Gesture support manifests itself in the interface, as the layout is optimized for fingers, providing a finger tappable area for all tappable elements.  Fingers don¹t have the same level of precision as a mouse, so make sure all interactive elements are sized and spaced to optimise gestural interactions.

Provide an experience that is enjoyable and delightful to use
Users have high expectations for mobile apps and expect them to be enjoyable to use  - so whilst they are purposeful they need to delight. A delightful experience creates an emotional connection and a customer who is emotionally engaged will interact longer.

Make sure you app is intuitive
From the moment the launch screen appears it must be immediately apparent to the user what the application does and instantly understandable as to how to interact with it.  Users are impatient and if it takes too much time figuring out what to do then the user will tune out.

Know your phone
Most smartphones have a camera and GPS, and some have a voice assistant such as Siri.  Whilst you shouldn’t use features just because you can, do get to know your phone to make sure you fully understand what it can offer you.

The group with the idea for a sexual health app, made great use of an intelligent personal assistant to provide an easy and intuitive way to ask questions.

A phone has its limitations
Users have high expectations of performance.  Therefore design your application with bandwidth in mind. Desktop Internet experiences provide a visually engaging experience without the same bandwidth constraints, therefore images and rich media are heavily used. However, when it comes to mobile design, these rich elements can do more harm than good if they provide a sub-optimal experience.

Hopefully the school children found the session useful.  I found it fun and inspiring, and I look forward to the next session.  Thanks to Andy Steadman (from Holly Hall Academy) and Myrian Schwitzner (from Apps for Good) for organising.

Don’t limit the value you can bring

Let’s write off 2012 as a year that User Experience Designers did as they were told. As we wrap up the season of goodwill and enter 2013, I urge everyone to make this the year we come armed with sharpies (and post-its), and run amok demanding answers to ”why are we doing what we are doing?” As representatives of our industry, we have a responsibility to ask probing questions of our company’s or clients business strategy. We want businesses to truly embrace our passion for designing amazing customer experiences, but this will only happen as we demonstrate how putting the customer at the heart of their business drives more business value and creates competitive advantage. If you see your role as simply designing a customer experience then you are limiting the value you can bring.  By understanding the business and why you are doing what you are doing, you can design customer experiences that drive business transformation.

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