A while back, I complained about mobile apps that went bad due to poor user interface makeovers, such as the Associated Press' AP Mobile, PRX's Public Radio Player, and Gannett's USA Today apps. Media companies -- which really should know better -- seem to be especially prone to bad mobile app design.
Good design is important for any application, despite what years and years of bad apps from vendors and IT shops have led us to believe. In the mobile context, good design is even more critical because the small screen and unsteady operating environment makes it even harder to use an app, which good design can overcome.
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What can developers do about it? And what should users look for? I spoke recently with Michael Griffith, creative director at Bottle Rocket Apps, a mobile app development shop whose apps include the nicely designed NPR News app. He had a set of 10 principles and recommendations that if followed should lead to better apps -- especially better mobile apps.
1. Don't simply port what you have to other platforms (iOS to Android, Web to iOS, Android to BlackBerry, and so on). The look and feel should honor the target platform, which users chose for a reason. Also, capabilities may also differ based on what the platform offers, so developers need to decide when the platforms are too usefully different to deliver the "same" app across them and do related apps instead.
For corporate apps used in multiple contexts and devices, Griffith notes the degree of standardization should be greater than in consumer apps, so users can do what's familiar across all devices they might be provided in the course of their work, assuring them they can do what they need regardless of device and reducing learning time. In this case, the app is the center of the user experience more than the device is. (By contrast, the device tends to be the center of the user experience in consumer usage.) You still must honor fundamental UI assumptions of the platform in the app's basic interactions -- such as access to menus.
2. Take advantage of mobile (especially smartphone) constraints to think creatively. An example is for an app to use facial recognition to auto-crop on the central focus of image rather than manually build all the views in the app's asset library. Anticipating all the sizes and crops is a daunting task, and storing them in the app only makes it fat, which clogs devices' limited storage space and consumes a lot of bandwidth during app updates.
3. Take advantage of mobile capabilities not available on a PC. For example, use the camera to snap images or "signatures," or location services to narrow down suggestions such as in search or suppliers. Use those sensors, especially where their additional data can reduce user and/or app background effort.
4. Design accessibly. It's common to see young designers use small text and tight layouts that are hard for older users to read and accurately tap. Avoid the Retina effect: Just because there are now smaller pixels that make text technically readable at even smaller sizes, if you're much past the age of 35, human eyes still can't read such minuscule text. Use adaptive design instead, such as preferences over text size that adjust the layout accordingly. The new text-size API in iOS 7 should reduce the burden of that coding for iPhones and iPads.