7 mobile usability success factors

7 key points in designing mobile apps to optimize usability and increase the chance for success

mobile payments / phone
Thinkstock

What do phones and toothbrushes have in common? Both are personal items that you can’t live without, that you wouldn’t loan out. This is a topic that came up recently recently during a seminar I give, “How to Evaluate and Improve Mobile UX.” It’s difficult to deny how important mobile usability is as the research and statistics support how the mobile platform is now more prevalent than desktops. Some companies are even going with either a mobile-first or mobile-only strategy.

We all know how critically important the mobile platform has become in our lives by just asking these questions.

  • Who leaves their home without their mobile phone? And if you do, do you go back and get it? That tells you how important it is, not only to you, but those trying to reach you.
  • Next, would you loan your phone to someone else? This tells you how personal we’ve become with our mobile devices. It’s almost like a toothbrush, you just don’t loan it out!

As many corporations roll out their mobile strategy, whether it’s converting their website to a mobile-friendly site, app or platform, developing a whole new app to capture a mobile segment, or service a mobile specific audience, many companies don’t realize how important mobile usability is to the equation for success. This article discusses seven key points in designing mobile apps to optimize usability and increase the chance for success.

1. Analyze the task at hand

I’ve worked with many companies that want to simply convert their web functionality into mobile and want to move all functions and content over to the mobile platform. That approach may sound simple, but it doesn’t work. The content and functions on the mobile platform should be specifically optimized for that platform. When examining the top tasks that users will perform, list them by importance and frequency. Of course the result should have no tasks that are infrequent and not important. This will leave two other categories; frequent and important, not frequent and important. Note that frequent and not important does not exist!

For the two categories, apply task concordance where you make the most frequent and most important tasks easiest to execute. Defining “easy to execute” is up to the designer, but it should rest on the basic usability principles of reducing friction and the number of clicks. The Fidelity investments mobile application exemplifies this. Take a look at the "execute a trade" task.

fidelity investments mobile app Philip Lew

A simple mobile task. Isn’t that easy to understand, clear, and fast (easy to execute)?

2. Use color wisely

Choice of colors is sometimes dictated by corporate branding guidelines, but even though there are constraints, you may be able to make choices within a range. Two main factors to consider include color psychology and contrast. How we feel about color depends on the person and the culture. In some cultures like China, red means good luck, while in others it may imply other meanings.

Color contrast needs to be carefully thought out especially since mobile phones are often used outdoors. Getting back to the task at hand, who are your users, where are they using your app? Are they outside? In a factory? What light conditions will they most likely have? Use a color contrast wheel to make sure you’re following basic contrast guidelines so that users can see what they are doing.

Its contrasting colors on opposite sides of the color wheel make it easy to see. Don’t make seeing what you have to offer the first challenge for your users.

3. Size (and position) matters

With larger screen sizes, mobile app designers face a double edged sword. While there is more room to put more stuff, there is more room to put unnecessary stuff. Just because there is more real estate to put more information and functionality than before, that doesn’t mean that it needs to be maxed out (see above). It’s important to keep in mind the position and size of buttons and controls. When designing for task concordance, part of that design should also take into account ease of operation from a hand-friendly point of view. Thus, the need to account for the most common platforms (screen size), hand-size and thumb positions of your most common users. Take a look at some thumb-friendly (or not) diagrams showing what is easy to reach and what is not depending for an iPhone 6–7+ with screen size of 5.5 inches.

If your app targets a particular user group with different hand sizes or different levels of dexterity than the norm, you’d have to take that into consideration as well.

4. Make it easy for input and feedback

Typing is a method of input that we should all try to minimize. We can do this through numerous ways including various widgets such as drop downs and scroll bars as well as defaults. Voice recognition is becoming more popular as algorithms advance and accuracy increases. Sensors also enable the app developer to gather contextual information about the user and their current situation, such as location, to automatically input information, thus avoiding the need for the user to type.

5. Remember your users will make mistakes

For an application to be useful, it needs to understand that users make mistakes. In that sense, it needs to prevent errors, as well as inform users in an appropriate manner when a mistake has been made. Preventing errors can be done in numerous ways such as context sensitive help, and using context sensitive defaults to prevent typing mishaps. Additionally, the app should have an emergency exit button, meaning that a user can go backwards and escape out of a task or function. When errors do you happen, the user should be notified in succinct and understandable language. And lastly, the app should prevent future errors by teaching and instructing the correct way as to avoid the error.

6. Be a trustful friend

Security and trust go hand-in-hand and are directly related most of the time. A secure application can lead to trust in the end user, but a trustful end user does not mean the application is secure. Let’s look at this further. Even after taking precautions to ensure that the user’s data is safe, if they don’t know it, they still may not trust the application (and the company behind it). Why? That’s because the application has not been designed in trustful way. Developing trust with end users is like a relationship. Each time they open the application, it’s like having a meeting with them, having lunch for instance. Here’s how to mess up or begin to gain the trust of users one step at a time:

  • Use simple language: there is a reason people don’t like and don’t trust lawyers. They speak in complicated language that is difficult to understand and often times, it may mean something else. The application’s language should be easy and straightforward. Ensure that the non-disclosure and information protection statements are short and simple.
  • Be straightforward in functionality: no one likes an application that is too complicated or too complex to understand. Are there hidden meanings? If I say or do this, how will they react? Make the functions clear and easy to understand, as well as the output.
  • Communicate how the app is safe: when logging off a user due to security concerns, let them know. When the app doesn’t allow the user to enter information or see information via a mobile platform, let them know why.

Of course there are many other ways to instill trust in your end users; but if you just think about the people you trust in your lives, make sure the app behaves in the same way.

7. If you’re late to the party, nothing matters (performance)

No matter how many well liked features and functions the app has, if it has a poor response time, that equates to poor usability. When people can’t use an app with ease, they get frustrated and will eventually go somewhere else. But don’t make the mistake of trying to make every feature and function perform according to the same criteria. Use the task concordance exercise above to determine what parts or functions of the app should have the best performance and use that as a way to prioritize your efforts.

Summary: Improve continuously

“Improve continuously” is often said, but it’s hard to achieve. Here’s how to do it successfully.

In design decisions, one may have to make assumptions or some of the data you may have could be incorrect or in a slightly different context. In any case, once the app is up and running, it’s important to collect user data and verify the assertions in light of the issues discussed above.

  • See which tasks or functions are not used. If they’re not being used, move them backward and think of other tasks/features that users would rather have.
  • Track the performance of the most frequent and important tasks and make sure they perform the best. Find the laggards and work on them.
  • Track not only when errors occur and where, but also where users spend a lot of time. If your users pause on one particular page, it may be confusing for them, or the step in the task may be too difficult or long.

Now that you’ve got these mobile app usability success factors, how to apply them and how to improve them, you’re on the road to having a highly usable mobile app that your users will not only love once, but will keep coming back for years to come.

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?