Designing Mobile Apps – Less Is More
The biggest mistake made by new app designers is putting too much functionality into their mobile apps. According to user experience expert Peter Merholz, Sr. Director of Programs and Product Experience at Jawbone, apps are far too complex. “What happens with folks is they take the web experience that they’ve been building for 15 – 20 years, which has grown and added a lot of capability, and they try to figure out how to get that all in a mobile app,” says Peter.
When designing mobile apps, it’s important to think hard and “focus on the core tasks” that the user wants to perform and strip the rest away. According to Peter, one must always ask, “How do you make it as simple and straightforward as possible?”
For app designers this is much easier said than done. Let’s say you have an app that does five things and you need to simplify. How do you decide what the user wants and doesn’t want? Good decisions require profiling your target users into personas, getting to know these personas, and discovering what their core tasks might be.
This type of research involves a lot of creative thinking and experimentation, which starts with prototyping. A prototype is not a full functioning app but a mockup that simulates the user flow. When the prototype is ready, you can start user testing that takes a series of users through the flow, watches them use the app, sees where they get stuck, and records their comments. Finally, Peter suggests A/B testing to determine which variants in a design would be most successful.
Anybody can build and app, and many do, but few have the patience and expertise to perfect their inventions. This type of focus is something we see continually at Apple. It is worth reminding the audience that Apple invented the idea of the smartphone app and set the tone with simplicity. This is what made the iPhone so popular.
Recently Tim Cook (CEO of Apple) said on the Charlie Rose show, “It’s so easy to add. It’s hard to edit. It’s hard to stay focused.” As hard as it may be, this is the true skill that’s required for building a successful mobile app. It’s honing, perfecting, trying new things, and not being afraid to tear it apart and go back to the drawing board.
These days the focus in mobile app development is rightfully on UI/UX, which means User Interface / User Experience. This gets at how the user feels while using your app and has everything to do with how the app looks, behaves, and functions. At first, a lot of UX work went off shore, but it was quickly discovered that the designer needs to fully understand and be immersed in the culture where the app will be used. Therefore, a lot of design work now stays local.
In summary, a good app user experience can be created by knowing your target users well, thinking hard about their core task, and then stripping away the non-essentials. User testing and A/B testing can then be used to refine the design.
About the Author:
John Houghton is a serial entrepreneur and founder of MobileCast Media, a mobile app development and mobile content company focusing on strategy and user experience. John’s specialty is product management for high growth software products, having twice built $100 million dollar software brands, generating over half a billion dollars in new license revenue for Oracle, Commerce One, and SAP. His company’s customers are Ericsson, Cisco, Accenture, Audi, and Skyy Spirits.