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Mobile is king: Why you need to start understanding user experience for apps

Mobile is here to stay - it’s now the primary way in which we communicate, play, shop and browse. Having a compact version of your website is no longer good enough. In a study, 90% of users reported that poor performance was the core reason why they stopped using an app. You need to address your user’s unique needs and requirements without cluttering your interface. When tailoring your user experience (UX) you also need to delve into the psychology of your users - how can they effortlessly get the most out of your app? There are a great deal of limitations as well as opportunities when it comes to displaying content on mobile. In this article we’ll take a look at why user experience design is important and give our top tips and best practices.

What is ‘user experience’?

To put it simply, User Experience refers to how an end-user feels as they interact with a product or service. In regards to mobile apps, it takes into account functionality, ease of use and more recently accessibility. It can be something as simple as color contrast, fluidity of animation or even just how the app feels to use. The term originates from Donald Norman, a researcher in usability and cognitive science, who coined it while examining the explosion of computer-based jobs and ownership during the 1990’s. With mobile becoming the dominant platform on which we operate, it only makes sense to shine the spotlight on the user experience design of mobile apps.

“A product is more than the product. It is a cohesive, integrated set of experiences. Think through all of the stages of a product or service – from initial intentions through final reflections, from first usage to help, service, and maintenance. Make them all work together seamlessly.”Don Norman

Why your mobile UX matters

Along with the various screen dimensions and device sizes to take into account, you also need to keep the limitations of human anatomy in mind. Sight and touch are the major components to consider. By this we mean that mobile by its definition is ‘in motion’ - your mobile app needs to adapt to fast-paced environments.

  • You can’t just apply desktop standards and expect good results. More importantly it helps to understand that the purpose of your mobile app is very different from the same app on desktop.
  • People use their phones in short bursts, if they can’t find what they want within 2 minutes they might as well use their computer.
  • A study showed that “smartphone use often overlaps with other activities [...] switching between different categories of apps may hinder productivity but increase enjoyment”. Don’t expect your app to be the main focus - the user is most likely using your app while waiting or doing some other task, chores or even other apps.

As you can see, the targets and measurements of mobile apps need to be specifically tailored for the mobile experience.

72% of customers will tell 6 or more people if they’re happy with their user experience. With a multitude of other developers and apps readily available to users, don’t expect your users to stick around if they don’t enjoy your product - UX is integral to acquiring as well as retaining users. Aspects that can damage UX like feature creep (gradual build up of excessive features making it too complicated) can easily be prevented by investing in your UX early and testing your prototypes to see how users actually use your mobile app. In Career Foundry’s Whitepaper The Trillion Dollar UX Problem, UX professionals and experts from more than 50 leading developers including Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Volkswagen and Zalando  concluded that any investment in UX design yields financial return with the possibility of up to $100 for every $1. With increased customer satisfaction and less customer support contacts, there are more savings to be found in the long run too.

The differences and similarities of UX and UI

Although UX and user interface (UI) work hand in hand and share some common goals, they fundamentally have two different objectives and ways to achieve them. Whereas UI focuses on the touchpoints of how a user interacts with a product, UX concerns itself with a more holistic approach - the user’s entire journey, or experience from the first to last touch. Mobile UX highlights the structural design of the app and finds solutions for any part of the user’s journey that can be better optimized. Although aesthetics play a role in the user’s experience on mobile, the core aim is to excite and retain users with the effectiveness of an app’s functionality on top of its design. Think of the user experience as the skeleton and organs, and the user interface as the appearance on the outside  - without UX, UI is hollow and cannot function effectively. With this in mind, let’s check out some of the core principles of user experience design.

Mobile user experience design principles

Luckily, when developing your app’s UX,  there’s a general blueprint to follow that will enable you to provide your users with the best possible in-app experience. Below is a list of some of the core design principles in mobile user experience:

  1. Usability: Mobile screens are smaller than desktop - there’s no room for clutter. Understand your user’s finger placement, how they hold their phones and how your app fits in-between. Remember the rule of thumb! Your app also needs to promote learnability and be intuitive enough that  any user can pick up how to use it in seconds.

  2. Familiarity : Users subconsciously internalize previous app designs. Start with what works and go from there. A good UX should reduce the user’s learning curve. Familiarity goes a long  way in helping your users speed through your app. Design patterns are crucial when curating your user experience. Reusing existing solutions can help you avoid common problems.

  3. Consistency: Menus, displays and app flow need to make sense. Frustrating your users will drive them away to a competitor. Take some inspiration from your website or web app, but keep in mind the above advice about usability.

    The more your user assumes about your interface the more confident they will be navigating your app. Creating a positive emotional response goes a long way.

  4. Accessibility: With the global and cross-generational use of mobile apps, it’s vital to consider the needs of every potential user. About 15% of the world's population lives with some form of disability - always think about this when developing your mobile UX.  It’s always best practice to design your app to accommodate a wide variety of users.  51% of people 55 years or older, for example, state that using voice functions empowers them.

  5. Appeal: How do your users feel when they use your app? The more your users enjoy interfacing with your app, the more likely they are to spend more time and money. Captivate your audience with your useability and design and they’ll come back for more.

How to improve your UX design for mobile

When discussing accessibility, clickable on-screen elements need to respond reliably. The Material Design Accessibility guidelines state that elements should have a vertical and width pixel density (db) of 48. This size will give users reliable feedback to their touch, ensuring a good mobile UX. User interface hierarchy plays an important role in the overall user experience. By incorporating a clear hierarchy of elements in accordance with importance, you’re guaranteeing that your user can seamlessly navigate the app and gather necessary information with only a glimpse. This philosophy is also useful when displaying text - the eyes should be naturally guided by the order of your layout. The BBC UX design guidelines provide an excellent starting point to understand just how much you need to consider when creating your app for mobile.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, that’s why visualized transitions are particularly helpful when incorporated into the onboarding process of your app. To ensure your user understands their actions and their place in the app when navigating from page to page, consider incorporating visual transitions. It’s about the functionality of the app, understanding your user’s needs and wants, and how your app can best serve them - if you don’t put yourself in the mind of your user, your UX will suffer as a result. The question  now is how one goes about improving their app’s user experience? Below are some ideas to consider:

  1. Provide users with visual feedback: When interfacing with anything, digital or otherwise, we expect an appropriate reaction. These animations provide a certain comfort to users as it ensures them that they’re making progress and everything’s working as intended. Function changes are also good moments to use animations as they make the most of on-screen changes helping introduce new features to users. Depending on the complexity of your app, focusing your user experience efforts on in-app navigation always pays dividends. Users need to understand your app on an intuitive level, and hiding and showing features through animations is a fantastic use of screen size limits.

  2. Use engaging animations: By using animations to bolster your in-app marketing, you’re also boosting your brand’s awareness. You want your users to associate a quality user experience with your brand. If you make it fun and accessible, it can often be the just the draw your users need to try out new app features. Incorporating animations with in-app notifications can provide users with useful reminders and prompts. Show what’s new and what your app has to offer. Using animations to accompany your user’s in-app journey can make your user experience that much more interesting and enticing but with a caveat - you need to ensure you don’t over do it or it’s too time-consuming. Remember, usability and consistency are key.

  3. Stick with what works: It can be tempting to try and push the envelope when it comes to user design but often looking at what already works is the perfect jumping off point. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel - there’s a reason the best apps are rated so highly. In an article about the timelessness of Playstation’s™ controller design, the author states:
    “But after generations of experimentation, with different game companies all trying to solve the problem of “what makes a good controller,” nearly all of the successful controllers to date are based on Sony’s original design.”

    Familiarity and learnability are some of the most valuable assets in UX. Look at other apps and your competitors, find out what works and learn when it’s appropriate to try out brand new ideas for your app’s user experience.

  4. The importance of accessibility: As the usage of mobile apps grows, so too does the demographic. Android and iOS offer developers accessibility tools for app development and you should take full advantage of that. Accessibility has always had a positive impact on everyone’s

Overall user experience. Tools like screen readers and voice commands are invaluable in helping users navigate through your app. Accessibility tools should never just be an afterthought, consider how well your app would perform when put through text-to-speech readers. Aside from moral and legal motivations, by definition, user experience is for everybody. By keeping accessibility in mind, you will help shape a positive UX for all.

Every seemingly inconsequential part of your app design and the device it’s used on plays a huge part in building and shaping the  entire user experience. The navigation bar in CNN’s mobile app, for example,  provides 3 simple choices - it’s not littered with icons or further options and the users cannot mistake their function. Think of the multitude of existing gestures, visuals, sounds and prompts your app can take advantage of and build upon them. Sometimes less is more - simple icon layouts and short bursts of user input serve the user far better than overwhelming them with fields to fill out and multitudes of menus. Lastly, the cornerstone of any good UX is constant testing and optimization. Every little change factors into how your users interact with your app. Only by receiving and incorporating feedback on your user experience can you ensure your UX is up to date, that users want to be in your mobile app. All of which can save you time and money along the way.

The importance of UX in mobile marketing and app design has become more poignant than ever as developers work to create and optimize opt-in prompts and user consent forms that maximize opt-in rates on iOS 14.5+. You can read our guide to getting the opt-in, and the role that UX plays in it, here.

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