Top Tips – The Magnificent Seven: Delivering the perfect mobile application

The creation of mobile apps is a booming business

and an essential requirement in the modern business world. Keytree expert Vanessa Donnelly guides you through her seven top tips, on how to meet and overcome the toughest of challenges.

The world continues to go mobile. Around 65 percent of the US, and 75 percent of the UK population own a smartphone, with far higher penetration amongst the 25 to 30-year-olds. And people don’t just own smartphones; they use them on a daily and even hourly basis.

In one study, it was found that eight out of ten users pick up their smartphone within an hour of waking up – 34 percent of these within five minutes of getting out of bed.

Smartphones have now taken over from laptops as the device of choice for accessing the Internet. Hardly surprising as they are lighter, more portable and therefore, more convenient for people to use, especially to access the plethora of information and tools easily available to download and often for free.

Our growing attachment and dependence on mobile devices provides an outstanding opportunity for business but decisions around what should be a mobile app and what shouldn’t, needs some careful consideration. A “mobile first” strategy should not equate to “make everything mobile”.

If businesses want to embrace the mobile opportunity, the first thing to understand is which customer or employee tasks could be improved by using mobile devices – and which tasks won’t.

The potential to know a user’s location or utilise the camera within an app can provide the opportunity to do things differently and in a more efficient or fun way. But there are also some obvious constraints to take into account. For example, in the case of most smartphones, the screens are small which makes it difficult for users to complete tasks if they need to scan or refer to large amounts of information. Also, when using any mobile device, relying on Internet availability is perilous. Who hasn’t been on a train and been disconnected whilst going through a tunnel or Internet black spot.

Understanding the benefits and constraints of mobile devices will help a business decide whether to go down the mobile app route, the mobile web route or the hybrid route. It will also guide the decision around what the target mobile devices should be – smartphone, tablet, or even both.

There is however, one over-arching thought that needs to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind. The User Experience! The growth of mobile devices has forged ahead because most people find them easy and convenient to use. This focus on design simplicity and visual appeal has helped to drive the incredible growth in consumer adoption, with mapping, social media, email, shopping and news sites dominating the usage statistics.

For business apps to be successful, the User Experience has to match the same level of usability, simplicity and visual appeal as successful consumer mobile interfaces. Designers of business mobile experiences cannot just transfer existing design patterns and process flows into smaller layouts; more thought and creativity is needed.

Understanding the right thing to do and then doing it right, requires an understanding of the opportunities and constraints that mobile apps bring to the table. Here are my seven golden rules for developing business mobile applications.

Make apps discoverable

Statistics from summer 2015 put the number of apps in the app store at 1.5 million, with Playstore offering just over 1.6 million. It is very difficult for businesses to get consumers to download business apps unless they have an existing relationship with the brand and perceive a real value proposition.

Therefore, for consumers, mobile apps should be considered for tasks related to engaging existing customers with features that provide a clear value proposition. The ability to download the app should always be made available directly from the mobile website.

In contrast, no such barrier exists when providing mobile apps to employees. Invest in the technology to automatically disseminate apps directly onto employee phones. This makes discoverability and app updates a non-issue for the business employee.

Design for off-line access

Consumers and mobile employees cannot always rely on having a reliable Internet connection. In fact, in some environments and locations Internet access can be non-existent.

Early on, it is important to understand where the service will be used and how the intended user community will access it. The ability to keep working even when you are off-line is one of the main reasons why a mobile app can be the better option. It provides the ability for users to continue to work offline and then synchronise back when an Internet connection becomes available.

However, enabling off-line working may not always be a good idea either. For example, if the user needs to see completely up-to-date information such as product availability or a stock price, then displaying out-of-date information can cause users problems and potentially, cause them to make errors. In these situations, a hybrid approach is often selected.

Different screen size – different layouts

There is considerable variability in screen sizes across different types of mobile devices, which can present some challenges in designing a universal service that works for the majority of mobile users.

For example, the iPhone 5s has a screen size of 2.3 x 4.9 inches and the Google Nexus 10 tablet has a screen size of 7 x 10.4 inches. That is a massive difference in terms of the amount of information that can be visible at any one time.

To create designs that work well on both devices requires a responsive design approach based on a grid mechanism. Simple layouts allow for minor adjustments in the code for differing screen widths and heights – without affecting the design. One positive aspect of mobile apps is that the negative connotations associated with users scrolling have mostly gone away. However, what hasn’t changed is the need for users to see the information they need to complete a task.

One consideration is that smaller devices are not usable for research-type tasks that require users to reference large amounts of information. In addition, tasks that require large amounts of text entry also do not translate well to mobile devices, even with the improvements in voice recognition. Small screen sizes will just make this hard work.

Design for mobility

One of the biggest differences when designing for mobile devices is considering how and where the device will be used. For employee apps, one aspect that needs consideration is how long employees will be expected to hold the device and whether they are able or want to hold the device with one hand or two. There are distinct weight factors to take into account. For example, it might not be possible for an employee to hold a tablet with one hand for any length of time and one handed data entry is also challenging for most users.

The way a user holds a device and touches a screen will influence how easy it is to reach parts of the screen to make selections. It won’t always be possible for users with a large tablet to reach across one-handed to choose an option. As mobile devices rely on “hit areas” for selecting options, there needs to be adequate space for the user to confidently and accurately make selections. You must also consider that the average fingertip is around 1 – 2 cm wide, which will affect the design and layout of mobile screens.

In addition, users may be using their devices where there are privacy issues or social barriers that will prevent them from using technologies such as voice recognition. Data entry can be time-consuming and error-prone, if the only option is to use the soft keypad.

Determining what tasks need to completed, how long they expect to take, where they are likely to take place and how users will complete them will have the greatest impact on how some enterprise applications need to be designed. For mobile devices, understanding the ‘context of use’ becomes increasingly important as it can affect more than just the design. In many circumstances it can dictate which approach should be adopted (app, hybrid or web) and what type of mobile devices should be used.

Exploiting the mobile capabilities

The exciting part of moving towards a mobile app world is looking at how the additional mobile capabilities can be exploited to help the user. Providing users with the ability to achieve tasks more efficiently and effectively, can directly affect business performance.

Having the ability to detect automatically a users’ location or providing the ability for employees to capture information while they are away from a desk, can transform business processes and speed up workflows. Providing direct access to the camera can introduce the ability to annotate pictures, making it far quicker to communicate a range of complex information. Combining image capture with tools such as barcode readers can make item identification immediate and accurate. There are huge possibilities for improving business performance, and many companies are only just starting to realise these opportunities.

Design for the mobile user

The attention span of smartphone users has reduced on average to about eight seconds , down from 20 seconds in 2000. Users with heavier digital lifestyles can multi-task and scan information more quickly before honing in on what they are interested in or need. Added to this, the mobile user will often get interrupted in what they are doing – which could be as a result of other people, their environment or their other multi-tasking activities.

As such it is especially important to focus on simplicity and task efficiency for mobile devices. The focus should be to get users through a process as quickly as possible, reduce data entry and where possible use the mobile capabilities to hurry the process along. However, if the content is stimulating or visually attractive, users will dwell and invest their time. But never assume what you think is interesting will interest your users – which is why you need to…..

Adopt an agile user research and design process

As the success of mobile apps is so dependent on the context of use and achieving tasks quickly and easily – user research should guide strategic decisions right at the start of a project.

As marketing research is used primarily to understand if people will buy a product, user research is used to understand if people will use, or will be able to use, a product. In a mobile app world, adoption is often the main barrier to success. In an agile environment, this understanding of the target users helps to define the minimum viable project and product roadmap, before any design or development activities start.

Once everyone knows what the business and user goals are, an iterative design approach should be employed. This involves creating low fidelity paper prototypes that can be used to test design ideas early with real users. Prototypes present how the interface could work, displaying examples of real content (not Latin) to test whether users can complete tasks and whether the user experience provides them with what they want and need.

As designs start to be developed into code, the outputs from each sprint should be tested with users. Remembering that mobile users have limited attention span and are often interrupted during tasks, the performance of the system is critical. Apps must be optimised for speed; and techniques are available to help with this, for example reducing image sizes using PunyPNG or JpegMini, combining and optimising the CSS and JavaScript files and ensuing connections to the server, are kept to a minimum. Performance has a huge effect on a user’s satisfaction with a system and it is worth taking to the time to specify the user experience performance goals right at the start of the project.

The agile design process is the best approach for mobile apps. Understand, specify, design, build, test, iterate and refine – ideally during short sprints of two weeks. Get something in front of users as quickly as possible – test and refine as often as needed until you have reached your User Experience goals.