What makes a usable mobile app

The sheer growth of digital devices over the last 20 years has made information more accessible than ever and greatly increased the need for new applications to not only process that information, but to accomplish new tasks and tasks that were once done manually.
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While information processing was once a specialized activity that took place mostly out of sight in data processing departments, it is now a major element of our daily lives. This element has created the need for more and more applications to do more and more things. Digital technology has taken over everything, from the way we read books to the way we drive our cars. Consequently, the demand for new applications is rising with no sign of slacking off.

Mobile apps in particular are becoming the way in which people gather and use information and relate to each other in digital space. And so, the quality of mobile apps is becoming increasingly important. But what is quality? Developers tend to define quality by performance and function. However,  the average person defines quality as usability. No matter how well an application can otherwise perform a particular function, it will not be successful if it lacks usability.  Here are the important elements that make up a usable application.

The first is platform usability. A given application must be usable across multiple platforms. The fastest way for your application to lose popularity, or not even get off the ground, is to ignore a particular device. Nothing is more frustrating to a mobile user than to have an application not work on their specific device. This is why all applications should be extensively tested on how they perform across multiple platforms. While it may not be possible to test every device that your application may be required to run on, it is vital to test your application on as many platforms as possible.

Next comes navigation. This is a major issue that can result in failure, or at least monetary loss, if not handled properly. It doesn't matter whether we are talking about a web-based application,  a website or even something that works offline. Ease of navigation is particularly important when dealing with a small screen environment. It should take as few clicks as possible for the user to achieve his or her goals.

Information is also an important element of navigation and presenting information on a constricted screen can be difficult. This is where it is necessary to engage in detailed planning before writing any code. What information is needed and how it is to be presented should be determined well ahead of time.  And the door should be kept open to modification based on modular testing as the application is developed.

It's important to remember that small screens require simplified presentations. They should never be crowded with unnecessary information or activity. Input and output should be as simple and direct as possible. Also, it should be realized that interacting with a small screen will be slower than with a large screen or keyboard. Scrolling should be used as much as possible. It is easier to scroll down a page  than it is to jump from page to page. Jumping around is an invitation to confusion, so it's best to have all information relevant to a subject on a given page, and a particular subject should have its own page.

Don't forget that functionality should take precedence over design.  It may not always be possible to include everything that stakeholders want in the first version of an application.  Budgetary and time reasons may require that certain features be postponed until the next iteration.  If the application becomes popular then there is always a possibility for version 2.0.  And functionality should take precedence over design when it comes to interface and presentation, as well.  Don't make search procedures or operations more difficult by adding too much pizzaz to the screens.  Remember that good design is functional design.

A well designed user flow chart should be ready before design begins.  It doesn't matter whether it is a complex or simple application, having a flow map ready to go will help ensure a rational navigational structure.  And it helps to design for high demand first, such as designing for high definition screens.  Designing for the highest scale devices and then designing down as needed will simplify the design process and quite possibly eliminate bugs and user issues that could occur when designing from the bottom up.

User experience testing is a vital part of creating a truly usable mobile app.  It can tell you things you can not find out any other way.  For example, is that screen button too big or too small, or is there too much animation in the intro, are transitions smooth and does the application load quickly?  All these questions and many more can be answered through user experience testing.

All the truly useful mobile apps follow the same basic principles.  They are purposefully organized to be consistent in order to enable users to easily understand the interface layout without the need to remember complex actions or information.  This purposeful consistency is also simple.  Not only is it clear and concise, but it also uses established conventions such as folders and desktops in order to convey  operational requirements without the need for extensive user education.  Common tasks are presented in common ways and within the reality of the majority of users.  There is no need to learn an entirely new approach.  Rather, the application has a level of familiarity built into it from the start.

A well designed application also keeps the user informed of changes and all relevant information in an unambiguous way.  All required information and tools for a given task are easily visible in a way that does not overwhelm the user with too much information or too many alternatives at one time.  Finally a quality application is tolerant of misuse and offers the capacity to undo and redo at every step along the way.  It will also prevent errors, if possible, by being tolerant of unconventional inputs and assisting the user to make corrections.

Ultimately, rational design is the foundation of usability when it comes to mobile applications, and rationality is based on keeping the user in mind across the entire development cycle.

 

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