Friday July 27th 2012 12am
Evaluating Mobile User Experience
User Experience (UX), a term that first appeared a decade ago, still has no formal definition or standard. So its not surprising that as mobile applications inundate the app stores, mobile user experience is starting to garner serious attention because some app developers are wondering why their app is not getting much uptake while others who may have less features for more money are. If when you consider that if a user cannot learn your mobile app in 30 seconds, they will most likely de-install it and find another, you better take mobile user experience seriously.
If someone asks to borrow your mobile device and you let them borrow it, what trust does this seemingly simple act of kindness involve? How many of the people around you would you loan your mobile phone to? Would you say no? Suppose you do let them make a call and they immediately return it (without looking curiously at the screen for some of your private information and other apps you may have) whereupon you find that the phone has some sweat on it or maybe some grease from their face? Given this, there is a relationship between an individual and their mobile device that extends far beyond what you might think. Therefore, the mobile user experience must involve privacy and primary user-ship. You'll never find mobile phone bars, akin to internet cafes where anyone can rent a mobile phone in a big room sitting down next to someone else.
Besides incorporating privacy and personal ownership with attachment, when designing for, evaluating, and testing the UX of a mobile application, I like to think of a few key categories:
Context is King
Screen size influences the user's experience and their commitment to the content during the experience. Suppose you are watching a movie at the theater and someone next to you keeps answering their phone and you can't hear the movie. The theatre is packed. You would probably just suffer through it, and maybe complain to the management later, or maybe complain to the culprit, but most likely would not walk out.
What if you and your friends are gathering to watch a movie together on a new 70 inch Sharp HDTV. One of the guys you don't know so well is laughing hysterically and it annoys you. Are you likely to leave? What if you were crowded around a 27-inch TV under the same circumstances? Your chances of leaving are getting higher. What about a mobile phone with a 4.3 inch screen? Would you sit next to someone for to watch that movie? Bet not. We call this abandonment rate. Not to say that abandonment rate is inversely related to screen size in a direct sense, but there is a correlation. The fact is that there are many contextual factors that influence the user abandonment rate, but it's hard to deny that the screen size influences the level of attraction and engagement. And since mobile devices have such small screens relative to other devices, the design of mobile UX must account for the user's attention and commitment that can be easily dispersed and distracted elsewhere. Even as screen sizes increase, mobile devices are better used for content manipulation and consumption rather than creation. Mobile devices and syncing programs via Apple, Google, and others continue to incorporate more methods to get data or information into the device, but data entry and content creation are not likely to become a predominant mobile usage nor should they be.
The particular application and expected context of use will influence how the application is designed to account for this. For instance, a healthcare application versus game or investment application all have drastically different context and should be designed as well as evaluated differently. So when I begin to evaluate mobileapp UX, the first thing I think of is, who are the targeted users, what are their expectations, and what are they trying to accomplish.
Efficiency and Effectiveness
It's easy to think of mobile platforms in terms of Android or iOS, or Samsung and HTC. But when designing and evaluating for the mobile experience, consider mobile applications in a broader sense and how an application type has particular user expectations on efficiency and effectiveness, a primary component of UX.
Mobile feature phones were the original mobile platform and once Nokia's kingdom but look where they are now. The typical phone call is less and less frequent voice communication has proven less efficient compared to other methods of interaction. As a typical example, if you want to check your bank balance, what is your preference?
How about if you wanted to order take-out for dinner? Would you rather call or order from the menu on your mobile phone and charge to your credit card online? So given that users are expecting a quick and accurate interaction (versus 5-10 minutes talking to a bank rep, or a waitress in a noisy restaurant taking your order that you hope they write down correctly) is, evaluating the UX of the application needs to incorporate this expectation.
- Call the bank and ask them on the phone (these ask your secret question or something like that, perhaps your mother's maiden name)
- Use your desktop computer and login to their website, and access this function.
- Use your mobile native application which has your information stored (except your password) and quickly access this function specifically designed into the application.
The SMS specification limits the number of characters to160. If you go over, it breaks it up to another message. Messaging today continues to compare to postcards as it was originally designed for. Most SMS traffic consists of short social interactions (“hi”, “yes”, “ok”, “be there soon”) or simple task-based transactions such signing up for a service, confirming receipt, or receiving notifications. SMS is not designed to accommodate such a high level of content exchange, but rather an efficient way to send bleeps of information. Mobile applications which access the SMS messaging functionality of a mobile device need to be evaluated with this in mind.
The Internet was not originally designed to be accessed by mobile devices. These days, most Internet users access the internet with screens that are 1024×768 or greater and most web-based apps (including web sites), are designed to accommodate this resolution. Since most mobile displays range max out at 480×320 (now newer ‘retina' displays are higher), it is clear that most web-based apps weren't designed with the mobile user in mind. So, mobile web browsers include adaptive methods for lower resolution smaller screens. Some of these methods include pan and zoom interactions, which have made more web-apps accessible to mobile users, but the user experience certainly is not as optimized as it is for a full-size monitor.
As mobile web usage has continued to increase, web sites that automatically sense the platform and switch to a ‘mobile site' (i.e. WAP based; for instance, United Airlines, Google, and many others) to provide mobile users with more efficient web experience. However, this has the potential of making too many assumptions regarding the users' expectations. If we want the full United.com site, we need to scroll to the bottom to find the link. The figure below shows what I'm talking about.
On the other hand, the overall integration of web-apps needs to be thought out carefully with mobile scenarios in mind. The other day, a friend of mine wanted to show me a product at www.costco.com. He sent me a link from his iPhone. I was at my desktop, and opened the link and got the mobile version as seen below.
Costco Mobile Link not Discerned by Browser
As Internet-based mobile experiences become more device-centric (incorporating specific mobile device capabilities) users are beginning to expect the Internet-based experience to approach a mobile application. However, mobile-based apps can use device-level services such as cameras, whereas mobile-based web-based application usually cannot. Mobile browsers can make some of these services available, but this is platform dependent and not universal. Hence, managing user expectations of how the application should behave needs to be thought out carefully. Again, the context of the user and their expectations is key and evaluating within the context.
LinkedIn appears to be one step ahead and gives you a choice when accessing their site; an optimized mobile experience via an mobile-app, or just their ordinary website.
LinkedIn Mobile Browser Detected
Native mobile apps
Until 2007 when the iPhone 1 was released, the basic task of installing an application on a mobile device was not an easy endeavor. This has changed drastically with the advent of appstores. Even my 75 year old dad can download and install an app (well, almost).
But even though apps can be installed easily, the success of an application is tied to satisfying the needs and behaviors of mobile device users. So the question is: What need (or existing need converted from a standard web-app) is the mobile application attempting to mobilize? How can the workflow on a mobile device be designed more efficiently to accomplish the task? How can the specific features and characteristics of a mobile device improve and complement the experience in contrast to the normal web-based application or other mobile platforms? Fidelity exemplifies this realizing and understanding what top user scenarios their users want and optimizing efficiency for those user scenarios. For example, filling an order as shown below was a user scenario optimized just for the mobile platform. Note that it only has 4 data items to fill in, with 2 being scroll buttons, while the biggest button indicates precisely what the purpose of the task is.
Fidelity Optimized Workflow for a Specific Task
In summary, for mobile designers and evaluators, UX is dependent on efficiency. Designs should be as simple as possible for the user. And don't forget, UX is heavily influenced by expectations. So, even if you came up with the coolest design, use the same type of interface as other popular apps because that is what users are accustomed to. Make navigation easy on a small screen, thumb friendly, and as intuitive as possible. Remember that if the user cannot figure it out in 30 seconds, they are gone. If you have a clunky app that's hard to use, don't expect too many ‘likes'. And lastly, draw out a clear strategy as to what your mobile-app will do versus your web-app and how you differentiate and discern access from each platform. Determine the features you really need and optimize screens for certain workflows rather than trying to do it all.
Philip Lew CEO, XBOSoft -
Mr. Lew guides XBOSoft's overall strategy and operations. He is an Adjunct Professor at Alaska Pacific University and the Project Management College teaching graduate courses in software engineering, IT project management, and IT Governance. Mr. Lew has presented at several conferences including Int'l. Conf. on Web Engineering, Int'l. Conf. on the Quality of Information and Communications Technology and Int'l. Conf. on Software and systems process analysis on web application usability, quality processes and quality evaluation.
Come see Philip at the Software Test Professionals Conference in Miami from October 15-18. Philip will lead session 1002: Evaluating and Improving Usability ,
part of the Test Strategy, Process and Design track.