As the global mobile app market continues to soar, user-retention is becoming an increasing bone of concern among developers. According to a Forbes report, the cumulative number of app downloads will touch the 270 billion mark by the end of 2017. However, nearly 8 out of every 10 newly downloaded applications are not used after the first 3 days – a startling figure in itself. Couple this with the stat that, less than 5% users continue to interact with an app after 90 days of downloading it, and the challenge for app makers becomes pretty much apparent. The need is to create such applications that are able to sustain high engagement levels on a long-term basis. For this, preparing a great User Experience Design (UX) is of paramount importance. In here, we will explain why making a top-notch UX is akin to winning half the battle – when it comes to mobile app development:
The ‘loading’ factor
Critical to the optimal UX for an app is a short and sweet splash screen. Whenever an app is fired up on a device – it takes some time to load (as all the features of the app get ready to be used). The splash screen is displayed during this period. Instead of having a simple static image as the splash screen, it is a better idea to include a progress indicator (and maybe, a simple animation) to keep users hooked. More importantly, the splash screen should not remain visible for more than 8-10 seconds, at most. Users should never feel that ‘nothing is happening’ after they tap on an app’s icon. The app should be ready for use soon – and a good splash screen should be displayed in the interim.
Note: Ideally, developers should follow a rule of thumb like ‘90% of users should be able to use an app within 10 seconds of launching it’. Device-related problems, poor network connectivity (for cloud-based apps) and other individual issues might affect the other 10%.
2. The ‘utility’ factor
Every element of an app’s UX should contribute towards the overall purpose of the application. A good mobile application should deliver the promised value proposition (as presented by its owner/developer) to users – and it should do so promptly. That, and only that, determines whether the application will be perceived as ‘useful’ or not. Unless an application serves a specific purpose (and that includes games to while away spare times), its usage figures are likely to decline steadily over time.
The ‘onboarding’ factor
Ease of usage is one of the most important things that have to be looked into, during the usability testing of a mobile app. The average, non-geeky user should have no problems whatsoever while installing the app, learning its core features and functionalities, and using it as and when (s)he wants to. To ensure this, developers typically get new applications tested by people who are coming across the design/interface for the first time. That way, unbiased feedback on the onboarding process of the application can be obtained – and its makers can make modifications, if required. The KISS principle would be a good one to follow while designing smartphone applications. Remember, if you make things overly complicated in an app – no one is going to bother spending minutes and hours to learn how it works.
The ‘cross-device usability’ factor
There are two major considerations regarding this. First, there are no ways to predict the screen size of the device on which a particular user plans to use an application (it can be a phone, or a phablet, or a tablet). This uncertainty can be successfully countered by designing separate, optimized versions of the app for different devices. Also, a recent study found that nearly 91% people start an app-related task on one device, and complete it on another. It has to be ensured that users are able to sign in, and get access to, the app from all compatible devices – at any time.
The ‘accessibility’ factor
An app might seemingly be fairly user-friendly. That, however, is not enough for its developers – who also need to check whether the app can be used with similar ease even by person with a) disabilities, or b) other distractions. Use easy-to-read labels on all buttons, tabs and other clickable items, create a nice color contrast background (a blurry background works well for many apps), and avoid using the outdated Flash tool for pulling text content/images/videos from backend servers. Make sure that there are no instances of sudden timeouts, and check the orientation support of the app (i.e., whether it can be used in both the ‘portrait mode’ and the ‘landscape mode’) as well. Users who are willing to give your app a chance should be able to do so without a hitch.
Note: The prime purpose of app marketing is to make applications more easily ‘discoverable’. Accessibility/usability becomes more and more important as the reach of an app expands. A few negative reviews and low ratings – and the download figures can drop dramatically.
The ‘navigation’ factor
At the risk of repetition – let’s just spell it out again: there is no bigger consideration while building a mobile app than the end-user experience it will be able to deliver. In-app navigation is an extremely vital component of this. Many experts from the field of app development opine that, users should be able to reach the screen that they are interested in, by tapping their devices not more than 3 times (the ‘3-tap’ rule of mobile apps). In general too, the menus and tabs of an app should be neatly organized, broken links (if any) have to be fished out and fixed, and there should not be confusions on what might be the result of tapping on any particular section of the app screens. Smooth navigation and UI invariably helps in boosting overall user-engagement levels.
The ‘speech’ factor
The importance and, as a result, the popularity of speech technology is increasing every quarter. As per a Forrester survey, almost 40% smartphone owners use voice recognition for navigation, while 47% people use it for looking up anything on the mobile web (instead of typing on the available keyboard(s)). While not possible or necessary for all applications, there are plenty of apps that are crying out loud (no pun intended) for the integration of seamless speech technology in them. People should be able to use these apps without even having to touch their devices. A classic instance of this can be the mobile storytelling apps for kids that have automated ‘voice-narration’ options. App makers have to be extra careful while implementing voice recognition in the UX of an app.
Note: Nuance is a leading speech recognition technology provider. Its solutions power both the iOS and the Android versions of the Ask.com app.
The ‘prototyping’ factor
Trying to explain the entire UX to the client (or users, for that matter) in words is an arduous – and often impossible – factor. Things might not go exactly as planned, and these changes cannot be incorporated in a static plan of action. That, in turn, brings to light the importance of using wireframes and prototypes. By creating a prototype of the app and adding the basic features to it, developers can easily convey the essence of the app’s UX to both the clients as well as groups of final testers. Moving on to a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) from the prototype is easy, and it reduces the ‘time-to-market’ span as well.
The ‘game’ factor
Designing a mobile game presents an entirely different challenge for professional app developers. The onus is on the latter to decide the way in which a game will be set up, whether it would have multiplayer features or not, what should be the default background colours/themes and the audio effects, and other such important elements. Complete familiarity and (preferably) experience of working with popular game engines like Unity 2D/3D and Unreal Engine comes in extremely handy in this regard. The controls have to be simple and user-friendly – and for level-based games, the difficulty should be revved up gradually. In general too, a mobile game should never be: a) so easy that it is simply not worth downloading, or b) so difficult that it ends up frustrating the majority of users. People should be able to save their progress on games with ease too. Keep in mind that most people play games on their phones only during their spare time – and for relatively short periods. Design accordingly.
Note: Many users prefer using one hand to play mobile games. Make sure that your game can actually be played in this manner.
10. The ‘testing on device’ factor
iOS simulators and Android emulators are all very handy – but it would be a mistake to rely entirely on automated mobile app testing. Any app development team worth its salt will make it a point to test their applications on actual devices – the ones that they are supposed to be compatible with. Doing this is fairly straightforward for iOS applications, since apps have to be checked on iPhones, iPads, maybe the latest iPod Touch and, in certain cases, Apple Watch and Apple TV. Android, with its traditionally fragmented OS updates and huge number of vendors, presents an altogether different challenge. App companies typically have the latest iOS devices and the top-of-the-line Android devices (Samsung, HTC, Nexus, etc.) for in-house testing purposes. Developers can – and should – volunteer their own devices for testing too. Careful manual testing – on top of automated testing – goes a long way towards ensuring that an app would retain its visual features and core functions on all devices.
11. The ‘ad’ factor
For free apps, third-party advertisements are a common monetization tool. At times though, these ads can royally mess up the UX of an application – blocking a section of the actual interaction area (for games, the ‘gameplay area’), using colors and fonts that are way too distracting, and at times being completely inappropriate too (particularly on kids’ apps). Video ads that are too frequent are an absolute ‘no-no’ as well. In-app adverts have become a necessary evil – and developers have to include them in a manner that they remain noticeable without ever interrupting the app-usage flow.
Note: Pop-up ads should never feature in an app’s UX scheme. Repeated reminders to rate the app at the Apple/Android store is also often a big distraction.
12. The ‘memorability’ factor
Unless its Candy Crush or Subway Surfers, hardly any app is used everyday by users. The features and controls of a new application should be such that, they can be remembered easily by the average users – without having to resort to the tutorials screen again. Make sure that a single, extended period of interaction with the UX builds a solid air of familiarity with it – so that users do not feel the need to learn everything from scratch the next time they open the app. The memorability factor assumes particular importance in cases where an application is used after a relatively long gap. Your app should be easy to grasp AND easy to remember.
Basic tasks like creating an account, signing in, and uploading profile photo(s) should be made as simple as possible in a mobile app. An indication about the quality of User Experience Design of your app can be obtained by the number of ‘errors’ the average users make, while interacting with it. Social media integration should also be a part of the overall UX plan – to enhance usability as well as expand the app’s user-base.
A highly optimized, user-friendly UX significantly enhances the chances of users being ‘satisfied’ with the app under scrutiny. Careful usability testing also minimizes the chances app failures due to bugs. The old adage ‘well begun is half done’ holds true for app development as well – and over here, the UX is the single biggest factor for getting your app off to a great start.
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