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Best Practices for Designing Mobile Touch Screen Applications

by Gavin Lew , 15.06.2011

This article is re-posted from User Centric’s blog.

While touch screen technology is no longer a novel concept, the meteoric rise in adoption of Android and iOS devices over the past few years has helped the touch screen phone market reach critical mass with an estimated 28% of mobile phone users in the United States owning Smartphones. There are over 700,000 applications across iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone, Nokia, and other platforms making the need to differentiate even greater.

Acknowledging that not all platforms or devices are the same, we've come up with some platform agnostic recommendations.  Although many of these considerations sound like common sense, it is surprising to see how many ignore these basic tenets. We've seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of mobile application design, and have compiled this list of four best practices to keep in mind when designing mobile applications:

Identify your audience

Before jumping headfirst into a mobile design, it’s important to take a step back and think about the user. A robust feature set does not necessarily equate to a successful application. To find success the application must match the user’s experience and expectations. Experienced users do not have the same needs as first-time users. The primary focus of an application designed for experienced users with deep domain knowledge should be the application’s efficiency. Providing shortcuts and keeping the full set of tools accessible are simple ways to aid an experienced user in efficiently completing a task. For users without domain knowledge or experience, create a more guided experience. Wizards, tutorials and limiting the number of choices presented at any one time are a good way to prevent overwhelming the novice user. The experience level of the user will shape the complexity of the interface.

Design for context of use

The next consideration in mobile application design is to envision the user’s context of use. Where and how users interact with the application will dramatically alter the approach. Even as a user researcher, it is easy to forget that usage in the real world is often very different than that in the lab. Furthermore, there is a considerable difference between a video production application used for consecutive hours at a desk, and an application used to check the weather for 30 seconds on the bus. The former allows for a more robust workflow and the latter requires fast and accommodating tasks.

Designing for the duration of use may seem obvious, but also consider the amount of attention the user is giving to the application. Consider what the user is physically engaged in at the time of use- is the user relaxing? On the go? Waiting in line? The ability to recover from distractions is an imperative component of good mobile application design.

There is a fine line between simplicity and laziness

Many in the field hold the philosophy that mobile means simple. Just because an application has limited screen real estate does not mean that it has to be dumbed-down or lack features. Creating an intuitive interface without removing essential features is a challenge, but it is not impossible. The solution is to organize functionality and content into intuitive flows and structures that users can easily understand and adopt. Breaking a task down into small digestible chunks creates a smoother workflow, but does not necessitate losing functionality. The application can continue to be robust with thoughtful and creative presentation of information.

Use the platform as an advantage

All smartphone users at one point had to tap, swipe and fumble their way around the interface until they familiarized themselves with the device. Just watch an iOS user use Android or Windows Phone user using iOS, and it’ll become apparent that touch screen navigation is not innate. Experienced smartphone users are accustomed to the standards of their platform of choice and designers must use this learned behavior to their advantage. It is amazing how often severe usability issues are caused by simply ignoring standard interactions for the platform. Despite this, the key to a great application does not lie solely in adhering strictly to the OS user interface guidelines—when it’s appropriate to be creative, guide the user outside of their comfort zone. Intuitive, unique, interactions presented within a comfortable framework can truly put an application at the forefront.

In a world where nearly a third of mobile phone users have access to an application at a moment’s notice, it is important to be ahead of the curve. To further complicate this issue, mobile applications are not one-size fits all— to design an intuitive, refreshing experience, designers must consider their audience and the context of use, take advantage of platform’s standards while still managing to remain creative.

There is great opportunity for success and even greater opportunity for failure. Smartphone users crave applications that will enhance their lives, and optimizing the user experience for the device interface is crucial to the success of a downloadable application or the device itself.  As with any successful design, it must be created with the user in mind.

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