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Mobile Product Design: The 4 Mindsets

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Today’s mobile users bring high expectations to the table. In a 2010 study by eMarketer, 73 percent of users indicated a company’s mobile software should be easier to use than its desktop or web product. And 69 percent said their perception of the company’s brand would be negatively affected if the mobile version wasn’t easy to use.

In an increasingly crowded mobile market, an application that immediately captures the user’s attention, is easy to navigate and offers real value is critical to market success. In helping design and develop mobile apps over the years, we’ve uncovered four important mindsets required to successfully meet and exceed these criteria.

Mindset 1: Don’t Port; Create

“Create a product, don’t reimagine one for small screens.

Great mobile products are created, never ported.”

–Brian Fling, author of Mobile Design & Development

Focus on the most important tasks and user goals. In general, a successful mobile product offers only a fraction of the features and capabilities offered by its equivalent desktop or web version. These capabilities could be a subset of existing desktop features, a set of new features that better address a mobile user’s needs or a combination of the two. Only the most relevant and important features should be included in a mobile version of an existing product. All other features should either be discarded entirely or moved to secondary screens.

Photo By Balázs Kétyi on Unsplash

To determine what’s important to users in a mobile context, study their behavior regarding needs, goals, workflow and workplace processes. Product management and user-experience designers should work together and include these time-tested user research techniques:

  • Contextual interviews and focus groups to uncover actual needs and opinions
  • Task analysis to break down all the steps a user takes to fulfill his or her goals
  • Field research for insight into the way users would interact with your mobile product in the real world
  • Usability testing to identify and correct any gaps between user goals and the actual experience your product is delivering today

These methodologies provide the insight needed to envision and create a mobile product, not simply port an existing desktop or web service.

Mindset 2: Understand the User’s Context

Because a mobile device can be used anywhere, your application’s design should be able to suit a variety of environmental, organizational and personal contexts. For example, think of the difference between a Travelocity user at home planning a vacation and a Travelocity user trying to confirm a connection time on a smartphone as they run through an airport. Mobile users want to complete tasks quickly, and they can easily become frustrated if a mobile product doesn’t work as expected or is slow to perform.

Use the value-for-effort equation. When evaluating the efficiency of your mobile design, use this formula:

A mobile version with extraneous functionality will force users to sift through unnecessary data. To help users get the most value in the least time, keep the denominator of the equation as small as possible by focusing on their context-specific, immediate needs.

The environment influences the interaction. Users may interact differently with a mobile product than they do with a desktop or web version. In an office setting, for example, a user has the time and the ability to perform data entry. This same user would likely not want to do this on a small touchscreen while waiting in an airport lounge.

In the case of a mobile product for business use, there also may be regulatory or legal constraints to consider. In a hospital setting, for example, it may be appropriate to store sensitive patient information on a secure desktop computer. But it could be illegal to house it on a smartphone that could leave the hospital and easily fall into the wrong hands.

Design for partial attention and interruption. Mobile-device users face frequent interruptions mid-task, either related to the device (such as from an incoming call or lost network connection) or their environment. A good design will accommodate these interruptions by including shortcuts that allow for simple and efficient multitasking. iPhones, for example, make it easy to switch between a phone call and an application.

When designing your product, be sure to identify the most common forms of interruption and include graphical displays that simplify context switching and multitasking. Also, be sure to help users understand where they are at all times, where they can go and how they can get back.

Point to priority information. To ensure hurried or interrupted users don’t become lost, it’s also important to provide easy access to the most frequently accessed features and information. Once you have identified what these are through usability testing, ensure they are easily accessible from any screen. This can be done via prominent buttons or icons.

Avoid or limit free-text entry whenever possible. Just like mobile screens, mobile keyboards are small and not well suited to data entry. Research the most common tasks that will be performed by your users, and then design predefined lists, autocomplete forms and/or suggested text to speed and simplify their interactions.

By understanding your user’s context and tailoring your user interface to support it, you will reduce the risk that your application will confuse or frustrate customers. Users who can access critical information in seconds, and resume their tasks quickly, will be more likely to view your mobile product as a trusted resource at work, home and on the move.

Mindset 3: Share Pertinent Information Quickly

As the saying goes, you only have one chance to make a first impression. This is especially true in the mobile world, where users have an array of apps to choose from. In the competitive app market, value must be apparent immediately and easy to access, so users can accomplish their desired tasks.

With a limited screen size, it isn’t possible for an application to display all areas of interest to users at once, and they won’t have the patience to search through dozens of screens for information. You need to design an interface that quickly brings relevant information to the surface.

Limit to one task per screen. Because it can be difficult or time consuming to scroll, pinch, zoom in on or click links on a small screen, it’s important to create individual, focused screens for each task you’ve identified through user research. While a screen can expose multiple tasks, it should help the user complete only one task at a time. The primary real estate of each screen should relate directly to the task in question.

Provide hints and clear feedback for every action. Some actions on a mobile device—such as downloading an update—take longer than others. Ensure your UI offers feedback and progress updates on actions that take more than a few seconds. On Android, for example, you can quickly see the status of apps being updated.

One way to provide quick access to additional information is to use dashboards and push notifications to reveal higher-level information.

Be predictable. As the mobile device market has matured, many visual attributes have become standardized across platforms and operating systems. The battery indicator on smart phones, for example, is almost always found at the very top of the screen. Soft keys that perform similar functions like “back” and “forward” should always appear in the same position from screen to screen.

Mindset 4: Recognize the Personal Nature of a Mobile Device

A mobile device clearly differs from a desktop or laptop in size, but it’s also viewed by users as a more personal device. If your application is one you foresee users using multiple times a day, it’s a good idea to provide the ability to save preferences and automatically “remember” recent entries.

An intuitive user interface that acknowledges the personal nature of the mobile device and anticipates user intent can mean the difference between an app that collects dust and one that becomes part of your customer’s daily routine.

Allow users to easily control notifications and alerts. Users expect the ability to personalize aspects of your application. A good design will allow them to:

  • Modify the alert notification (whether it is a sound or a vibration)
  • Easily turn off alerts
  • Quickly respond to the alert directly from the alert screen

Anticipate user intent. Today’s mobile users expect their smartphone or tablet to be “smart.” Design your product to recognize input already provided and focus the next choices accordingly. If, for example, your tests show users often wish to perform task B upon completion of task A, ensure your design shepherds users directly to B from A.

Windows Phone 7 does a good job of anticipating user intent by displaying the keyboard most appropriate for the form being completed. iPhone and Android are also good at accommodating activity. When the user is on a call, for example, the screen turns black. As soon as the phone is pulled away from the ear, the screen reappears because it “knows” the user will probably want to perform another activity. Because the device is close to the user at all times, applications can be used multiple times throughout the day. The most useful and efficient quickly become part of a user’s lifestyle, while the rest are discarded.

User Interface Best Practices

When designing a mobile product, there is almost never a need for a one-to-one relationship between its capabilities and the desktop product. User needs differ greatly from one platform to another because a user’s goal on a tablet or smartphone can be quite different from his or her goal on a desktop. For this reason, you must always create a mobile product—and not just port it from an existing solution.

By understanding the context in which the device will be used, obtaining a deep and objective understanding of your users’ needs and tailoring your design to meet user goals, you can successfully translate an existing product into a streamlined mobile application that is intuitive, quickly adopted and, in turn, successful in the crowded mobile marketplace.

  • Scott Plewes

    Scott Plewes is an expert in user experience design, user research and incorporating the voice of the customer into product design. As vice president of user experience design at Macadamian, Scott has 20 years of experience designing across the spectrum?from desktop, web and mobile experience design through to even command line and telephony design. He can be reached at [email protected].


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