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In our last post in the series on creating a great mobile user experience, we talked about the importance of systems integration to mobile app usability. Today, let’s look at the actual mobile application’s user interface. What’s the best way to go about designing a mobile app? Here’s a start:

FORGET THE PC

Or, put another way, stop looking back at your desktop applications for design inspiration. Mobile users do different things in different places and in different ways than PC users do — so, naturally, they need a different tool to get the job done. Here are a couple guidelines to creating a user interface that feels like it was invented for mobile rather than borrowed from a PC.

RESIST THE FEATURE CREEP

If you think about your mobile solution as an extension of your desktop software, then it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to make every feature available on the mobile device. Not only is this hard to do, but it will result in a complex, slow application that’s hard to learn and use. Understand that mobile users look for solutions that help with very specific needs. If they wanted to access ALL the features, they’d do it from their desks. In reality, 90 percent of all mobile use will be focused around key user stories like “I want to put in my vacation time while I remember,” or “I want a quick status check” — so you should design your solutions with those in mind. While this may not produce a mobile app that does everything, it will give your employees a tool that excels at things they do the most.

BREAK IT UP

Highly usable desktop apps are often those that give you access to large chunks of functionality without moving from screen to screen. With mobile apps, the main design principle may well be called “break it up until you can’t.” The reason for this is that mobile users have a much higher cognitive load than desktop users: they’re walking, talking, riding the subway or dangling off a utility pole somewhere. So they thrive on simplicity. The best mobile apps break up common workflows into multiple steps, and display the minimum necessary amount of information to complete that step. Even when you have your users’ complete attention, this approach always results in faster process completion due to familiarity and muscle memory invoked on each screen. In the real world, it becomes an imperative, as users will always progress through the application in smaller chunks as the situation allows.

DON’T OVERDO THE DESIGN

Today’s native platform SDKs can give you immense flexibility in crafting the application’s user interface. High-res graphics, complex gradients, 3-d navigation, fly-in menus: you can have it all. The question is whether you should. Any and all special effects take a toll on the app’s performance and battery life, so you may want to think twice about throwing everything you’ve got at a relatively simple app. While a stunning UI may make a great first impression, over-the-board stylistic features get old fast, especially if they make the application slower to load and run.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to make your app look good. When asked, mobile users will always point to the better-looking app as the more usable one (regardless of the app’s actual complexity), so it’s important to pay attention to UI. Instead of fancy animations, though, spend time making your mobile tools look and feel instantly familiar to your users. This could mean using the same terminology, your website color scheme, your logo, or even your intranet’s navigation options. The goal should be to make your users feel right at home and comfortable with the quality of the product.

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