Usability Info

The area of Usability has been around since the early days of computing technology. It gained popularity when personal computers first became popular (in the 1980s) and software was developed for mainstream use. Initially the use of computers required specialized knowledge since it used command lines (remember DOS operating system?) but when the graphical user interface started appearing on personal computers (Mac and Windows) the area of usability gained importance because of the close connection between users and their personal computers.

We all want software to be easy to use. The goal of using software is to meet the needs of a user. There are word processing, spreadsheet, presentation programs that are in widespread use in business, industry, and education. Companies are constantly adding bells and whistles to new versions of their programs to entice users to upgrade to the latest and greatest technology.

Mobile UI

Unlike large screen monitors, mobile user interface (UI) brings a limitation to user interface design because of the limited real estate available on the screen. Mobile apps need to create a good first impression to the user. A user may download hundreds of apps (esp. the ones that are free) but these end up getting deleted after a while because the apps may not meet the needs of the user due to poor design. Design is personal to every user and what works well for one demographic may not work well with another group. For example, educational apps used by kids use a lot of colors, icons, sounds, cartoon characters, but apps designed for senior citizens may need to focus more on larger fonts and few gesture based actions.

Mobile apps are used by people on the go who are use their apps to perform a specific function. Features in typical app design include speed, performance, use of graphics, text, visuals, multimedia. What should be the focus of an app developer. Do you go more for the visuals or focus on minimalistic design that enhances performance of an app?

Here is an example of two apps in the same category (classified under Utilities in the App Store). Which user interface looks better and would make you purchase the app?

If you are a fan of minimalist design, as you probably chose, the app on the right is called Alarmed and has 5,000 five star reviews. (I personally use this app and am extremely satisfied). The app on the left has more options but does not appear to be user friendly on first glance. Obviously the Alarmed app designer focused on user needs and did extensive studies of user interface design before releasing the app in the App store.

The article, Seven Guidelines for Designing High-Performance Mobile User Experiences focuses on principles of UI Brand Signatures, Product Portfolio, Core user needs, Optimized user flows, UI Scaling rules, Performance Dashboard, and UI Engineering skills to develop good mobile apps. While the above article goes into technical details, the takeaway from the article is that good user design will lead to better performance apps that provide satisfaction to the user.

Usability Evaluation of Mobile Apps

Basic user interface design keeps the user in the forefront and focuses on design of apps that engage the user rather than confuse the user. So how should an app designer test for usability? Developers can use established principles for usability testing but these were developed for other platforms (such as for web pages) and may not apply to the Mobile app platform. Further, App developers may not have resources. Usability Tests (such as focus groups, interviews, or cognitive walk through) take a long time, require the $$$ services of companies that provide usability testing, and consume resources that many app developers may not have.

Traditional usability tests (such as evaluating web sites) were usually conducted in a lab where a group of participants meet and go through the website, either individually or in a group setting. However for mobile apps, this environment may not work well as a simulation because mobile apps are usually used on the go under different conditions such as in subways, cars, out on the street so environmental factors such as noise, light, movement may impact the use of the app on the mobile device. Since resources for mobile app developers are limited, a service such as the one I provide (see the About page) focuses on user-centered design and usability testing for mobile apps in the most efficient format.

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