Building a better mobile user experience

Apps that deliver the best mobile user experiences are context-sensitive and have great communication skills to build trust with their users.

There are apps for everything these days. And yet how is it that the mobile user experience delivered by these apps still falls far short of expectations? I asked usability expert Elizabeth Rosenzweig what constitutes a positive user experience on a mobile device. In this edition of Quality Time, I share some of her more interesting observations.

Jennifer LentJennifer Lent

For software professionals, Rosenzweig's observations serve as a framework for asking fundamental questions about mobile applications they are working on – long before multiple device testing and in-the-field testing get underway.

Effective mobile user experiences are highly context-sensitive

Increasingly, the mobile user experience isn't just mobile; it's part mobile, part desktop. That forces software pros to take into account two very different use case scenarios, said Rosenzweig, principal usability consultant at the Bentley User Experience Center, Bentley University, in Waltham, Mass. She offered a good example: a Medicare.gov application designed to help patients and their families find a nursing home after a hospital stay.

The first use case involves a mobile device. Seated by her mother's bedside in the intensive care unit, an adult daughter learns that she has to find a nursing home for her mother by tomorrow. It's a high-anxiety situation and the daughter is understandably nervous and upset. One minute she is glancing at the Medicare.gov website on her iPhone, the next she is making frantic phone calls to her siblings. In the second use case, the daughter works at home on her desktop computer. Focused and ready to get down to business, she researches possible nursing homes, then emails her siblings to sum up her findings and offer recommendations.

"You need to recognize both user experiences and present information accordingly," Rosenzweig said. Display too much information on the mobile device and the stressed-out daughter sitting at her mother's bedside becomes even more overwhelmed. Present too little, and she will panic, thinking the application doesn't provide the information she needs.

The best mobile user experiences build trust

I asked Rosenzweig about a personal use case example -- something that happens all the time and drives me crazy. I am out of the office, calling up my calendar on my iPhone to set up a future meeting. But inevitably, connectivity conditions are sub-par and my calendar takes forever to load. In other words, I'm suffering through a lousy mobile user experience. Barring better connectivity, what should the calendar app do to improve my experience? It should respond to me and tell me what's going on. It should provide a message, something like this: "I can't access your calendar right now, but enter your appointment information and I will reconcile it with your calendar and contact you later."

Rosenzweig commented on this all-too-common mobile user experience, saying that when our applications don't do what we expect, we lose trust in them. But communicating with us – even when mistakes occur – builds trust, and increases our willingness to overlook shortcomings that can't be helped, such as poor connectivity conditions.

Rosenzweig relies on the navigation app Waze to give her directions while she is driving. She likes it well enough, but when it takes her off the beaten path, she wants to know why. She wants the mobile app to talk to her. If Waze said: "I am taking an alternate route to avoid a traffic jam ahead," her trust in the navigation app would be restored. When it takes her off the familiar path without explaining why, she just assumes she is lost and the app can't help her find her way.

Rosenzweig said that getting mobile apps to tell us what is going on is just a first step. As mobile user experiences become more sophisticated, apps will anticipate our needs and deliver relevant information accordingly. Here's an example: You are scheduled to interview a job candidate next Thursday. The day before the appointment, the application alerts you and delivers relevant information on that candidate, pulled from a Web search. In other words, the app is anticipating what you need to know before you even realize that information would be helpful.

This kind of high-quality user experience is not a question of a designer selecting attractive buttons and colors, but a much deeper and more demanding examination of how well the app will meet user needs in actual use. As mobile access to data and sophisticated productivity tools grows, the demand for more intuitive and capable apps will only increase.

It's up to software quality professionals to deliver on those expectations.

This was first published in January 2014

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