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Next hurdle for mobile lifecycle teams: User experience skills

Creating compelling mobile user experiences is forcing software teams to broaden their skills and integrate UX expertise into the mobile lifecycle.

Mobile lifecycle projects force software pros to acquire new skills fast. Just as they take on multi-device testing and cross platform development, demand for yet another mobile skill is coming to the fore: user experience expertise.

Nathan ClevengerNathan Clevenger

If a mobile app delivers a "crappy user experience," it is as good as dead, said mobile management software maker MobileIron Inc.'s vice president Ojas Rege. "The core driver of success in mobile applications is the user experience."

"Dead" was the operative word for one enterprise mobile app that Nathan Clevenger is familiar with. Developed by a Fortune 500 company for its safety inspectors, the app was designed to speed the process of filing reports from the field. But it was so poorly executed that the safety inspectors couldn't figure out how to use it -- and they rejected it outright.

"They went back to carrying clipboards, filling out paper forms and faxing them to the office," said Clevenger, chief technology officer for iFactr Inc., a St. Paul, Minn.-based firm that sells mobile tools for Microsoft developers. "No one is going to use your fancy-schmancy mobile app if user experience is poor."

Commercial mobile developers generally understand the importance of getting that experience right. But for most enterprise development teams, it's a whole new ball game. Mobile ALM teams typically lack user experience (UX) skills, said Rege. "It's rare for [enterprise software teams] to have UX experts on staff. Until now, the user experience role didn't exist."

Kevin Boyle, a software engineer at Cambridge, U.K.-based mobile tool maker Red Gate Software Ltd., agreed. Software teams working on line-of-business desktop applications never gave much thought to what the user experience would be like. They had the luxury of putting lots of info on the user interface screen, he said. "Then they relied on training to help users navigate the application."

For mobile applications, where the screen real estate is limited, that approach is not an option. Optimal placement of UI controls, effective labeling of those controls and well-designed workflows that mirror the most common use cases, are essential, Boyle said.

You never know what's going to come back and bite you in usability testing.

Kevin Boyle,
software engineer, Red Gate Software Ltd.

The quickest way to get those things right is to hire a UX expert and integrate the UX role into the mobile lifecycle, said Rege. "Teams should make that investment." But if budgets don't allow, there are some basic techniques software pros should master to help deliver mobile applications with a strong user experience.

In this article, mobile experts share advice on developing compelling user experiences. "These tips won't turn you into a slick user experience designer, but they will help ensure the application will better serve the needs of its target users," said Robert Chipperfield, a software engineer at Red Gate Software.

Devise a customer journey map.

One option for teams that can't hire UX professionals is to employ a technique SearchSoftwareQuality expert Scott Sehlhorst calls the customer journey map. The map helps inform the developer about what is most important to the target user of the mobile app. "Your goal is to understand the experience [of the user]," said Sehlhorst, who heads Austin, Texas, software consultancy Tyner Blain.

Asking the right questions helps software pros gain insight into that experience, he said. "What does the experience look and feel like from a user's point of view? What are users trying to accomplish and why? What influences their experience positively and negatively throughout the journey of doing whatever it is your product is intended to help them do? Where, in the journey, can your product add value for the user?

Understand the difference between visual design and usability.

Chipperfield noted a common misperception: "Compelling user experience" is synonymous with bright colors and sophisticated graphics found in games running on mobile devices. But that's not the case with enterprise mobile apps. "You aren't building Angry Birds," he said, referring to the popular smartphone game. "It's not about shiny color schemes."

For line-of-business mobile applications, the user experience is about two things: how the intended target audience interacts with the application; and how the app delivers the data they need to do their jobs," Chipperfield said.

Conduct basic usability testing.

Chipperfield advises teams without UX experts to do basic usability testing on their own. It isn't difficult, he said. "You sit down with the target users and create simple use cases that reflect common business activities they carry out during the course of a day." Chipperfield offered an example: For a CRM application, this might mean creating a new customer record and scheduling a visit with that new customer. The next step is to explain the chosen tasks, and ask the target users to give a narration of what they are thinking and doing, he said. "Your job is to observe and see where they get stuck. When that happens, it's a failure of the software."

Red Gate's Boyle noted this kind of testing often yields surprises. He once observed a user interacting with a mobile app flashing a message across the top the screen. "Scripts are disabled. Click here to enable them," the message read. It was glaringly obvious to Boyle, but the user didn't see the flashing bar. "You never know what's going to come back and bite you in usability testing."

Address user experience concerns upfront to avoid costly consultants.

Chipperfield stressed the importance of addressing usability issues at the planning stage of mobile lifecycle projects. "It's up to the team to design the user experience at the outset and conduct usability testing early," he said. "If you don't, you end up calling in a consultant after the fact."

That's exactly what happened with the failed mobile app for safety inspectors, said iFactr's Clevenger, author of iPad in the Enterprise. They had to call in high-priced consultants to fix the mobile app the field workers rejected. They were able to save the business logic, he said. "But they had to start from scratch with the UI stuff."

Most enterprise development teams don't recognize the importance of getting the user experience right, Clevenger said. "You have to bring in new blood, new experience."

What are your strategies for bringing user experience skills into the mobile lifecycle? Let us know.

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