Balancing Act: What I’ve Learned After a Year of Mobile UX Design

The bigger question is why the dog isn’t eating the bagel. (source: http://www.raedunn.com/)

Over my past year with Prolific, I’ve had the great fortune to work with some pretty spectacular individuals on the Alex and Ani and Baublebar iOS teams. We worked our butts off with our partners, had a blast, and the apps — which both launched last month — have done pretty well (featured as best new apps with 4+ stars). As the UX designer, I contributed hundreds of hours of brainstorming, countless user flows and wireframes, UX digests to help everyone stay on the same page, conducted innumerable rounds of competitive and comparative analysis, and, most importantly, ran over 100 user tests.

Working on these apps has shown me how important user experience can be in providing a shared language and framework with which the team and our partners can innovate. It’s shown me how strongly a brand’s personality can impact users’ perceptions. But, most importantly, through those user tests, I’ve learned about the fundamental balance required in mobile design.

5 Thoughts on Balance

Mobile is personal. It permeates our users’ lives, from couches to meeting rooms, long commutes to lazy Sundays, births to graduations. People literally can’t live without it. Designing for a gadget that is so essential creates a great temptation to build something which provides some service across all of these occasions. Be ubiquitous, be their social network, their communications tool, their shopping experience. But really, be careful. You have this wide range of possibilities but a small screen on which to make them available, a limited timeframe, and an increasingly limited attention span. Our user tests suggest that users think in terms of services, and if they can’t clearly define the service you’re providing, you’ll lose them. Discover your users’ deep and primary needs and build for that. If you miss something — there’s always v2.

Once you’ve understood your users’ priorities, you should have a fairly simple and streamlined experience — or so you might think. Simple in mobile is frustrated by the fact that the object you’re designing for is, well, mobile. It moves with the user. It's ever-present, so your app has to work at all points along your user’s journey. Empty states, connection error states, glanceability, notification configuration — you need to deliver them all. When a user stumbles across an interaction you haven’t designed for, our user tests show that they’ll lose confidence or quickly become confused. You’re only ever one excuse away from deletion — or forgotten-folder purgatory.

So, onboarding is now a thing. I love seeing ingenious and delightful onboarding flows trying to build mental models for new interaction designs. And certainly, onboarding works for some users. However, our user tests suggest that most users breeze through it without a glance, completely missing the message of that well-designed overlay or interstitial screen. Unless its intuitive, what we want to teach will often fail to stick. But that’s not to say that they haven’t learned anything — they have deep mental models for app interactions. On just about any screen, for example, users will try to scroll. So whether you have onboarding or not, you need to build an app that supports these existing mental models. Contradict them too often, and users will likely get confused.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, a lot of mobile e-commerce apps tend to look the same. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, there’s a good reason for this — namely, best practices and familiar patterns. Users like familiar. While this may tempt you to solve problems the same way each time, don’t do it. Every project, every user base, is different. A main priority we have is to get to the bottom of who the users were for every single project, which means starting out each project with the acknowledgement that we know nothing about the user. Then, we go out and learn about them. We ask the silly questions which might sound like they have obvious answers. We explore shopping patterns, we learn about frustrations. We get the necessary insight to form assumptions that we then test and iterate on, multiple times. Learn from best practices, but work to get at what will align with the needs of your user base. Pair the familiar with fresh insights to make your app essential.

Your users are on the go, on a small screen. They don’t have time for entering email addresses or passwords twice. You need to make it quick, make each entry count, add confirmation screens, propel them through the interaction. All of these things are absolutely true, until you realize that there are some decisions that are truly consequential. You don’t want a user accidentally adding an item to a purchase and having to call or email later to have it removed and refunded, and you don’t want a user clicking send when they meant to delete. Be deliberate in pacing, use flows to regulate the speed at which the user moves through the app. Even if it doesn’t maximize conversions, it’s better for long-term brand value.

The most important thing

I’m very proud of the apps we’ve built over the past year. I’m sure that there were things we could’ve improved, alternative decisions we could’ve made. But that’s been the best part of it — sure, I was the one driving the user testing, but at the end of the day, it was always a We. We debated, we decided. My job was to bring some more factual fuel for those debates, but past that point — it was a We. It’s important to know that mobile design comes down to balance. That mobile design is a question of grasping all the contexts and designing with each one clearly in mind. But most importantly — and this is the one big thing I take as I move on from Prolific — even with the greatest user research, you’ll never reach your full potential without an incredible team to build on your conclusions, or debate them and send you back for more. So, thank you to all my incredible teams, and thank you Prolific. It has been one hell of a year.

The super sweet Prolific UX team (Scott Harris, Christine Lee, me, Mike Rembach, Pamela Jane Mendoza, Nick Kroetz, just missing the SF UX branch — Nandhita Kumar and Anna Malone)

Btw, Prolific is hiring! Check them out — you’ll be glad you did.

Bettina E. Bergendahl

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UX designer at Belkin currently making WiFi less scary. Has a dog named Thomas who nips knees, and a new baby who nips Thomas. http://bettina.io