The importance of usability for mobile apps

Launching an app

You have a great idea for an iPhone app. You follow a solid design process: sketching out ideas, wireframing, iterating a prototype. You have beautiful visual design — friends and family tell you how fantastic it looks. Your developer builds a carefully crafted style guide so the design makes it into code. You use agile to build rapidly and you use animations throughout so every transition looks slick and smooth. You and everyone on the team is excited.

You launch to a fanfare of great publicity. The download numbers are impressive. People are paying for your app!

And a few days later, in roll the negative reviews. Users can’t find the main piece of functionality. They’re not happy about the error messages they’re getting. They can’t work out why nothing seems to happen when they tap a key button. Reviews like these (excerpts from real App Store reviews):

“It is very confusing, hard to use and update. I have given up on this app sadly, because otherwise, it’s a good app.”
“Went on a run a few times now pressed record, finished my run and accidentally missed the save button, there is no way to see what you have done before if you don’t save. Very annoying.”
“Did my first order and wasn’t sure whether the order had even gone through as it just held with a please wait message constantly showing.”
“Ever since I got this app, every time I open it it just says ‘sorry we’re having technical difficulties’, just like their website says half the time”
“Why the confusing text? Could be a great app with a bit of effort on the user interface.”

The ratings are poor, so you rush to correct the issues and have your developers work overtime. In a few weeks you get a new launch together. You submit it to Apple and it takes a few more days to go live. But it’s all too late, you know the momentum has been lost, your app is now up against 1.5 million others (as of June 2015) fighting to be recognised in the App Store and new reviews are coming in slowly now.

Ouch. What I’ve described above is the nightmare of anyone on an app development team. It’s an unforgiving world to work in but these pitfalls can be avoided.

A proper programme of user testing would certainly have helped catch the problems early. However looking at those reviews, they all point to things that the designer should have known off the bat. That’s because they are issues of usability and ignoring them means ignoring solid best practices that have been understood for years. It doesn’t matter how great your app looks, if it’s not usable then it’s not going to get used.

This is because the mobile space is very task-oriented. People use mobile apps to get a job done. Look at some apps you might have on your phone: a banking app to transfer money quickly, a train app for checking train times in a few taps, an app for buying things from your favourite online store. If you can’t find out quickly whether a train has been delayed then the app has failed in its job and there’s no benefit to installing it over checking a website.

On top of this, mobile apps only exist on small screens and the time users dedicate to doing a task is often very limited (not to mention full of the distractions of notifications from other apps). So usability issues become magnified.

About usability

Usability is really about making things for humans. Making things that humans will inherently understand and feel comfortable with. This is based on psychological understanding of how people work. Technology may evolve quickly but we don’t. So there are basic needs that we are always going to want solving before we can consider the fancy stuff.

At the very basic level, usability is formed of affordances (what an object can do) and signifiers (how it shows it can do that thing). For example a door can open and it signifies this with the handle placed mid-way up. For a mobile example, a music app can play songs and it signifies this with a play icon on a button. For more on the importance of this, I’d recommend the seminal design text ‘The Design of Everyday Things’ by Don Norman — he really delves into the detail of affordances and signifiers.

However I want to move beyond these basics. I’m going to assume that you’ve got sensible signifiers in place so the user can carry out actions. So I’ve created a new book using principles that delve into key usability functions for digital products.

The principles

The principles I use are taken directly from a set developed in 1995, entitled 10 Usability Heuristics For User Interface Design. Despite being 20 years old they’re still very much relevant today (as I said, humans are slower to evolve than technology). They were written by Jakob Nielsen who is one of the world’s foremost experts on usability. He set up the Nielsen Norman Group along with Don Norman, who I mentioned above. Between them they’re pretty much the definitive resource on interface usability.

The original principles are very general and device-agnostic. However I’m taking these as a starting point and I’m getting a lot more specific. Thus each section of this book takes one of these principles and illustrates them with examples from the world of iPhone app design. In one section I’ve merged two of the principles together as they cover very similar subjects, giving me nine in total.

I’ve tried to pick a complete range of apps from established brands to small-scale newcomers. I want to show that getting usability right isn’t about budget. In fact a lot of the apps are purposely simple and are things that any dev team could build.

This book began life as series of popular blog posts on this site. I’ve now taken them a step further and turned them into a comprehensive reference guide. To do so each blog has been fully rewritten, updated and fresh content added so they can go deeper than those original posts. There’ll also be an audio & video version for those of you who want to kick back and watch me explain it all.

Interested? Sign up here to get on the launch list and be notified as soon as it is available to buy (mid-May 2016). You’ll also get an exclusive discount that won’t be available when the launch day arrives.

Originally published at