Important Usability Considerations in Mobile Design

It should come as no surprise that consumers today are more engaged with people, products and services than ever before. This is in large part due to the emerging technologies and social platforms through which people are exchanging information. One item clearly stands apart as doing more to accelerate this unprecedented level of user engagement than anything else: the mobile device.

Mobile devices are all around us. It seems you can’t go anywhere without seeing people with their heads down, staring into the palms of their hands, tapping and gesturing on small screens. People are working, sharing, playing and, more importantly, buying on these powerful devices. The prophecies about such devices becoming the “next big thing” have indeed come true. Smartphones have out-shipped the combined global market of laptop, desktop and notebook computers two years earlier than predicted!

As mobile’s growth continues to explode, so, too, does the need to design, create and develop user experiences optimized for significantly smaller screens.

It’s important to note that not all mobile devices are created equal. There is an enormous difference between feature phones and smartphones. Because smartphones account for the largest segment of data usage and also represent the greatest opportunities for richer engagement with users, they are clearly where the future is headed.

So what fundamental design considerations are critically important when “going mobile” or enhancing an existing mobile site? Here are three usability-based design factors that can make a world of difference in the quality of a user’s mobile experience.

The place to start is to understand the context in which many mobile interactions are taking place. A very common scenario is when users are in the midst of busy, physical environments. Many times, users shift their attention between the device and the interactions taking place within their surroundings. The user’s focus can be fractured at best. Therefore, information presented on-screen needs to be laser-focused on the task at hand. Interface elements and content need to be absorbed quickly and clearly, so anything not crucial to the activity should be eliminated. Less really can be more when it comes to mobile.

Interface Interactions
A second very important consideration is usability conventions: the way we physically interact with smartphones. The most obvious difference when using a smartphone versus a desktop computer is the user action required. Gone are the mouse controls and clicks; in are the taps, pinches and swipes necessary for touchscreen interactions.

Touch targets need to be adequately sized to provide effective user control; for example, Apple’s iOS Human Interface Guidelines call for button touch targets to be a minimum of 29 pixels wide by 44 pixels high. In most cases, people are using their thumbs to navigate and make selections, so understanding user interface (UI) sizing needs can make an enormous impact on the user experience. A well-designed UI can prevent unintentional selections or additional resizing gestures necessary to confidently touch the intended target. Thumbs lack the pixel-level accuracy of a cursor and tend to be imprecise, which can lead to unintentional actions.

Being Responsive
There is a lot of focus lately on the advantages of designing and developing a responsive website. Responsive web design is the approach that suggests design, and even content, should respond to the user’s behavior and environment based on screen size, platform and orientation. The practice consists of flexible design grids and layouts (think proportions, not pixels), images and an intelligent use of CSS media queries. The high-level consideration comes down to this: If there isn’t a justifiable need to strategically differentiate your mobile experience from your desktop, then give strong consideration to a responsive solution. There are powerful benefits to producing a single design that presents content optimized for the screen on which it is being displayed. Incorporating progressive enhancements adds further value to the user’s experience when the viewing environment affords it.

The day is fast approaching — and for many, it’s already here — when users will come to expect optimized web content, regardless of their viewing device or platform. Unnecessary, wasteful interactions discourage and distract users from strategic objectives, particularly transactions. Users should be able to achieve their goals with as little friction as possible, because we all love simplicity and things that are easy to use. No matter how technologies and mobile devices continue to evolve, people and their needs will always be what’s most important.