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Mobile usability matters

This post first appeared on the LINE blog on 30th March 2012.

Katie Hart, LINE’s Information and Usability Architect discusses the all-important topic of usability for making your mobile applications more engaging and learner-friendly.

The ios Human Interface guide identifies three main types of mobile app:

  • Utility
  • Productivity
  • Immersive

These different styles apply to virtually all applications, and are based on the visual and behavioural characteristics of the app, the type of information they contain, and the type of user experience it is desired to achieve. Utility apps perform simple tasks that require minimum user input and work well with small nuggets of information. Productivity apps are appropriate for more structured, hierarchical information, and Immersive apps are full screen, visually rich experiences that lend themselves to scenario-led learning paths or apps with little structure where the user is encouraged to explore.

It helps to know what type of app you are designing before you start! Regardless of which style your application falls under, however, there are a number of usability constraints that you should take into consideration when working with mobile apps. I’d like to cover these in this post.

Form Factor

Firstly, mobile is not just about making things smaller. True, you are dealing with a much more limited screen real estate; but it is important that you consolidate the most crucial features, functions and content, and lay these out strategically within your app. You need to take into consideration factors like reach – i.e. making sure frequently used controls are within easy reach, and that ‘destructive’ controls, meaning those which might cause you to delete valuable data or content, are not quite so close at hand so they don’t get tapped on by mistake. Adopting a user-centred design approach where you constantly test prototypes and iterations of your app with real users will help you quickly identify any potential issues.

Paper prototyping is a great way of testing the impact of this form factor quickly and cheaply before you start to build (image courtesy of Rachel Hinman, Nokia Research Lab – Mobile UX Essentials presentation)


There are many standards already forming around use of gesture in apps, such as ‘swipe to scroll’, ‘pull down to refresh’, etc. You don’t really need to deviate from these gestures. Sticking to what people are already familiar with is far more effective than trying to wow them with new innovative gestures.

Consider the application you are designing. Is it a utility app? In that case you need to keep buttons big, and gestures very straightforward and intuitive. Consider where the user will be when they are using the app. For example; holding a smart phone in one hand and trying to locate a piece of information while you walk down the road will require a very different set of gestures to an iPad application designed to be browsed while relaxing on the sofa.

Here is a handy reference for the mobile gestures that are currently in use.
mobile gestures

Death of the Call to Action

OK, there, I said it. Gone are the days when we need to tell the user to ‘click next to continue’ on every page. People have a lot more confidence when they are using their fingers to control an app, and by using standard conventions they will be able to interpret and pick up common interactions quickly.

You can always use coach marks on your app to provide contextual prompts for users as they progress through the app.

mobile apps


The nature of mobile means it is just that – mobile. You can’t rely on where the user will be when they access the application or what else they will be doing at the time. This does open up some exciting opportunities such as location-based services, and on-the-spot social networking opportunities. This also means that you need to be mindful of barriers your users may come up against such as loss of connectivity, interruptions or a phone call which may take them out of your app. This can be very annoying if you don’t save their progress and they have to start again!

We can assume that users of immersive applications, for example, are going to be in an environment where they can spend some time accessing the content – at home, perhaps, or on a train – and will therefore be able to make more complex interactive gestures, which greatly enhance the user experience. This is the closest style of app to what we previously would think of as e-learning in a situation where a user actively dedicates time to complete 20 minutes or so without interruptions.

By contrast, productivity apps are required to help the user get to relevant information quickly, so elaborate or hard-to-learn gestures would be considered a nuisance in this scenario.

Finally utility apps, like the iPhone’s Weather App, are all about giving you the picture in one tap. In a learning context this style of apps could be used to provide users with quick access product details, geo-location specific data or used for diagnostic tools.

It’s an exciting time for us in the learning world to be moving more and more towards mobile learning, but we do need to rethink our approaches in line with designing for users on the move. The key things to remember are:

  1. What style of app are you designing?
  2. What are your users trying to achieve and how will they achieve it?
  3. What’s the context of use?