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Five Interaction Design Tips for Your Mobile App

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Apps for mobile platforms might seem simple, but they're far from it. Programs that run on smartphones and tablets have their own style and rules, which are far different from the protocols and techniques established on their desktop computer ancestors. Cameron Banga and Josh Weinhold share five tips for perfecting your app designs in ways that will help you meet or exceed your users' expectations.
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How do you know quality mobile interaction design when you see it? The thing is, you might not. The best apps—the ones most carefully constructed and thought out—feature such an intuitive setup that most users might not even recognize how smooth and easy to use they are.

Bad design is much more noticeable. Despite just a few years of experience with smartphones and tablets, most users tire very quickly of clunkiness or difficulty. A button in the wrong spot sticks out. An unfamiliar, illogical animation seems odd right away. Too much text kills attention spans.

Great interaction design helps a user figure out how to operate a mobile app. It's welcoming and instructive. It should feel second-nature. These qualities don't come easy, however. They take hard work, lots of practice, and plenty of patience during the design development process.

This article provides five tips to keep in mind when striving for an outstanding app. You'll find plenty of other helpful tips and tricks in our book Essential Mobile Interaction Design: Perfecting Interface Design in Mobile Apps.

Tip 1: Lead the User Toward the Next Step

One of the biggest mistakes an app can make is to lose the user, failing to take him or her along smoothly from one step to the next. Your work won't get much attention if users are left lost and alone soon after opening the app. In any app store on any mobile platform, if your app doesn't meet a user's needs quickly or easily enough, someone else's will.

This reality stands in stark contrast to the way software functioned prior to the mobile device revolution. Until the mid-2000s, software had traditionally been sold in boxes on the shelves of brick-and-mortar stores. The program would come on a physical disk or in some other tangible form. Before the era of digital downloads, users had to leave their homes or mail an order form to obtain software—and that software cost money to own. Each program also came with a detailed instruction manual of perhaps 10–50 pages (and sometimes even 100 or more) and featured in-depth tutorials. These explanations were a godsend to users, offering crucial tips and direction that helped guide them through complicated programs.

But in the mobile world, you have no opportunity to provide users with an intricate how-to guide—nor is there any reason to expect them to spend time reading one. Acquiring an app involves little time or money, so users have little incentive to make the effort of figuring out how it works.

Digital software must be intuitive. It must carefully alert the user to each phase of the app experience. Use contrasting colors to indicate where important buttons are located, bold typography to explain things when words are necessary, and visual cues to point the user in the direction of what he or she wants.

Tip 2: Match Your Interactions to Your Platform

Application designers frequently get tripped up when they decide to create an interface on one platform and then attempt to mirror its exact interaction design and visual strategy on a different platform.

This approach seems like an easy route; it unifies design and resources, allowing a team to build once but deploy many versions of the app. The design might be produced in half the time—but that attempt to save hours will ultimately cost users any enjoyment in and appreciation of your app.

If you plan to take your app across devices on multiple platforms—Android, Apple, Windows, or other mobile operating systems—keep in mind that users selected their specific operating system for a reason. They might prefer the visual style used on Windows Phone. Perhaps they like the tinkering and customization available on an Android device. It could be the simplicity of the iPhone or iPad that caught their attention.

Each operating system maker has created a distinct set of human interface and interaction design guidelines which they strongly encourage designers to follow when building apps for their platform. These interfaces and guidelines were created for a reason, and not everyone is following the same rulebook.

Take time to study and research the specific interface conventions in the operating systems you're targeting, and then modify your app's design to best take advantage of that specific platform. Your users will thank you.

Tip 3: Use Clear, Simple Icons

A picture is worth 1,000 words, and a visual interface icon is worth 10,000 lines of code. When designing a mobile app, pictures are your friends. Create or find strong, simple icons that articulate what the buttons or other items inside the app will help users achieve. For example, you could use a checkmark to indicate that a task has been completed, a heart to show that something has been selected as a user's favorite, or the familiar volume iconography to indicate when sound has been turned on or off. Icons take up less space than the text that would be required to explain a function, giving you more room onscreen.

Tip 4: Reduce, Reduce, Reduce

Mobile apps are at an awkward point in their development. They've quickly become the most frequently used, most user-friendly piece of technology people have ever owned, but they also have very small screens that can't display much information at a time, and they have difficultly with advanced computing tasks, especially multitasking.

As a designer, you need to keep these limitations in mind as you work. The best way to alleviate any pains that come with such drawbacks is by removing as much unnecessary clutter and as many overbearing features as possible.

Rather than adding confusing elements that make for an interaction mess, look instead to build an app that does one or two things extraordinarily well, with only the options or features that are absolutely required to get the job done. If it's not essential, take it out. In the end, that simplicity will help the user to focus on the purpose and effectiveness of your app, making it functional for users of all skill levels.

Tip 5: Make Life Easier for International Users

Native speakers of English aren't the only people who have fallen head over heels for mobile devices. Users worldwide, speaking hundreds of languages, are an increasing segment of the smartphone and tablet software marketplace. They're valuable consumers to target as potential customers, so it's imperative to do all you can to make your app work for them.

Icons don't require text, which means they're not only easier for your neighbor or grandmother to understand, but they're also more likely to be comprehended by someone halfway around the world. For the most part, photos and digital images are universally understood. In almost any language, a plus sign will be accepted as meaning "add" or "create."

Sometimes, though, text will be necessary. Translating it can be expensive, but many translation services strive to make the process simple and affordable for app developers.

Whenever possible, push to eliminate text from your design, and focus on elements that don't require words. By making sure your app is usable for people of any language, you increase your reach exponentially—something that should make both your development team and potential advertisers very, very happy.

Wrapping Up

It's not easy making something difficult look simple. Think of any epic film director, baseball homerun hitter, or gourmet chef. Their work looks like it comes naturally, but it took lots of effort to get to the point where they execute their tasks with grace and ease.

The same level of focus and refinement is required in app design. When an app is unveiled to the public, every element in it should feel like it's in the right place, and each animation should seem natural. But getting there requires a lot of thought, trial-and-error, and testing. In time, your apps will seem like they were just meant to be.

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