Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How does mobile app design differ from design for desktop and web apps?

Designing business applications for mobile smartphones and tablets is often described simply in terms of screen size. While it is a factor, this is only one of the important differences to keep in mind when designing mobile apps. I’ve developed an acronym to help mobile app developers think about best practice when designing for mobile apps:

By considering the differences in context between desktop or web applications and mobile apps, we can begin to see the outlines of best practice design considerations. Consider these six dimensions of mobile app design when developing new smartphone and tablet applications whether with a Mobile Enterprise Application Platform or through more tedious native development tools:

  • Pressed-for-time.  The mobile user is typically in a time crunch when compared to their desktop computing counterparts. Attention spans are shorter, the need for extensive information and data is far less. In fact, thoroughness of data and information will often be viewed as a negative an a mobile app. Mobile users want just the pertinent facts and procedures because they are pressed for time. They are often in the midst of doing something else and the use of the mobile app is literally an interruption to their current task. Pressed-for-time means apps need to be aware of the multi-tasking being done by the user. The app needs to allow the user to get in, get out and be done. POODLE Rule-of-thumb:  Mobile apps should typically involve no more than 2-3 screens.
  • On-the-spot. Mobile apps are usually at their best when they are location sensitive. Accessing the GPS for location allows the application to lookup relevant data, display locations on a map and so on. Geocoding requires developers to think in new ways about data relationships. From a design standpoint a mashup of Google Maps or other geocoded information can be especially useful to mobile app users. POODLE Rule-of-thumb: Limit initial application scope based on where the user is currently or most recently located.
  • On-the-go. Keep in mind that the current location of the device is not always the location the mobile user is concerned about. A mobile user is often thinking about “where to go next” and not simply where they are. For this reason a mix of GPS, server-side geocoded data and user entry about desired locations will need to be a part of the application. POODLE Rule-of-thumb: Allow the user to easily indicate an alternate, more relevant location from where they are currently located.
  • Device-specific. Not only are mobile screens smaller and the interface method different (no mouse and usually no physical keyboard) but the devices vary drastically from model to model. Size, screen resolution, camera resolution, battery life can all make a difference. Poor application design that constantly drains a battery through GPS use or radio use can become a real issue. If a company has to program in different languages for BlackBerry, Apple iOS, Android and Windows Phone, this can be extremely resource costly. Consider a Mobile Enterprise Application Platform (MEAP) suchas Magic’s application platform to overcome these duplicate efforts. POODLE Rule-of-thumb: MEAP Platforms Reduce Development by 35-90%.
  • Leveraged-Data. When designing business apps, it is essential that the apps leverage backend data and business processes so that the mobile user is fully connected to the business without having to interact directly with enterprise IT systems. An enterprise mobile mashup will allow the business app designer to leverage data and processes for the most effective user experience. POODLE Rule-of-thumb: Enterprise mobile mashups increase app acceptance by 35%.
  • Expressly-Personal. With traditional business software, the user learns to navigate a series of screens and interfaces to accomplish their tasks. With a mobile app, user navigation is resource intensive and regarded as a waste of time. Mobile apps should learn the preferences of the user to personalize the interaction without the user having to set preferences and options. If I press the same three navigation buttons every time I use the app, shouldn’t that become my start page?
Mobile applications should be expressly personal experiences allowing the user to interact when, where and how they want to. Apps should be limited in scope so as to be more intimate and personal to the specific need of the user at that moment. Other apps can accomplish other tasks for other users. POODLE Rule-of-thumb: Tailor applications on-the-fly in a way that lets the user know you have been paying attention to their preferences.

What’s all the POODLE about? It’s just a way to organize a few ideas about mobile app development and how it needs to be approached differently than the development of traditional desktop and web applications. I’m sure we could extend the acronym further to POODLES and discuss security and other important issues. But for now, we'll let sleeping apps lie.

Glenn Johnson is a Senior Vice President at Magic Software Enterprises, Inc. Active in the software industry since 1984, he frequently speaks at industry conferences and writes for numerous publications.