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An introduction to mobile application design

Mobile application design isn't always easy. An effective design keeps user experience at the forefront of the design process. Without that, an enterprise mobile app could fail.

Designing an enterprise mobile app involves a lot more forethought than just deciding on what colors and fonts to use for the interface -- you must take into account your users and what they're trying to accomplish. In fact, there are a number of issues you must bear in mind before embarking down the path of mobile application design.

Do your homework

An effective mobile app enables a targeted group of users to carry out a specific set of related tasks. One of your first steps in designing a mobile app must be to fully understand those users. What sets them apart from other potential users? What are their expectations and technical capabilities? The better you understand the people who will be using your application, the better you can design it.

Next, determine what tasks the app should allow them to perform and which features they'll need to perform those tasks. Resist the temptation to cram in all that cool wizardry, rather than to deliver an effective and useful tool.

Also, figure out which device types you plan to support. Be precise. Don't just say "iOS and Android"; know the operating system versions, device types and any other specifics.

Once you've done your homework, you should end up with a concrete definition that articulates the app's purpose and its intended audience. An example: "The app will allow sales staff in the field to access the company's inventory and submit sales orders against that inventory."

Keep mobility in mind

Many developers forget the mobility factor when building enterprise mobile apps, turning the user experience into a cumbersome process at best.

A mobile app that doesn't incorporate sound design principles is destined to fail.

Users want an app that is familiar and predictable. The content should be clear and focused, with no surprise user interface (UI) features lurking in the background. Throughout the mobile application design process, strive to keep the UI as intuitive, responsive and user-friendly as possible. If certain elements aren't intuitive, provide precise, simple instructions. And don't assume the meaning of images and icons will be clear to all users or be interpreted in the same way.

When possible, use standard controls and built-in device features. Most users are already familiar with how their mobile devices work and how to carry out certain tasks. If you confront them with UI elements that don't behave as they expect, they must stop what they're doing to focus on how to carry out even the simplest task.

At the same time, take into account device constraints, such as battery life, screen size, processor speeds and memory, and consider how those constraints vary from one device to another.

Adopt good design principles

Employees have come to expect the same quality from their enterprise apps as they get from their everyday consumer apps. A mobile app that doesn't incorporate sound design principles is destined to fail when pitted against the many consumer apps that have made their way into the workplace.

A mobile app should take advantage of the full screen, carefully positioning elements in a natural hierarchy that reflects the relationships between them. Take into account how users will navigate those elements to carry out specific tasks. For example, smartphone users rely heavily on their thumbs to navigate a UI, and the majority of those users are right-handed, so consider placing the most important features within easy reach.

When making decisions about fonts, colors, styles, titles, buttons and icons, keep readability and usability in mind. Fonts should be visible on different screen resolutions. Pick contrasting colors that clearly delineate one element from the next.

Above all, keep the UI clean and simple, without a lot of clutter.

Treat content as king

Be wary of allowing mobile application design elements to overshadow an app's content. When it comes to enterprise mobile apps, it's all about the data.

Imagine you're designing an app that lets customers access their accounts and view their subscription services. The app might also include a feature that allows them to rate the app. Although you want customers' feedback, you certainly wouldn't want that feature to take precedence over their ability to access account and subscription information.

Data management is also an important consideration: What data can be stored on the device? What can be cached? What can be made available as an online service?

How the app will connect to available services will affect, at least in part, your decision about how to handle data. Will users rely on a steady Wi-Fi connection? Cellular service? Will the app only be occasionally connected? Will users likely experience limited network bandwidth?

Even if the app requires regular network connectivity, you'll most likely want to design it to account for intermittent connection issues. You might also want to implement a system for synchronizing data so users can work offline.

One of the biggest issues you have to contend with when it comes to mobile application design is how to secure sensitive data and protect users' privacy. You will have to address such issues as authentication and authorization, as well as how to safeguard data at rest and in motion. This will likely mean turning to SSL or TLS encryption, as well as other technologies, such as virtual private networks. Ensure the security mechanisms you put in place integrate with enterprise directory and management systems so you're not exposing your organization to additional risks.

Test, analyze and listen

Fully test your app, analyze its usage and seek user feedback. Without these mechanisms in place, you cannot know if your app is achieving its primary purpose. Get as many users as possible to try it out. The more input you can gather, the better the design.

If possible, design your app to include an analytics component that can monitor and track user activity so you have a sense of how the app performs and interacts with other device features.

Finally, be sure your users have an easy way to provide feedback about the app. Use whatever means appropriate to your particular app to find out what users think about it and how they're using it. The more you know, the better the app can become.

Next Steps

What are the essential design facts mobile app developers must know?

How can CIOs ensure their enterprise mobile app design is user-centered?

How can developers overcome user experience mobile app design challenges?

This was first published in February 2016

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