Focusing on usability for mobile app success

As written by CIO Canada Magazine, December 2013

You never get a second chance at a first impression, so businesses seeking to launch successful mobile applications must invest in improving usability right out the gate.

Whether launching a customer-facing mobile app or deploying the latest mobile employee productivity tool, efforts are all for naught if users can’t—or won’t—actually use the application. While this seems like common sense, app retention remains a significant problem in the mobile world, where more than one fifth of apps downloaded are used once and then left untouched.

Studies by Boston-based analytics platform developer Localytics found that last year 22 per cent of downloaders in Q3 only used their mobile apps once. This number held steady from the same quarter in 2011 and was actually a four per cent improvement over Q3 2010. The firm suggests the market has a focus on engagement over downloads, and that improved user experience will be a mark of industry leadership.

While expending resources on improving user experience before winning users seems like a Catch 22, techniques do exist to ensure a better customer or employee experience from the get go. And they are worth every penny.

“One of the best ways to ensure your mobile app makes a good first impression is to make sure you’ve taken the right steps during app development,” says Deb Gill, mobile services program director at Wavefront, Canada’s Centre of Excellence for Wireless Commercialization and Research.

Two of those steps are heuristic evaluation and usability testing, she says. Both are techniques for scientifically appraising user experience, but come at the challenge with different and complementary approaches. Where heuristic evaluation has highly skilled experts uncover major usability issues early in the design process; usability testing recruits consumers from your target customer base allowing experts to study how the app is embraced in the hands of its users.

Fortunately for those without internal usability expertise—or simply lacking in mobile experience—help exists through organizations like Wavefront, who partners with mobile usability experts across Canada such as OpenRoad or Yu Centrik.

OpenRoad of Vancouver has placed a focus on user experience in its design and developing services since its doors opened in 1995, according to Selma Zafar, director of UX at the firm. She says the partnership with Wavefront has helped OpenRoad to refine its own user experience offering around mobile apps, as well as kept it in touch with envelope pushing startups and entrepreneurs.

“User experience is starting to be seen as the big differentiator in products. Everyone claims they want a product that is simple and easy to use, but the simplest and easiest to use products are actually the hardest to design,” she says. Still, she adds that many businesses simply aren’t taking the time to understand challenges users face or prioritizing what needs fixing, which is where user experience professional services can help.

Even those who have experience in usability may find creating a top tier experience for mobile users requires some outside assistance. That’s why Tony Gullaci, technical analyst at WorkSafeBC (the Workers’ Compensation Board of B.C.) turned to Wavefront for heuristic evaluation services when his organization decided to prototype a mobile clearance letter application in 2011.

“It was our first mobile app, and the evaluation really helped us improve design from a usability point of view,” says Gullaci, an HFI Certified Usability Analyst himself. “We took their findings and applied them to that prototype, but they’ve also become best practices for us moving forward.”

He says WorkSafeBC has continued to port applications to mobile platforms where they made sense, building on the user experience skills gained from their first foray. “Our intent is to really understand what we’re trying to deliver to the customer, while keeping in mind our business goals.”

Balancing those priorities is one of the challenges that heuristic evaluations and usability testing help businesses overcome, says Zafar: “Really good designs go awry because they’ve stuffed in everything and the kitchen sink.”

It’s a point mirrored by Joelle Stemp, president and co-founder of Montreal-based user experience and service design consulting firm, and Wavefront Trusted Partner, Yu Centrik. Stemp’s team of designers, engineers, cognitive psychologists and computer scientists ferret out usability problems and pose solutions during the design process—an activity she says has become more crucial thanks to the mobile market’s maturity.

“Over the years users have become exposed to many mobile apps, and they compare those experiences,” she notes. “So customers know what a good experience is and if they don’t have it, they make it clear.”

She adds that with the transparency created by social networking, bad user experiences spread like wildfire across the Internet. With user experience becoming such a differentiator, she urges companies to integrate User Centered Design (UCD) into their development process.

“Many companies don’t do any user research and don’t do any testing with real users,” she says. “Great experiences don’t come by accident, they are planned and designed.”

Meanwhile, those who have embraced user experience in development have seen it pay off in spades.

Jeff Sinclair, co-founder of Xomo Digital Inc., came to Wavefront for user experience testing when Xomo was developing one of its first major apps—an iPhone spectator guide for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. Since then the company has added to its portfolio apps for some of the largest events in Canada and the world, from the London 2012 Olympics to the Sundance Film Festival to the Calgary Stampede. Each time the company incorporates user experience testing into the design process and with good reason.

“It’s so easy to make wrong assumptions about what will work in a mobile app,” he says. “For us usability testing is a real competitive advantage. We can validate our assumptions and make sure the user experience is enjoyable.”

Dustin Sproat, co-founder and CEO of Interactive Athletics Corp., turned to Wavefront for both heuristic evaluation and usability testing when launching Shnarped. The app connects hockey players and their fans, allowing them—among other things—to give athletes a virtual “pound” (hockey’s version of a high-five). A startup darling, the company recently appeared on CBC’s Dragon’s Den and received a pledge of $250,000 from all five investors.

Sproat notes the importance their two-days user experience testing played in designing a successful app. “The testing helped us learn to remove ourselves from the design and watch how it really will be used,” he says.

“You can’t just assume that everything is easy and people are going to get it. You have to put it in front of people.”

Sinclair adds that even in some cases, like event apps, where it is almost certain an app will be downloaded, heuristic evaluation and usability testing makes a huge difference. “It becomes the difference between an OK app, and one everyone remembers—for the right reasons—that’s what user experience is about.”


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