Overcoming mobile app user experience design challenges

User experience designers share a few tips and tricks of the trade so organizations can get better results from their mobile app initiatives.

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BOSTON -- Organizations are expected to deliver mobile apps to employees, but often there's difficulty in delivering a great user experience design.

The breakdown for many organizations occurs because most don't have employees dedicated to user experience (UX) design. Those that outsource their mobile application development often don't have the language to communicate with third parties to get what they want.

Users want that Netflix-like, simple-to-learn experience out of their business applications, but don't have the knowledge to communicate that to UX designers, said Michael Salamon, UX practice lead at EffectiveUI, a design consultancy based in Denver, Colo. Worse, if organizations don't deliver that intuitive experience from the applications they provide, employees are more likely to find an application on their own that does, he added.

"It's easy to use [and] it works on every single device they own, including a Nintendo Wii," Salamon said. "And it's mostly the same experience on [every] device, so they are never confused going from a cellphone to a browser."

Panelists here at this week's E2 Conference discussed the challenges of UX design when developing mobile applications and shared several tips to help IT, developers and the business speak the same language.

Get past the buzzwords

One of the biggest challenges for UX designers is that the business side doesn't know how to properly communicate what they want from their mobile apps. Business users also become frustrated by a process they don't quite understand.

The language barrier that separates users from IT includes terms such as: personas, mood boards, wire frames, journey maps and heuristic analysis. But, all of those things are just part of the process UX designers use to figure out what an app's intended purpose is and how best to create it so people continue to use it.

"It's one thing to tell a UX designer you want a best-in-class, simple-to-use application, but those terms can be quite nebulous," said Brad Ruiter, director of user experience at Universal Mind, a digital solutions agency based in Golden, Colo.

Ruiter suggested using a consumer app like Pinterest, a content-sharing service that allows members to "pin" images, videos and other objects to their own boards, to visually communicate.

"Humans are visual creatures and that has been awesome for collaborating with clients for finding things they like," he said. "We have them add examples of applications they love and it opens up a dialogue about what specifically they like or don't like about the apps they use."

Or, as Brice Stokes, director of user experience design at TIAA-CREF Financial Services put it: "We don't draw enough pictures."

Empathize with users

Once everyone is on the same page regarding the kind of app they want, the best thing a user experience designer can do is take their own ego out of the design process. After all, they won't be the one using the app.

"Empathy is a core thing," said Jonathan Wheeler, senior UX designer at Oppenheimer Funds Inc., an investment management firm. "If your developers can't empathize with the call center team as they try to open up the call center app, but they missed the caller's name, and now they are futzing around under pressure trying to enter information with someone yelling at them in one ear, then you don't stand a chance."

One way to develop empathy for users is to hold monthly movie nights, said Kimber Lockhart, director of engineering at Box, a cloud software vendor based in Los Altos, Calif. Only instead of watching Hollywood movies, the group of developers should watch videos of users testing mobile applications.

"There's nothing quite like seeing the frustration and anger from a user when something unexpected happens in an app and then they can't figure out what to do," she said.

Another easy ploy for sympathizing with users is to give the app to a person, like your mother-in-law, who has no context for using it and then ask that person to accomplish very basic task-oriented objectives, Salamon said.

To that end, it's important for designers to partner with the people using the app to figure out what exactly they are trying to accomplish. Once app designers put themselves in the user's shoes, it is much harder to mix up prettiness with usability, Lockhart said.

Don't reinvent the wheel

Believe it or not, there are certain aspects of mobile applications that have established tried-and-true user interaction elements, such as the method for selecting calendar dates or the back button.

A big mistake a UX designer can make is confusing users by giving then an unexpected experience. Some designers try to get too cute with these elements or over-engineer them. While it's tempting to show off for the user, often times it's better to go with the boring old interaction that everyone has come to expect, Box's Lockhart said.

"UX isn't about making art," Salamon said. "When it comes down to it, most of what we do is just solving user problems and getting out of the way."

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