When Designing Mobile Experiences, Context is King

David Enarson | January 29, 2016 | Mobile Strategy

The other day, my phone rang as I was running into the gym. I answered and heard a recorded message from my doctor’s office confirming my appointment for the next day. I was barely listening as I stashed my items in my locker, and thought I heard the recording say, “Press 1 to confirm your appointment.” So that’s what I did. That moment reminded me how important it is to consider mobile context when designing experiences. What if I would have heard the prompt wrong and pressed 1 and canceled my appointment? Would the voice system have asked me to confirm the cancellation?

Did the designer of that voice system consider all the places someone might experience that interaction? Distracted in traffic? On a train where cell phones cut in and out? Home with a crying kid in the background? Context affects experience and keeping it in mind at all times is essential to design the most effective experience possible.

What does a burrito have to do with Mobile Design?
As it turns out, quite a lot.

Oftentimes we use mental shortcuts to handle the massive amount of information we have to process. I notice this most when ordering food at quick-serve restaurants or sub shops. The minute you mention an ingredient, there it is in your meal. So I’m always careful to order in a specific sequence. I always say, “On the side, hot sauce” instead of “Hot sauce on the side.” This lets the employee know where it needs to go before they hear what I want.

Otherwise I may end up with a spicy meal I didn’t even want. I pay careful attention to this when writing alerts and other navigational messages for apps. For clarity, I try to place the primary action at the beginning of the phrase. This also ensures the most important content appears first—just in case the recipient doesn’t have time to read the whole message.

Typically, those who design apps (or other software systems) work in offices and spend a lot of time in front of a computer. While those who use the software are out in the field going about their daily business, particularly these days when the distinction between office, home, and car is practically nonexistent. Employees with their BYOD devices are able to complete all their work tasks while waiting for the train, in the doctor’s office, etc.

So how does this translate when designing compelling mobile user experiences? First of all, when identifying how employee needs can be solved through mobile apps it’s important to focus not only on the actors completing the tasks but also on their context: where are they using the app? When are they using the app? And how are they using the app?

For example, employees working on construction sites wear protective gear such as thick gloves; how would this impact their interaction with an app interface? It may be important to design the interaction stepwise such that part of a workflow may be completed prior to going onsite. The employee can then easily confirm the entries after leaving the site. This approach would minimize the inconvenience of taking off the gloves or other protective equipment over and over. Similarly, when designing apps for outdoor use it’s important to ensure the interface is high contrast to be usable in direct sunlight.

In other situations app context may include the use of specialized hardware such as a ruggedized tablet or smartphone—devices that can handle day-in and day-out usage on trucks, in warehouses, etc.

Ride-alongs are another great way to address context and ensure the mobile experience works well in practice. These have proven invaluable with our own clients in uncovering on-the-job subtleties that would otherwise go unreported. It’s crucial to uncover nuances in company processes, and the most effective means of doing so is by literally getting in the middle of the action to truly appreciate the context around the app being built.

So when thinking about your mobile app’s business needs I encourage you to think hard about the context of their use. Will employees primarily be performing tasks in the office, on a factory floor, outside, in a warehouse, while traveling by train or as a demo to customers? Each of these situations will impact the design differently. Or perhaps usage will occur at a combination of locations and times—in which case consideration needs to be made to ensure users can save their progress and pick back up where they left off. When it comes to mobile, bite-sized experiences can create high return because they enable the company to recapture moments of productivity that would otherwise be lost (e.g. between meetings, waiting for transportation, etc.).

Similarly, it’s just as important to test your apps in real world conditions. A team sitting in an office testing an app meant for the field isn’t going to be very helpful. A frequent mobile issue that surfaces when an app is used in its true context is properly handling connectivity (or loss thereof) which I discussed in “Don’t Stop the Show: Designing the Mobile Offline Experience.” The single best way to test connectivity issues is to use the app out in the real world. Test the app when the device is jumping between cell towers (handoffs), as WIFI transfers to cellular, in areas of spotty connectivity, etc.

As a product manager I often test customers’ apps while on the L, Chicago’s local commuter train. It’s the perfect place to test. There’s the noise of the train, the commotion of other passengers, and changes in cellular signal—all mixed together. It always helps me to step out of the office and into the real world where these apps are used.

Always consider the context of the people you’re designing for in order to create effective mobile experiences. If you’d like to discuss the significance of mobile context and our Ride-Along (or Day in the Life) process with one of our mobile strategists, please click here to set up a call. We’d love to hear from you.

David Enarson

David Enarson is a Mobile Strategist at Propelics. He has experience leading mobile application initiatives in the Enterprise, specifically with sales force audiences. He has worked with well known brands in the Pharmaceutical, Consumer Packaged Goods and Services verticals. David combines his ability to chart out a big picture strategy with his technical aptitude and understanding of the complexities of the Enterprise to drive value for clients. He has a true passion for startups and mobility and was a past participant and coach at Startup Weekend Chicago. David’s interest in mobility began early on when he founded a company to develop and market applications for the Palm OS.

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