The Usability Opportunity

While the mobile explosion is undeniable, there is still too little talk within the industry about usability. This is likely a sign of trouble, possibly the kind we have not seen in technology since the days of desktop in the early 1990s.  Indeed, in a 2009 report on mobile usability testing, web usability guru Jakob Nielsen said: “User suffering during our sessions reminded us of the very first usability studies we did with traditional websites in 1994.” Nielsen summarized his findings thus: “The mobile user experience is miserable.” 

You might charge that Nielsen has a vested interest in asserting the need for usability testing, but there are questions about usability and usefulness of mobile apps from others. A recent survey of smartphone users by Fanfare found that a whopping 57 per cent were dissatisfied with the mobile user experience. Another study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that only about 24 per cent of adults actually use mobile apps. “Having apps and using apps are not synonymous,” the study concluded. 

Mobile marketers have the greatest stake in creating interfaces that people find both useful and usable. The time to create faultless apps and mobile websites is now. Marketers can ensure this through applying tried and true user experience design processes, including user testing.

Designing fat-free, usable mobility
Recently, we worked with the Canadian mobile operator, Koodo Mobile, which was keen to perfect its mobile website for user accounts. We interviewed a variety of users from both genders, aged 19 to 49. They were employed across a spectrum of occupations, using a variety of phones, with each users common usage focused on several different of many core tasks (SMS, email, downloads, music player, etc.)  While we gained rich insights unique to the usability of this companys mobile website, the things we learned also had applications for other mobile interfaces.

“I want independence.” This was a primary insight we gained from user interviews  – that users did not want to use a call centre (even though this is ridiculously easy, of course), and expected to be self-sufficient. They needed the website to be intuitively navigable, and if it wasnt, they were not likely to ask for help. While older users are more likely amenable to using a call centre, young mobile users are very likely to not want to “waste my time on hold” as one respondent put it.

“… but I might still be dependent.” The lower age of typical mobile website users had implications for account payments, as well. In particular, a significant percentage of users were using their parents credit cards, and they required parental consent in order to make changes to their account, such as increasing the number of texts per month, etc. If they need to interrupt an account change in order to contact their parents, the mobile application must account for this. (Of course, there were numerous other implications of this as well.)

Login resistance is high and auto-logins are nearly mandatory. Clients should be able to get basic account information without needing to log in. Forcing them to remember a login and password for every interaction will reduce usage of the interface immensely. Of course, users were very happy to log in for anything related to billing or credit card information.  That said, users were uncomfortable transmitting credit card information wirelessly; they wanted to be asked for additional passcodes and know that their information was not being saved by the system.

We also learned that it is vital to provide a variety of payment options. Initial iterations of the account management only allowed users to attach their credit card to the account. Paypal, epost, user bank accounts and any other methods of payment were expected by users.

You should also provide “Are you sure?” queries, review screens and confirmation comfort. Users expected all of these. In what looks like a rush to oversimplify the mobile user experience, the designers had essentially neglected robust transaction review and confirmation. 

It’s essential, too, to give critical, usable information up front (and find out what users think is critical). Precise and concise account data was critical. Users required an up-to-date picture of how many minutes they had left on their monthly account, to name just one example. Presenting this required information is absolutely necessary to creating a good user experience. In creating applications, usability testing will be the only way to find out what information your users really want or need. You can provide intelligent upsell by recognizing patterns in usage, then targeting users with intelligent offers. They welcome this, so long as it is unobtrusive.

These insights gained from user interviews and testing fed considerable changes in the redesign of the user account interface. We redesigned the interface, reviewed it with the users, and met with relief and confirmation of an improved product. 

Don’t assume anything
A final summary insight we gained was that many of our old assumptions about intuitive user experience design were moot. Not only are we now dealing with a whole collection of new technologies, but mobile is used predominantly by a generation with a completely unique set of assumptions and expectations.
Usability test questions and results were entirely different from many of our old interview patterns, even though our essential methods (i.e. asking the right questions) were still very relevant.

Mobile marketers and designers are sure to gain critical and surprising insights into what users want and need, if they engage in user testing of apps and mobile websites. Testing among focus groups will ensure you launch a useful, usable product that your customers will want to come back to.

Jim Huinink writes for Toronto-based mobile usability company, Interpix Design