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When a user installs an application onto his mobile device, he sort of creates a first impression about it very soon, sometimes within minutes. Needless to say, the first impression is crucial. This holds more significance when the marketplace has multiple versions of the application , done by different app-makers. There should be something in the app to make it stand out in the crowd and prove it to be unique and useful. 

According to lot of researches carried out so far, the average shelf life of an app turns out be approximately a month. Generally, an application’s residence time on one’s device is decided  in the first few minutes spent on it. The idea  is to ensure the application impresses its user as soon as  possible before it bites the dust.

There are a few quality attributes which can be crucial in deciding a mobile application’s fate of which Usability is quite significant.

An application should understand and target the user. Sky is the limit when it comes to what can become a usability issue for an application because something the app developer  considered as cool might end up as frustration for the user/ make him slow or confuse him. Usability is often an ignored area for web applications but holds an important place when it comes to mobile applications.

ISO defines usability as “The extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use”  and identifies Understandability, Learnability and Operability as sub-attributes for usability. These apply equally well to mobile application.

An application has to be simple enough for user to understand with minimal effort; after-all no-one creates manuals for mobile applications! A “learnable” application will allow user to accomplish the tasks easily when he uses it for the first time.  Efficiency of doing a task is also another important factor.It refers to how easy is it for users to make errors using the application?

There is no Bible to follow for usability but there can be a fair evaluation of an  applications’s usability.  I did a fun exercise of reading reviews on numerous low rated application on Google PlayStore and Apple’s App-store to gather more information about the pain points of mobile applications from usability point of view.

Based on the above work, my personal experience on mobile applications, inputs from friends and observation on other users, I came up with following  potential  usability issues on mobile applications:

Look and feel Plays a significant role in creating impression about an application.

Size of visual elements: If it is too small, user might find it difficult to tap/touch with precision. Too big elements will reduce the beauty quotient of the application and mobile apps cannot afford to waste the real estate. Touch targets need to be big enough to prevent errors.

* Choice of colors and color contrast is another important thing which needs to be decided based on the target audience. Background and elements’ colors should be in accordance with  likely background light and conditions for application’s use.   Applications for youth or games etc will generally use vibrant colors (remember a particular class of audience will also get offended by bright colors!) ; generally whatever it takes to make the app more appealing visually.  Angry birds is a good example.  

* Fonts also do not go unnoticed on screen especially when they are a part of a small mobile screen. Fonts which are too small or too big can irritate the user.

* A simple, intuitive and uncluttered design will surely win users. The design should be consistent though the screens in terms of margins and placement of elements etc. It should not display unwanted/redundant elements; every element must serve a purpose and add value.

* Responsive Designs should be used to provide best viewing experience on devices having  different screen sizes.

* Icons and images : The main application icon should depict the story of the business. Most of the applications’ icons are  minified version of their desktop counterparts. Using logos is also a common practise. The background of icon should preferably not be white as it does not make it visible enough on the screen. Icons/ images on the application’s screen play an important role too. They should be speak for themselves and not be misleading or mysterious.

Content of the mobile application is a very important factor and needs to be decided strategically as the screen is small and users are more demanding & impatient. Rather than targeting all the features of the web application, a mobile application should focus on the key functionality. It should do less in the best possible way to make it a pleasant experience for the user. Too many ads on the page or at wrong places can distract a user.

Visual indication of action/processing is a must.  When an action results in navigating the user to another screen/ opening  a pop-up/ uploading some data, a processing wheel or bar should be displayed on screen to ensure the action has started.  Else, user can perform the same actions repeatedly often resulting in undesirable results or even hanging/crashing of apps.

Feedback / warnings: Application should provide  feedback  to user in form of  error messages, alerts and warnings which should be concise and informative. If an application requires GPS connection, it’s wise to notify user on start-up itself if GPS is not ON.

Placement of elements on screen should be done thoughtfully. If a user holds his phone in one hand and tries to reach the top of screen with thumb, any elements at the screen’s bottom right and center will be very prone to accidental touch. All elements can be placed in a  tap zone which is likely to be free from accidental touches. If two touchable elements are squished close together on screen, it increases the chances of incorrect actions. For e.g when there is an option to show more entries on page at the bottom (For example, see App Store on iPhones) which is placed just above the bottom menu bar.

Screen Orientation: It is great if the application supports both portrait and landscape orientation as most users will expect the application to respond to orientation changes. One never knows which orientation will user prefer depending on his position, action to be performed on the screen or simply his mood/choice.

Navigation ease and smoothness is important too. Key features should be accessible from the home screen and home screens should be accessible from relevant screens. Providing a basic menu at the bottom of the page is often very helpful particularly for commercial applications.

Scrolling is one thing which annoys lot of users. It often leads to unintended touches on the screen. Wherever possible, an application should use alternatives such as Search filters or pagination.

Application should honour the device buttons. Its justified for a user to be frustrated if the back button from home screen does not close the app on an android phone.

If an application demands user to input too many fields, this also frustrates users.

There can be many more additions to the above lists depending on the user, application type etc. If you feel something relevant can be added, please contribute in comments.

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