There are close to 400,000 apps available for download in Apple’s App store, with another 400,000 in Android’s Marketplace and countless mobile styled websites available on the internet. In such a crowded market, application functionality is no longer the differentiator. Instead, user experience is what sets a mobile application apart from the competition. The following five tips provide some guidance when designing your mobile experience.

1. Build a Prototype

Traditional application and web development is often done without a true prototype, but this is a dangerous proposition for mobile. As the canvas size gets smaller, the usability stakes get higher, and a prototype is a great way to mitigate this risk. The fidelity of your mockup doesn’t matter, so there’s no need to get bogged down with technology at this stage. Some recipe cards and a marker will do the trick!

2. Design Mobile First

Porting an existing application layout to a usable mobile experience is a significant challenge. If you’re kicking off a new project, or completely restyling an existing application, start the design process with a mobile prototype, or at a minimum, put thought into how your design could translate to a mobile device. Consider moving from a four-bedroom house into a one-bedroom apartment. Try as you might to prioritize your possessions for the smaller space, chances are you’ll still end up with boxes piled in the corner. On the other hand, moving from a one-bedroom apartment to a four-bedroom house is a much simpler tasks. In other words, it is much easier to design outwards and add additional functionality than it is to pare features back.

3. Understand the Mobile Context

The way that a user interacts with a mobile application is entirely different than the way that they would with a typical desktop application. The mobile context is much more dynamic and full of distractions and needs to be taken into consideration during design. Combine the challenging context with a smaller screen size and the result is a much less immersive experience for the user. How does a designer accommodate this?  By focusing on intuitiveness and easy access to critical functionality, the user will be able to jump in and out of the application in even the most challenging circumstances. At a bare minimum, taking into account text entry and bandwidth constraints will result in a better mobile experience.

4. Choose Your Supported Platforms Wisely

One hundred percent platform compatibility may be mobile utopia, but with operating system fragmentation and legacy device shortcomings, this isn’t practical. The typical response to this challenge is to try to satisfy as many platforms as possible, and the end result is a lowest common denominator design that provides minimal value to the user. Instead, understand your customer and their mobile tendencies and target them directly with a mobile experience that fits the platform. What about system users that fall outside of the major platforms? The final mobile experience tip should help.

5. Provide Access to the Full Site

Even if the full feature set of an application isn’t present via the mobile web design, it should still be made available with an option to access the full site. Generally, mobile application design should focus on the most used features, or pieces of functionality that lend themselves to being used in a mobile context, but that’s not to say that power users or users of platforms not formally supported should be left out in the cold. Even if the full web interface is clunky on the handheld, this level of accessibility is still appreciated by the end user.  

The five tips mentioned above are only the starting point. Put your ideas in front of a trusted audience and iterate on your design until it meets their needs. Finally, don’t be afraid to take some risks. Mobile design is still in its infant phases, so don’t be afraid to think outside of the box and create new paradigms. Just because it hasn’t been done before, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good idea. If you keep all of this in mind, the end results will be a successful mobile experience and a satisfied mobile user.


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