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App UX Basics: Understanding User Experience

Girl holding a phone, using an app

App user experience (UX) is all about delivering the easiest and most pleasant experience.

This combines psychology with design, development and testing.

Because there’s no way that anyone has yet invented to get a user experience perfect the first time around.

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Some app UX fundamentals:

  • The fewest taps wins
  • The fewer elements there are, the better
  • Tell people what they need to know when they need to know it

There are five key things we need to design for in our first stab at it. We do our best to hit all these, then we test and learn.

The five pillars of user experience

I’ve used the Nielson Norman Group’s five quality factors of user experience because nothing can beat them at UX, so I won’t even try.

1. Learnability

How easy is it for a user to discover how to do the basic things they’ll want to do in your interface? If it’s not easy for a first-time user, your app is on its way to the bin straight away.

Thinking total happy path, if we take a banking app as an example: how easy is it for them to see their balance, check their transactions, transfer some money and check their statement?

A way to reduce the cognitive load (mental strain) of learning how to use your app is progressive disclosure. This is about revealing more information as the user needs it, rather than front-loading all the information. This is an argument for ditching a traditional app walk-through in favour of guidance as the user discovers the app for themselves.

Familiar icons and actions are key to learnability: use native icons e.g. Apple to help phone users pick up tasks quickly and use swipes, taps and holds where they’d be expected from other experiences.

2. Efficiency

How fast can someone who’s used to the app UX perform their tasks? Getting this right will help your app’s lifetime – be useful, be unintrusive, be simple pimple.

Many apps are not designed for long periods of interaction; outside of entertainment apps, users enter to complete a task and then leave. Making that happen as quickly as possible is the aim of the game.

3. Memorability

How easy is it for users to remember how to use your app, even after time away?

Keep icons simple and familiar, so they act as memorable breadcrumbs through the app UX. A clear navigation will help people get back to the screens they remember using before.

Memorability for common tasks is an argument for doing incremental development instead of big app releases that change a lot of features.

4. Errors

Coming up against an error is annoying, even if it’s your own fault.

Two types of user error in an app:

  • Slip – meant to do one thing but did another, like a typo
  • Mistake – didn’t have the right information or misunderstood

When our user sees an error, it’s on us to mitigate that experience. Error text needs to be short, sharp, consistent and incredibly contextual.

No blanket error message – ‘Sorry, something went wrong’. If they’ve entered a car reg that doesn’t exist, tell them that. If they’ve entered an email that isn’t registered with you, tell them that.

Fewer system errors is great but don’t forget to help with the errors that are the user’s fault. Give people the information they need to fix their experience.

5. Satisfaction

How pleasant is your app UX? Does it make life easier? Does it make tasks quicker? Does it help users achieve something?

Don’t kid yourself; this is less about designing to delight and more about the four points we’ve just been through. Pleasant = easy and reliable.

Minimisation is the key to app UX

  1. Minimise cognitive load: the less thinking required, the better
  2. Minimise clutter: the fewer elements the better
  3. Minimise content: provide information at the point it’s needed
  4. Minimise radically new design thinking: familiarity aids UX
  5. Minimise user input: autofills from their OS, APIs for data held elsewhere
  6. Minimise quirky language and jargon in favour of sharp, functional copy

Small screen, small window of attention – minimise everything.

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