At a recent software conference in Bangalore, a co-speaker shared his first experience trying to "mobile check-in" for his flight to Bangalore. Not knowing if he would make it on time to the airport for his flight, he decided to save some time by avoiding the check-in queue at the airport and tried out the airline's mobile app to self check-in. He summed his first encounter with the app, saying, "I'd recommend this airline to all my contacts! All it took me was three clicks and less than a minute to get my job done. And, of course, I gave this app a 5-star rating right away and dropped in a review as well!"
What he did at that forum, was turn every attendee into a potential customer. Not only that, he also left a 5-star rating for the app online, which meant every visitor looking at the review would strongly consider giving this service provider a chance. A smooth, even pleasantly favorable experience with a product not only goes a long way in maintaining customer loyalty, it turns the customer into the coveted role of an influencer, or what sales folks would call a "reference".
This was a short anecdote of how mobile apps, though not usually charged, have a significant impact on a product's branding. The usability of your app indirectly talks about how much you care for your customers and the value they gain from your services. The account above also brought home a few facts common to many of the apps that make it to the coveted "Top 10" or "Editor's Choice" lists. These factors are not very different across apps, whether mobile or otherwise. Let's look at some of these factors:
* Intuitiveness - most used features are most evident What a user almost always wants out of any product, they use or purchase, is a simple way to do the most used function. In the case above, it was the ability to "self check-in". In another example, using the same app, it could be the ability to check the availability of tickets or purchase tickets. How intuitive it is for a new user to perform these functions determines how effective or usable the app is. Having never worked with a similar app earlier, if one can effortlessly and quickly navigate to complete one's task, one gains a great sense of confidence. That definitely is a good thing while trying to woo new customers.
* Predictability - avoid any unpleasant surprises
Every user likes to forecast the outcome of an action performed. In short, users like predictability. A recent recreational app that I used, deducted much of my in-app credit, only because the placement of their icon to purchase services was uncannily close to an icon to queue tasks that were uncharged. I noticed in a few days, that all my credit was exhausted although I had not intentionally purchased anything. Now, that sure is a recipe for disaster!
* Speed - less is more
With users turning to mobile apps to avoid having to login through a PC or laptop, speed surely differentiates an app from it's web counterpart. Does the design of your app or the usage of images come at the cost of speed? Does your back-end not scale well with increase in traffic? Do your target customers experience restricted or limited bandwidth issues? It pays to cut down on the style factor, at times, in exchange for better performance and reduced response times for your app.
* Connectivity - online vs offline
Restrictions at the workplace related to security or accessibility of 3G / wireless networks could be an issue for your potential customers. It pays to consider if it is absolutely necessary for your user to be online in order to use your app. Can the user work in an offline mode, with the ability to sync when they get online? This, of course, does not work in all cases. A limited bandwidth version could be an alternate route if the economics of scale does not work in your favor.
* Customization - one size does not fit all
When it comes to mobile apps, one size just doesn't work. Users like to customize and change settings to suit their specific needs. From layouts to fonts and colors, sounds and notifications, updates and reminders, users like it their way. The ability to cater to these myriad combinations might just be the factor lacking in your app. While at work, a user might be interested in breaking news and subscribe to regular updates from a news app, but he might be quite annoyed with such a service from a travel app. While vacationing though, this might be just the thing he needs.
* Security - protecting the user
Despite the disclaimers and notices, an app that needs the least user data to function well is the most trusted. New reports surfacing everyday are making users increasingly paranoid about the apps they install. If it is absolutely necessary to access a user's data, letting them know the exact information that the app accesses and the reason for doing so, would make them a lot less jittery and retain their faith in your app.
The factors that determine the success are by no means written in stone. What works in one case, may prove fatal in another, depending on the context of usage. The key is to understand your users and do what suits them best, even if it proves to be more challenging to implement. What works in favour of companies building mobile apps, is that app developers today, are also users. This exposes them to the same pain-points that their customers would experience and hence, puts them in a better position to create better applications. Though there are many factors to consider and multiple challenges to overcome while creating a usable mobile app, there is also hope for improvement due to the increased awareness of customer usage patterns and usability metrics. Here's to a year of more enlightened app development!
- Swetha Ghosh, Development Lead, Rational Functional Team, India Software Labs
Disclaimer: "The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions."
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.
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