Of the one million mobile apps, only half are used more than 5 times
If you study any random cross-section of successful mobile apps and games you’ll find that they have one common factor. All of them are accessible. They have user interfaces that people can navigate intuitively without instruction. This is partly about building on expectations and established norms with Android, iOS, or whatever platform you are developing on. But there’s no substitute for thorough usability testing.
According to Localytics, 20% of apps are used once and never opened again. Only 50% of apps are used more than five times. The window for app developers to impress and hook the user slams shut quickly and it stays shut. First impressions are vital if you want to boost retention rates and stand out in a crowd of over a million apps.
It can be difficult and expensive to extract actionable data from usability tests. Here are a few practical tips for successful usability testing:
- Create a mock up – Starting with user-centric design is a smart move that will pay dividends down the line. You can save yourself a lot of time and money by discovering weaknesses and potential problems before the development really begins. There’s no reason you can’t mock up your user interface with simple screenshots and then frame it in an actual size smartphone surround. You can even do this with card and paper if need be. That way you can find out how potential users expect to interact with your app and identify the tasks that are most important to them. It’s a lot easier and cheaper to change your design on paper than it is to rewrite code.
- Examine how people interact – This applies to every usability test you conduct, whether it’s a paper mockup, a prototype, or the functional app on a smartphone. If you’re doing it in person then provide minimal guidance, ideally none at all, so you can uncover genuine failure points. Make sure to take plenty of notes. It’s not enough to just record what’s happening onscreen, you need to observe what people are doing with their hands, and see their facial expressions and body language. Are they trying the wrong gestures? Are they getting frustrated? Is it working the way they expect? Close observation will deliver the best insights.
- Test in the real world – If you can conduct tests in real world conditions in public then you might uncover some pertinent details about the usability of your app that you would miss in a controlled environment. This means conducting tests in real environments, whether it’s a busy shopping mall or a person’s home. It can be a good idea to avoid giving any instruction, that way you can see just how intuitive the design really is. There are services that offer video footage and audio narration of testers from around the world in different demographics using your app in real world conditions. Without the official framing of a test situation you have relaxed users and this can deliver different insights. Sometimes it might be more indicative of real world conditions to have someone test in their own home.
- Keep it short and simple – The longer a test is, or the more complicated it gets, the less likely it is your users will stay focused and interested. If they have to think too much about the parameters of the test and what you’re asking them to do then they’re less representative of an end user. This is particularly important when you’re asking members of the public to test in return for a small reward or for free.
- Vary platforms and devices – Try to let people use their own devices wherever possible. That way the device won’t be a distraction and you’ll get data about different devices. The more variations you can cover, the more useful data you can gather. If you’re releasing on more than one platform then make sure you cover each one. You’ll need to cater for differences in expectations about standard platform navigation.
- Ask the right questions – Observation should be your primary source of data during usability tests, but you may want to ask some questions after each session. Be careful about what you ask and focus on getting actionable data. Asking if the app made them happy on a scale of one to ten isn’t going to tell you anything useful in a practical sense. You should also ask for elaboration, and where possible, have people show you what they mean using the app or prototype, rather than tell you, to avoid misconstruing any answers.
- Assess and act – You need to aggregate the data you collect and create a plan to assess it. Make sure you draw meaningful conclusions that are backed up by a weight of data. Don’t let personal bias cloud this process. You should be acting on the things that will resonate with the most end users. Just because one vociferous tester shouts louder than the others doesn’t make their feedback more important. Take your time, get further feedback on specific areas if it’s needed, and create a plan of action that you’re confident will result in concrete improvements, then test them again to confirm.
There’s a lot of work involved in usability testing, but there’s no better way to improve the accessibility of your app and create a favorable first impression with the end user.
About the Author
Mush Honda is QA Director at KMS Technology, a provider of IT services across the software development lifecycle with offices in Atlanta and Vietnam. He was previously a tester at Ernst & Young, Nexidia, Colibrium Partners and Connecture. KMS services include application management, testing, support, professional services and staff augmentation.