Interview: Jonathan Kohl on Creating a Great Mobile Experience.

von Florian Treiß am 05.September 2014 in App Business, Highlight, Interviews, Mobile Design

jonathan_kohl„If your app is not only useful, but also exciting and even a little bit entertaining, people will love it“, says Jonathan Kohl, who will give a keynote and a tutorial at the Mobile App Europe Conference running Sept. 29th – Oct. 1th in Potsdam/Germany (35% discount with the code Mobilbranche_035 except for the tutorial on Oct. 2th). Based in Canada, Jonathan Kohl is a thought leader on Mobile Apps and Mobile User Experience. We’ve talked with him about how to create great mobile experiences, the 7 deadly sins of mobile apps and the latest trend: designing apps for wearables. „If you don’t understand mobile technology, and your mobile efforts have been to think of developing for a PC with a smaller screen, you will likely feel lost with a smartwatch or wearable“, says Jonathan.

mobilbranche.de: At Mobile App Europe, you’ll give a tutorial on „Creating a Great Mobile Experience„. What can developers and product managers do to create a mobile experience that people will love?

Jonathan Kohl: First of all, they need to at least create a mobile experience that people will actually use, let alone like or love. To do that, they need to design a product that people actually need. It solves a real problem that people have when they are out on the move, away from a PC. Next, they need to create a great user experience. The mobile app should be obvious and simple to use, especially while on the move. They also need to create a great technical experience, ensuring they are making the best use of mobile technology in their app to help satisfy their mobile users. They also need to create great error handling so that the application will work for people under all sorts of conditions, whenever and wherever they are.

To create an experience people will love is much harder. You do what I mentioned above, and then move beyond it. If you use the unique capabilities of mobile technology to solve a real problem in a way that your users wouldn’t think of on their own, they will want to have it. If you do this well, they will have a positive emotional response and a strong desire for it. If the mobile experience is engaging and useful and fits nicely into their lives and habits, that helps keep them coming back to use it over and over. Finally, adding in small features that show up almost randomly to surprise and delight your users will keep their brains engaged and add interest. This is incredibly powerful since it also helps build loyalty. These sorts of features also help create a social phenomenon around the app as users tell each other about unique experiences or share how to do something fun or surprising in the app. We like to be challenged and surprised once in a while. Challenges and surprises help keep life exciting and from becoming stale and boring. If your app is not only useful, but also exciting and even a little bit entertaining, people will love it.

mobilbranche.de: When faced with a mobile project, many teams find it tempting to apply the same methods and techniques used for PC or web applications. Why isn’t this the right approach?

Jonathan Kohl: Mobile devices use different technology, and have more dimensions to be aware of than PCs. They have different technology dependencies and environmental conditions have an enormous impact on how well mobile devices work. I have started calling modern smartphones “sensor-based devices” because it is the use of sensors that really makes modern smartphones different from what was available before. We don’t walk around with PCs, constantly changing networks, shaking them, touching them all over the screens like we do with mobile devices. With PCs or web apps, we are used to designing for a static machine that sits on a desk or table in ideal conditions. We have large monitors, powerful processors, lots of disk and memory, and we are so used to great network technology, we treat it like a utility. With wireless devices, network speeds vary, they are subject to interference from steel objects, other devices and even weather conditions. Mobile devices have smaller screens, less powerful processors, less memory, and they are often used in a rush, one-handed, while a user is doing something else.

Movement sensors and location services are powerful to use, but they can be tricky to utilize effectively. What I find many teams seem to forget is that “mobile” means “movement”, so they need to get outside of the development lab when they design, develop and test apps on the devices. Can people see our app clearly while they move? Can they interact with it while moving? Can the app handle various wireless conditions and transitions between different kinds of wireless networks and technology? These are important factors to design for that we aren’t used to thinking about with PCs.

Mobile devices are taken with us wherever we go, and we have unique conditions and user expectations depending on where we are or what we are doing. When I was working on mobile medical applications, they were used in a high stress environment such as a hospital. Hospitals are not friendly to mobile devices (large structures, lots of steel, scanning equipment to interfere with wireless waves, etc.) Now take the human into account. You have an over worked doctor who is rushing to go meet with a family to tell them terrible news about the health of one of their loved ones. How much patience will the doctor have with a patient consult app that is difficult to use and is slow to load while they are in that emotional state? If the app was a game, and someone was sitting at a train station passing time, that app might be just fine, because their emotional state and stresses around them are very different than the doctor. Taking human emotions and situational pressures into account is incredibly important with these devices because they end up in places where PCs never have.

mobilbranche.de: You’ve written a book called „Tap into Mobile Application Testing“. What was the biggest surprise for you when getting results from mobile app testing?

Jonathan Kohl: When I first started working with smartphones, I was surprised by how poorly mobile apps handled movement. It was shocking to see how simple it was to get a device to freeze up or have an application crash simply because you were moving yourself and the device while interacting with it. Combining activities such as user inputs and engaging movement sensors could be too much for the app to handle, while it worked ok while you were sitting at a desk. Another area that was surprising was at how poorly they handled varying networking conditions, and transitioning from one network to another. Again, it was surprising to see apps freeze or crash simply because you walked out of range of your wifi and into a cellular network. Network conditions can cause huge problems on many apps if the wireless signal is low, or if you transition in and out of dead spots, and sometimes, from one wifi router to another. A couple of times I have worked at client sites and watched their newly developed app fail in a spectacular fashion because I simply asked them to walk outside of their building with me while using the app.

mobilbranche.de: You’ll also give a keynote speech on „7 Deadly Sins of Mobile Apps„. What do people hate most about poor apps?

Jonathan Kohl: In my research, I’ve found two key areas: one is an app that has a lot of promise to solve a problem you currently have but it doesn’t deliver on its promises. You find an app that seems to be what you are looking for, you install it, and it doesn’t solve that problem adequately. You expect one thing, and get a very limited version of what you had hoped to get. This causes what I call a “deletable offence”. You get angry for wasting your time on the app and delete it and search for a new one. The second area, which also causes deletable offences, are poor usability and poor reliability. Essentially, the app lets you down when you need it the most, when you are out on the move, away from a PC or other computing options. It seems that many technical teams do not actually go out and design and test their apps in the real world, they forget what “mobile” actually means!

For example, if I am on a business trip and I am depending on your app to be productive and it lets me down, that is a brutal thing to experience. Maybe I am working in a building without wifi access, and the app won’t work on that network because I am near the edge of the wireless transmission radius and the signal is weak. However, your average user will have no idea that is the underlying problem because they don’t have a technical background. All they know is, they need to get something done, your app let them down and they have no other choices. How does that feel? How does it impact their life in a negative way? In these kinds of situations, they get frustrated and angry. There are ways we can mitigate against those kinds of environmental conditions that are beyond our control by recognizing the conditions and letting the user know is going on, and how they can fix it.

Having empathy for users is incredibly important, and when you design with empathy in mind, they feel empowered and happy. If you let them down with your mobile experience, they will get upset, particularly if they are completely depending on your app to get something done. If they get very upset, they not only delete your app, but they rant about how much it sucks on social media. They do this because they use mobile applications in all sorts of situations, with all sorts of motivations, needs and emotional states. All this technology needs to be aligned with the emotions of your users and their context of use or people will get angry and yes, even hate your app. If the experience is very negative, they will project that feeling towards your company as a whole.

mobilbranche.de: Designing Apps for Smartphones is one thing, but the latest trend is Smartwatches and Wearables. Are there big differences when designing Apps for those new devices?

Jonathan Kohl: There are some differences, but these devices are a type of sensor-based device, so if you really understand mobile technology, (use of sensors, wireless tech, etc) then you have a base to start from. If you don’t understand mobile technology, and your mobile efforts have been to think of developing for a PC with a smaller screen, you will likely feel lost with a smartwatch or wearable. Smartwatches at least have small screens, but wearables may have no screen at all. This requires a major shift in design thinking. Rather than designing an experience that engrosses a user and focuses their attention on the app experience and the device itself, you design an experience that fits in and enhances their life activities while they are out on the move.

I think of designing for these devices as using the real world as your user interface, and enhancing real life experiences with the smartwatch or wearable. They can subtly enhance life experiences at just the right time with just the right information. If you don’t think of designing in this way, it is really easy to develop an experience that is incredibly annoying, with constant alarms and buzzing and useless notifications, and distracting, awkward interactions with the device. Instead of enhancing life experiences, they distract needlessly. Since wearables are attached to us, and go with us wherever we are, subtlety and user control is important, because what seems like a good feature idea in the development lab may be completely inappropriate in certain social or work settings. The app shouldn’t draw too much attention to itself, and users should be able to turn off notifications if they aren’t appropriate at that particular time.

I have also extended this approach of enhancing life experiences rather than demand focus on a device when I design for Internet of Things (IoT) experiences. These devices are usually simple, inexpensive sensors that provide information that we might be interested in. If I think hard about how this information might be useful to end users and focus on different emotions, it’s much simpler to think of how we can make something useful for people rather than something irritating and distracting.

How we enhance positive emotions and mitigate negative emotions with smartwatches, wearables and IoT devices is an important line of thinking when I design. For example, if I am out having a good time with friends in a restaurant, and I get a little bit of help to enhance that experience, I have an even better time. But what if I am anxious during dinner because I am afraid I left my stove on at home? An IoT device could broadcast the state of the stove, and I could get a small notification on my mobile device or smartwatch to calm my worry. I don’t have to leave early, or sit there and not enjoy myself, I can get that information, and go back to having a nice time with my friends. A negative emotion is turned into a positive emotion through clever use of technology. This is a major underlying factor when I design for these sorts of devices.

mae_banner_125_125mobilbranche.de: Thanks for sharing your great ideas, Jonathan!

mobilbranche.de readers will receive a 35% discount when entering the code Mobilbranche_035 at the registration for Mobile App Europe (except for the tutorial on Oct. 2th).


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