How Mobile Are Mobile Apps?

How Mobile Are Mobile Apps?

Do you remember the last time you traveled abroad? The first thing you did when you arrived at the airport was probably to turn off cellular data in your smartphone.

Not only did it save you from huge phone bills, but also let you fully enjoy your vacation. No more "important" IMs or notifications about the likes you got on Instagram... After your Fear of Missing Out finally calms down, you can relax.
Life is great when you no longer feel the urge to check Facebook all the time.

But there's also another side to that. What if you need directions? Like which metro line you should take to get to the Louvre. Sadly, even Google Maps cannot help you with that when it's offline. As the time passes, you discover that your mobile became slightly useless once disconnected from the internet.

So the question is - is it really mobile?

Smartphones Are Used Differently

Smartphones brought a lot of freedom into how we interact with computers. We're no longer limited to our desks or couches. They're in our pockets most of the time, ready to be used in even the most unusual situations.

Using smartphone outside

We use them to kill time during lengthy commute. We check our shopping lists while at a grocery store. And then check them again while waiting in the checkout line to make sure we didn't miss anything. We use them at the bathroom (oh, come on!), during long flights and in beds, right before going to sleep.

This means that what works well for desktops and notebooks may not be the best for mobile apps - our interactions with them are totally different.

What Does It Mean for These Interactions

You know these situations.

Like when you're standing in a metro train, holding onto a handle with one hand, your smartphone in the other. You're going through your e-mails and once in a while you see the gray "loading" spinner. It's the internet connection, going off and on again. It's frustrating but... well, you cannot do much about it.

Replying with one hand is not easy either. Especially when the crowded train keeps shaking and people bump into you once in a while.

At some point you see an e-mail from PayPal, asking you to sign in into your account. You wouldn't do that in a place where anyone could look into your screen, would you?

Using smartphone when waiting for a train

When people use their smartphones, they're often in a hurry. They may be interrupted multiple times, for example when the train arrives at their station. As they're moving around, they cannot rely on a stable WiFi connection. Typing on a small keyboard may get difficult at some times, especially when it's done single-handedly.

All these things mean that there's plenty of room to build mobile apps that deliver better experience than web apps.

How to do that? You can take a bit of inspiration from the big players.

Offline Happens

Not to mention vacation abroad, apps can lose internet connection at any time - inside buildings, on metro or even in the city center. The worst thing that an app can do is to start shouting.

An app displaying message about lack of internet connection

Don't do that. Shouting never helps.

Spotify is pretty good at dealing with errors and handles just as well. When the app cannot connect to its servers, it shows a small message at the bottom but still lets you click through its interface. You can still access features that work offline and the ones that don't are grayed out. They smoothly come back with the internet connection.

Spotify adding a small notification that it's offline

It's nicer than attacking the user with tons of alerts about something that they don't control.

Let People Be Smart About Their Data Transfer

It's not much fun when you get lost in a foreign place. It's even less when you reach your pocket and realize that your maps app needs data transfer. When you're abroad, it's usually cheaper to buy a paper map.

Fortunately, Google realized that people travel to places where they have no internet connection but still want to use maps. They let users download maps in advance and use them offline.

Google lets you download map of a region to use offline

So do some other companies that deliver content via internet. Netflix and Amazon Prime apps let you download shows while on WiFi, to later watch them without it.

After all they transfer a lot of data, so using them with cellular connection may not be affordable even in your home country.

Interruptions Are Common

We use smartphones with a lot of interruptions. You know - you're in the middle of a YouTube video and then your train arrives at your station. You put your phone away, planning to come back to it later.

When you open YouTube again in the afternoon, the video is gone and you're back at the home screen. It takes a while to find it again.

Small thing, but frustrating.

The problem is that smartphones are usually short on memory. This means that apps may be terminated when they're in the background to make space for others. Unfortunately, most of them don't handle it well and when opened again simply take the user back to the home screen. It's always a gamble whether after reopening the app it will be right where you left off.

One of the few apps that do it well is Apple's Notes app. It constantly keeps track of the note you were looking at. If the app restarts for any reason, it's always right there, at the last note you opened.

Small thing but saves a lot of frustration.

Don't Make Them Type (Too Much)

Typing can be problematic, especially when you're walking down the street or trying to keep your balance in a crowded bus. Getting a solid grip on your phone is difficult enough, not to mention typing on its small keyboard.

That's why it helps a lot when apps use typing as the last resort.

Duolingo figured this out just perfectly. When you're using it to learn a foreign language, you're often asked to translate sentences back and forth. On desktop, you'd simply type the translations using your keyboard. But with their mobile app the game gets a bit simplified. It turns into a puzzle, where you have to build the translation using blocks. Simple and handy.

Duolingo moving away from keyboard input when on mobile

Another thing is typing passwords. It's not comfortable if there are strangers around, possibly looking at your screen. But that can also be done right.

When signing in into Slack, it gives you an option to send you an e-mail with log in link. Assuming that you're already logged in into your e-mail account, you can use it to sign in without typing your password. No need to worry about someone looking at your hands.

Some apps that need an extra level of security, like Revolut, let you use the fingerprint reader built into your phone instead of your PIN to authenticate. It's not only faster, but also safer.

If You Need to Build Mobile Apps, Make Them Mobile

When designing apps for mobile devices, it's easy to assume that they will always be used in an office-like environment. One with steady internet connection and users with their full attention devoted to the app.

But the challenging thing about mobile is that interactions with these devices are different.

If you're building one, make sure it addresses this difference in the right way. Otherwise it may not bring much value compared to mobile websites. It will only frustrate users and burn a lot of budget.

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