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So you want to take your website or service into the busy, profitable world of mobile. Great! But be careful.

My own company has had the pleasure of analyzing thousands of mobile usability studies, and we’ve identified four traps that companies fall victim to when transitioning their websites and apps to mobile.

Ultimately, it all comes down to usability — and what’s usable on a desktop website isn’t always as user-friendly on a smaller mobile screen.

So you can’t just “port” your desktop site or expect users to “get” the navigational controls you set up. Testing your specific ideas is key, but here are some general recommendations if you’re new to mobile interfaces and usability.

Trap 0: “Porting” to mobile

It seems so obvious: you have a successful computer app or website, the users are asking for mobile access to it, so you simply rewrite your current offering for mobile. You remove Flash, rearrange interface elements, change the font sizes, and you’re done. Unfortunately, our tests show that this sort of “porting” approach rarely works.

Tips to avoid Trap 0

  • Rethink your offering for mobile. Don’t just transfer, or port, your computer app or website to mobile. Instead, rethink what problems people have when they’re mobile and how you can best solve them on a mobile device. This may mean creating a new service, delivering only a subset of your computer functionality, or creating several separate mobile apps.
  • Design for the mainstream 80% of your users, not the technophile top 20%. The technophiles can lead you to add too many features and make your app and site too complex.
  • It’s better to start with an app or site that does a few things well. Only add more functionality once you’ve nailed the basics.

Trap 1: Unclear controls

When testers get confused by a mobile app or site, it’s usually because of confusing controls or unclear paths to success.

Buttons and icons can be especially tricky in the mobile space because there is no single standard for them. The competing mobile platforms use button and icon designs as part of their differentiation, deliberately making them incompatible with each other. Although a few images are standard across most platforms (a magnifying glass means search everywhere), many other buttons and images are conflicting.

mobile traps

And then, there’s conflicting icon designs in Apple iOS and Android. This makes life difficult for app developers, who have to choose between standardizing their apps across platforms or creating different versions for every OS. Many developers choose to design their own controls, which makes the confusion even worse.

Tips to avoid Trap 1

  • The highest form of beauty is functionality. Make sure your mobile property works well and is easy to navigate, then make it pretty.
  • Avoid cryptic icons. Don’t assume that icons are self-explanatory. When in doubt, use text instead of – or in addition to – a picture.
  • Great help is essential. A great help system is to mobile what tooltips are to traditional computing: the first line of defense against user confusion. Mobile help must be easily found, always available, and context-sensitive.

Trap 2: Not reassuring privacy

In our usability tests, it’s common for users to hesitate at some tasks because they’re afraid their smartphone might do things they don’t want it to.

One common fear is that personal data may be stolen over the wireless network. Oftentimes users say they’ll wait until they can perform a transaction on their computer because they’re not sure it’s safe on mobile. Others fear a loss of privacy from apps or sites that tout social options without clearly indicating what will be posted to a user’s social accounts.

Tips to Avoid Trap 2

  • Make users feel safe. Reassure users that your system is secure, especially when conducting mobile transactions or collecting personal data.
  • Avoid social anxiety. Always notify people clearly before you share information from a mobile device to a social network. Never make them guess about the social consequences of pressing a button.

Trap 3: Failure to engage the user

Mobile users have incredibly short attention spans. They’re on the go and have many other things they can do with their mobile devices. An app or website needs to instantly provide value to users to win their loyalty.

It’s fascinating to identify user engagement (or rather, lack thereof) by listening to vocal inflections, sighs, and pauses. Analytics will tell you whether the user finished a game level and how long it took; a think-aloud test will tell you whether they were bored.

Tip to avoid Trap 3

  • Test for engagement, not just usability. Don’t rely solely on analytics to evaluate a mobile app or website. Instead, supplement your analytics with usability tests. Find out WHY your users get confused, lose interest, or get scared and you’ll be able to increase retention and engagement.

How Evernote Avoids Mobile Traps

Evernote recognizes the limitations of solely relying on quantitative metrics. “With analytics, I can’t tell if someone is spending time on something because they’re frustrated or because they love it,” said VP of Product at Evernote, Phil Constantinou. To discover why users might grow confused, bored, or annoyed, Evernote relies on think-aloud testing. Since enlisting the help of web, desktop and mobile app testers, Evernote has increased user retention by more than 15 percent, as well as seen dramatic increases in user engagement.

The transition to mobile is an even bigger challenge than most companies realize. It changes the rules of good development, makes users reconsider their default choices in apps and websites, and increases the importance of user engagement. By avoiding these four mobile traps, you can set your company apart and gain a competitive advantage over the upcoming years.

Darrell Benatar, CEO of is a video usability testing company; it has a panel of participants who record their screen and voice as they use a website. Customers can use the data to figure out where customers get stuck and why they’re not buying.

Image credit: stephangeyer/Flickr

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