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This is a guest post by mobile design consultant Mariya Yao

People downloaded over 30 billion apps in 2012, yet the average smartphone owner only uses about 15 of them every week. Even worse, a study by Localytics estimated that 22 percent of apps are only opened once.

With all the money and effort being poured into mobile right now, why is engagement so low?

While the answer to that question is certainly complicated, a number of common mistakes companies are repeatedly made in the app on-boarding process. We’ll be discussing user experience and more at VentureBeat’s upcoming Mobile Summit.

Can you guess what any of these apps do?

Above: Can you guess what any of these apps actually do?

Mistake 1: Forcing registration before demonstrating value

When you demand that users go through a sign-up process or hand over their social credentials before you’ve offered them any clear benefit, you risk losing them right off the bat.

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 10.11.50 AM

Above: Pheed (left) and Tumblr. Both apps require you to register before you use them.

Consider two apps: Pheed and Tumblr. Both are popular social media platforms that allow users to broadcast photos, videos, and other content to their friends and followers.

While Pheed forces you to signup before you can see anything, Tumblr immediately displays new trending content you can interact with as an unregistered user.

Mistake 2: Overly detailed tutorials

Tutorials are quite common in mobile apps. Sometimes you do need to guide a person along with a timely explanation, but unfortunately, most mobile tutorials inundate them with too much early information.

If you require a ton of labels to clarify your app’s functionality, you are basically admitting that your U.I. is a failure.

The new Flickr app gets it right

Above: The new Flickr app gets it right

Your aim should be to design user interfaces that are clear and intuitive for your intended audience and require minimal coaching to navigate.

Another error I commonly see in tutorials is a focus on explaining U.I. details rather than communicating the app’s overall value. In studies that I’ve done, potential customers typically miss those details because they blast through the tutorial, preferring to play with the app directly.

Mistake 3: Unusual interface elements or gesture controls

A key part of designing an intuitive mobile U.I. is knowing when to apply standard design patterns to make it easier for users to get to know your app. For example, swiping between pages and pinching to zoom on photos is ingrained in the habits of smartphone users. Additionally, Android and iOS both offer detailed human-interface guidelines that are adopted in most of their apps.

Often, my clients “overdesign” their apps by ignoring standards and choosing to apply unfamiliar gesture controls, vanishing or hidden menus, and flashy visual elements without context and purpose. In testing, most people typically find these unexpected elements confusing and frustrating.

Even apps that are beautifully crafted and win design awards are not necessarily usable for mass-market consumers. Take Clear, a to-do list app that garnered acclaim for replacing standard visual controls with just physical gestures.

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 11.38.38 AM

Above: The Clear app: Six walkthrough screens for a to-do list. Is that good mobile design?

The Clear app has to use six walkthrough screens and interactive coaching to teach users how to use the app.

In studies I conducted, smartphone users couldn’t remember more than 10 percent of the tutorial content, even if they were smartphone savvy. They frequently got lost and couldn’t remember how to perform basic functions like create a new list or delete a task.

If you want to maximize usability and reduce friction, stick to designs that users already know how to use. Don’t deviate from familiar patterns unless you have compelling reasons to do so, and be sure to test unconventional designs thoroughly.

Mistake 4: Make customers fill out lengthy mobile forms

Your new customer has downloaded your app, made it through your tutorial, maybe even played around with some basic functionality. It’s time to register.

You want to learn the most you can about each user, so you ask for a few more pieces of information in the signup form than you really need. No biggie, right?

Wrong. While you may think that a few extra little questions are harmless, major companies like Expedia and Best Buy have lost millions in sales from drop-offs due to unnecessary form fields.

Uber's multi-step registration process to break up their form into manageable chunks.

Above: Uber breaks up its registration form into manageable chunks.

In general, for every additional field you add to a form, your completion rate will take a hit. This dropoff rate is exacerbated on small mobile touch screens where typing is frustrating and error-prone. Additionally, users are far more time-pressed and distracted on mobile than they are on desktops at home and the office.

What’s the takeaway?

Keep in mind that no design works 100 percent of the time for 100 percent of products. For instance, you may find that your brand is so well known that you can get away with a mysterious start screen, or that your customers are a particularly patient bunch who relish reading through complicated tutorials (good luck finding them).

The important takeaways are to be mindful of best practices and to test, test, test your mobile designs with the people who use them in order to catch possible mistakes early.

33b497bMariya Yao is a mobile product designer and the founder of Xanadu, a mobile strategy consultancy. She partners with companies to ideate, prototype, launch, and iterate on their mobile experiences.

Follow her on twitter @thinkmariya. 

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