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The importance of intuition: Calvium’s Kieron Gurner on UX design in apps

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Why is User Experience (UX) design so important?

People should think less. That’s according to Kieron Gurner, User Experience (UX) guru here at Calvium.

Fear not: it’s not about the dumbing down of society. Instead, it’s a mantra for app design with the goal of making interactions simpler and more intuitive.

“I would argue that UX is important when designing or building anything,” says Kieron. “At its core, a ‘user’ is having an ‘experience’ with anything they use, from opening the box to getting to know the product. Designing for that journey and trying to lead people through it gives the user a connection to your product, and a relationship with it.”

Overthinking can kill a relationship; the best ones come naturally. It’s this thinking that sits at the heart of UX design – the art of creating natural and long lasting relationships between people and products. But creating this connection is difficult within an app, as Kieron explains: “An app isn’t something tangible: as you’re interacting with a digital screen rather than a physical object, the connection is not tactile. This intangibility means that creating the relationship with apps is more important.”

Real world paradigm

For Kieron, UX in apps is generally about ensuring people don’t feel lost, making them feel that everything is going alright and that they haven’t made any mistakes. In the early days of apps, companies like Apple relied on skeuomorphism – the design concept of making items represented in a user interface resemble their real-world counterparts.

“Apple wanted to ease the cognitive load for people when using digital displays”, says Kieron. “We are used to using a physical desk calendar, so making the digital calendar look the same helped people understand the mechanics of it. As time has gone on, with people feeling more comfortable with digital devices, the Apple calendar app has become more flat and minimal, which is probably a better use of space on screen and is more aesthetically pleasing.”

Kieron also points to differences between the UX needs of desktop applications and mobile apps, driven mainly by smaller screens, more casual usage and increased levels of distraction from other apps and notifications.. “Because of the small size, mobile apps should focus on one thing at a time rather than giving the user lots of options. It’s more about dipping into a specific task for a targeted action, and so stripping away the bells and whistles to focus on the one experience that people are looking for at that point.”

Design through time

With smartphones and tablets used by all generations, does the approach to design change depending on the target age group? “The approach doesn’t change”, Kieron says; “but the outcome does. It’s the same process of research, sketching and prototyping. When designing for young children, everything needs to be bigger as they are less accurate with their touches. People who’ve grown up with smart phones are more comfortable with less instruction and using gestures. They are happier to experiment to find out how things work. For the older generation, you can’t rely on an implicit knowledge of how digital devices work, so providing clear explanations can be more important.

Discarding these rules of best practice can be a design choice in itself. Pokémon Go failed to instruct users how to play the game and didn’t offer a particularly good first-time user experience, as Kieron points out. “Interestingly, there are hardly any instructions for Pokémon Go and everything is quite cryptic. I was debating whether this was a deliberate choice to force people into discussing the game on social media, sharing hints and tips, or whether it was just an oversight – but I’m guessing it was deliberate.” Given the amount of web content, from personal blogs to major media outlets, devoted to explanations of how to play the game, Niantic may be onto something.

UX gone wrong

Pokémon Go’s success is remarkable for a few reasons. The aforementioned lack of instructions was one issue; the other was the sheer number of technical issues harming the UX. “When it first came out, Pokémon Go often failed to load, crashed constantly and drained the battery – this became part of the user experience. Even though it was terrible, people pushed through and persevered. It’s fair to say that even if you’re doing it all wrong, you can still be successful if you’ve got the right content.”

It’s also fair to say that not many apps will have the killer brand power of Pokémon to overcome the handicap of poor UX.

Kieron also identifies other more subtle examples of sub-par UX: “Take the Apple Podcasts app. Some of the touch areas and targets are quite small and they don’t have edges. You often miss what you are trying to tap and as it’s an audio app, you can accidently start playing audio or skipping, which becomes very frustrating as it’s breaking your workflow.”

UX done well

These poor UX experiences are in contrast to the more smartly designed examples that are among Kieron’s favourites, including alarm clock app Rise and weather app Solar. Both feature minimalist designs with very modest user interfaces, as Kieron explains. “Solar features a simple interaction – you just swipe up and down to see the weather outlook for different times of the day. It’s very gesture-based, as is Rise.”

“Rise just feels much more intuitive than the iOS clock app; with which picking a date with a rolodex-like wheel seems clumsy and awkward in comparison. The way Rise strips everything back means that you just drag your fingers up and down the screen to set the time. You don’t need to worry about where you are tapping and swiping the screen, which just reduces the thinking you have to do – you can almost set the alarm without looking.”

This comes back to the crux of what Kieron thinks UX design should be striving for, “If you’re building an app that people use every day, it has to be intuitive. You almost don’t want them to have to think about what they’re doing.”

Looking to the future, Kieron thinks that intuitive UX will be born of ubiquity, “We’ll start seeing a lot more ubiquitous, multi-device computing going on. Smart watches are offering cross-device experiences, while making app interaction easier, but they are also the first step towards those experiences going beyond devices.”

”This is something that OAKlab are doing with fitting room mirrors that step away from an app on a device while enriching the experience of shopping, bridging the gap between the physical experience and online shopping. This gives a broader network of experiences for customers interacting with your brand, beyond the smartphone screen. These experiences then tile together in a useful way.” For Kieron, integrations like these will only become more popular, because of their selling potential for brands.

Assistance required

For Kieron, another area for future growth is assistant apps. Examples include Pana, which is a travel agent assistant, and Vida, a health coach app. Both rely on interface paradigms more associated with social media, where interactions with real-life travel agents or personal trainers take place via a messaging app or video chat.

This clearly has implications for future UX, as Kieron points out: “It’s interesting that these are service-based apps, delivered through a medium akin to messaging with a friend. That’s an interesting space as it is almost taking a step back from apps that are designed to pre-empt your needs by analysing your personal data, and instead offers a familiar mechanism that may be less daunting and more human.”

The future of UX may have some interesting twists, but the present is very much about simplicity. It’s about making sure that people can use apps with the minimum of additional thought or effort, in much the same way that it takes little thought or effort to move a finger.

 

For more development wisdom, visit the Calvium blog.

 

Image via Pixabay, CC0