Mobile Apps and User Experience

I have been a smartphone since iPhone 2G was launched, though I had to jailbreak it to use it over the T-Mobile network.  But my user experience improved since the day Android devices landed on T-Mobile, and being part of the team that launched helped me bridge the gap. But how has the user experience for mobile apps improved after all these years of smart phone adoption? We have grown smarter with using our phones, networks and software in terms of design, implementation and optimization.  


UI/UX Design:  Application interface and interaction is something that users including yours truly gets going on things like the position and location of the keys on the smartphone screen, having difficulty with resizing or webpage scrolling, or agreeing with built-in dictionary items, or about inefficient manual input (e.g., the “fat finger” problem). Most users prefer interacting with a web-based interface of particular applications (e.g., Facebook) than with its widget.

Each user interaction with an app should reflect the story of the brand and should increase recognition, loyalty and satisfaction. Identifying which elements contribute most to the brand’s identity is essential. Examples are features, visuals, wording, fonts and animations. Our design teams work on many different products on different product teams. This could easily lead to several design and implementation variations of similar UI elements. Defining the core building blocks encourages reuse and discourages reinvention and, therefore, optimizes the design and implementation of a set of components.

One approach is to define the UI elements that form the core building blocks of the user interface and, together, to create the interface’s unique character. In the concept phase, identify those elements that do the following:

  • Differentiate the app (for example, the photo-viewing feature in the Path app);
  • Represent key functions (for example, a check-out feature for a store);
  • Set the pattern of the design language.

Application Performance: “Freeze,” “sloppy,” “sluggish,” “speed,” “performance,” “usage of memory,” and “SD card” were the expressions used when referring to low application performance. Especially for mobile applications users previously experienced on a fixed PC, the expectations for performance were high, which resulted in low QoE. For most users a PC as an alternative device (e.g., to receive/send emails), rate QoEs were limited to reception of emails on the smartphone since we use the PC for sending emails. The reason for this is that typing on a real keyboard of a PC provides a better experience, especially for long messages. On the other hand, some of us prefer a smartphone to run most of the applications. For many users, mobile applications achieve enough usability to enable them not to use a larger and potentially more comfortable PC.

Mobile users are more tolerant for worse application performance while using it “on the move.” In parallel, users regularly mixed network performance with application performance metrics; for example, when we say “Skyping service is incredibly spotty,” the concern is actually the underlying network connectivity of Skype service, not the application itself.

Battery: Research from Purdue University and Microsoft has determined that free mobile applications that use third-party services to serve and display ads are likely to drain batteries faster than their paid counterparts.

The study was done in partnership between Microsoft and Purdue, and resulted in a paper entitled “Fine Grained Energy Accounting on Smartphones with Eprof.” Eprof is a specially developed tool used to analyze android and window’s mobile applications’ power usage. The study likewise did an analysis of data use over a 3G connection for five popular Android applications, which include the stock Android web browser, Angry Birds, The New York Times, MapQuest and Chess Free. This study did not include iOS applications, though.

The researchers found that in-app advertising can comprise as much as 65% to 75% of an application’s energy consumption. In the case of Angry Birds, the core application processes only took up 18% of an application’s energy needs. Third-party ad display, analytics and other related activities accounted for about 45%.

More than 50% of energy needs is consumed in what is considered the “3G Tail,” or communication done between the app and the ad server in refreshing the ad and targeting the ad based on demographic and location, among other things. In Free Chess, meanwhile, 50% of energy use was for serving ads.

“Most of the energy in apps is spent in I/O, and I/O events are clustered, often due to a few routines,” says the report, highlighting that much of the energy drain and data transmission are in non-essential activities.

Phone Features: Most Mobile users find these missing features of the phone, hindering their user experience; for example,

  • Lack of a flash player or lack of a person-Application interface and interaction.
  • Users did not like the position and location of the keys on the smartphone
  • Screen size – they had difficulty with resizing, web-page scrolling
  • Form factor – inefficient manual input.
  • Alarm clock, lack of special settings for vibrate-only mode.
  • Lack of or a faulty GPS.
  • Lack of features for privacy settings.

User Routine and Lifestyle: The routines of the users implied that different sets of applications were used in the morning, in the evening before going to sleep, in the car, and outside the office. The user rating is influenced by the user’s environment and the importance of the mobile application to the task at hand. There were highly ranked applications that support a user’s lifestyle choices (e.g., sports, fashion, nutrition, and leisure). They are used on a smartphone due to their convenience of usage (e.g., in the gym for logging of burnt calories), in the cafeteria (for logging caloric intake), or on the street while trying to find a fancy restaurant.

The role of QOS/QOE:  I have extensively blogged on the topics of QOS and QOE here and here. Though most customers blame the network for problems for application and data speeds, it is not just the network many a times, but a combination of several of the factors as described above. Another aspect that many of us tend to forget that the Radio environment that surrounds us is still a big factor in the behavior of networks at certain times of the day.

QoS can be defined as the ability of the network to provide a service at an assured service level. QoS encompasses all functions, mechanisms and procedures in the cellular network and terminal that ensure the provision of the negotiated service quality between the user equipment (UE) and the core network (CN).  QoE is how a user perceives the usability of a service when in use – how satisfied the customer is with a service in terms of, for example, usability, accessibility, retainability and integrity of the service.

The term ‘QoE’ refers to the perception of the user about the quality of a particular service or network. It is expressed in human feelings like ‘good’, ‘excellent’, ‘poor’, etc. On the other hand, QoS is intrinsically a technical concept. It is measured, expressed and understood in terms of networks and network elements, which usually has little meaning to a user. Although a better network QoS in many cases will result in better QoE, fulfilling all the traffic QoS parameters will not guarantee a satisfied user. An excellent throughput in one part of a network might not help if there is no coverage a short distance away.

As far as measures are concerned, these statistics tell an operator very little about the level of customer satisfaction. Flawless transmission of garbled packets does not make for happy users. So, the inference that QoE is improved because QoS mechanisms are used to reduce jitter or average packet delivery delay may not be accurate in all circumstances. What is important is good user experience or QoE, and the goal of QoS should be to deliver a high QoE.

Delivering high QoE depends on gaining an understanding of the factors contributing to the user’s perception of the target services, and applying that knowledge to define the operating requirements. This top-down approach reduces development costs and the risks of user rejection and complaint, by ensuring that the device or system will meet user requirements.

QoE and QoS management can be classified in four interdependent categories – network planning, QoS provisioning, QoE and QoS monitoring, and optimization.

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