Learn from Mobile Apps

Cut from “Mass Effect 2” (walkthrough on YouTube, forgot which one, sorry)

This is a call to software developers everywhere, developing applications of main computers (e.g., Windows, Mac OS X): Learn from Mobile Apps.

With mobile devices you have to be as user friendly as possible. Everything below the very best won’t cut it. People use mobile apps frequently but in bursts — they look up an information and they want to have the information quickly, but then they are done with it. And given that entry of information is inconvenient of a mobile device (esp. text), they want to have it as easy as possible. You can learn a lot from situations where much stronger constraints are in effect than you are normally used to — and users will thank you (through their usage but not necessarily with words) if you adhere to it.

I think that in many cases developers are already using the lessons learned in mobile apps in desktop applications. Thing is, now that users know how easy they can have it, they find it more inconvenient to be asked for information the system should know on a desktop PC/Mac.

So, if you are developing software for PCs or Mac, please think: Where can I reduce a click. It might not seem much for you, after all, what is a click, but multiply it by the time the average user uses your application, and by the amount of users you have. You’d be surprise by the amount of time you save “people in general”. Palm (when they were still a mayor player in mobile devices) had a tap counter who made sure that functions could be accessed with the least amount of clicks necessary. They were on to something. It might be as little as starting the edit mode with a double click instead of moving the cursor downwards and press edit, because if you think about it: Even the tiniest saving in time turns out to be highly relevant if you consider your user base.

Software should make things easier, enable people to do things they could not do otherwise. Great software should seamlessly integrate into the workflow of the average user, be a part of this user, an embodiment of the user’s will.

Mobile apps work in a setting (short burst of usage easily interrupted by environmental factors) that demand excellence in user interface design. Some ideas already bleed back into PC/Mac application design. Use these experience to improve your apps.


  1. The opposite is also true. Don’t adopt any more of a mobile device UI than is actually useful.

    Pull down menus work beautifully with mice, but they’re dreadful with a clumsier touch UI. Touchable little icons in bars work better for mobile devices. Since mobile apps tend to be simpler and more single purpose, there’s little danger of overloading users with an large array of inscrutable icons.

    That’s where the latest Office for Windows goes badly wrong. Microsoft seems to have thought it could combine a mouse-driven and touch UI into one, tilting heavily in favor of the latter. Rather than a single menu bar, it has a touchable set of folder-like tabs that then present a complicated array of touchable little pictures whose meaning is often obscure (at least to me). To add insult to injury, sometimes window opens, forcing users to shift their mental gears to a yet another UI type. The madness of it all makes me want to scream. Fortunately, I spend very little time in Office for Windows.

    As a touch-screen OS, that confusion might be tolerable. At least what’s being chosen (folder tab or icon), however hard to find, is touchable. But as a replacement for a menu bar for mouse users it’s an utter disaster. And that’s not just my opinion. I had someone very high up at Microsoft’s help services admit to me that he had to use the new UI for a couple of years before he quit hating it. Why, I asked him, can’t users chose a word/menu UI instead? He had no answer.

    Developers should never forget that just because a touch-useful UI can be forced onto a mouse and keyboard system doesn’t mean that it’s the best or even a tolerable approach. How we input will always be the largest factor in how our choices should be made. And it is better to have two excellent UIs than one that’s poorly adapted for either or both input methods. Consistency really is the hobgoblin of little minds.

    To give another example, voice UIs for desktops shouldn’t force users to mimic a mouse-driven tree of menu choices. There should be direct commands that bypass all intermediate steps. Illustration: Not: “Menu–File–Save As–JPEG.” But: “Save File as JPEG.” Why? Because conventional mouse and touch interfaces have to be hierarchical. There’s only so much room on screen to display choices. But a voice UI can be completely flat. It can offer hundreds of choices at the same time much like human speech does.

  2. Hello Mike,

    thank you for the comment. I agree — and yes, I also hate the new Office version (2011 for the Mac looks the same). One of the reasons why I like programs like Scrivener (for writing) or InDesign (for making a beautiful print version) — Word is just … wrong … and for a large part due to the reasons you mention. I especially hate it when the selected folder-like tab suddenly changes … worst UI ever.

    All the best


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