Developing for the Mobile Context

Developing for the Mobile Context

Understanding How Context of Use Informs Mobile Development

If you’re starting the development process for a new mobile application, among your first considerations might be which programming language to use or which platforms will support your product. However, one of the most important facets of mobile application development is ubiquitous across every project and is entirely independent of the technologies you adopt. I am referring to the mobile context, which is the unique way users interact with mobile devices. In this post, you will learn how developing a mobile application is different from a traditional web application.

A subway car in motion pulling up to a platform

Shortened Attention Spans

Imagine this: One of your users is standing on a subway platform waiting for a train to arrive. They launch your application, but a few seconds later the train pulls up to the platform and your user has to divert their attention to safely enter the train. After getting settled, your user finally has time to look back at their phone. Will they be able to seamlessly pick up where they left off?

In many typical situations, users can’t devote full attention to their mobile phones. Your users will often literally be mobile, moving from one place to another. A fleeting attention span is critical to consider when designing the navigation flow of your application because if a user needs to restart a task each time they get distracted it would result in an unnecessarily frustrating experience. To improve user navigation, it’s common to create an information architecture as part of your design process and dedicate extra time to test how real users fare navigating your application.

A man holds his mobile phone up in the woods, searching for internet connection

Offline Capabilities

Expanding on our fictional subway-riding user’s story, imagine now that the train suddenly enters a long tunnel. The user’s phone immediately loses cellular connection and thus no longer has access to the internet. Would your application continue to function properly offline? From entering an elevator to driving in remote areas, unexpected losses of internet connection are an extremely common occurrence while using a smartphone. Developing your mobile application with the expectation that your users will not always have internet access will keep your users engaged with your application and improve their overall experience.

A man shields the pin pad while purchasing a pass for the metro station

Limited Privacy

Have you ever shielded the view of the keypad when you enter your PIN into an ATM? Would you do the same thing if you were entering your password into a mobile banking app on a crowded subway? Understandably, nobody wants nearby onlookers to gain access to their private information. The convenience of mobile computing frequently places our users in busy areas where prying eyes can easily catch quick glimpses of smartphone screens.

It’s important as mobile developers to consider that any sensitive information may be unintentionally exposed to others if a user is in a crowded space. To combat this, a best practice is to hide sensitive information by default (bank account balances, passwords, etc.) unless the user explicitly decides to expose it. Other solutions that assist in the protection of users’ privacy include the implementation of alternative verification methods, like the use of built-in fingerprint readers or face-scanning technology.

A person holding up their mobile phone and smart watch

Small Screen Sizes

Last but not certainly not least, one of the primary differences between mobile devices and desktop computers is the smaller screen size of mobile devices, which can present unique challenges for designers and developers. While phones have become larger in recent years, the average screen size of 6.3 inches is dwarfed by laptop screen sizes of 13 inches or more. When designing complex or feature-rich mobile apps, the reduced screen real estate can be a serious limitation when trying to display large amounts of content.

In response to the smaller screen sizes of smartphones, mobile apps typically feature simple layouts that utilize an intuitive organizational structure for users to navigate. Large bodies of text are seldom found in most apps and are often replaced by labels, buttons, icons, and other smaller interface elements.

Always Consider the Context

In conclusion, developing a mobile application is a unique and challenging process that requires a thorough consideration of the mobile context of use. Mobile apps are typically developed from laptop and desktop computers, so it can be all too easy to forget about the different ways users interact with their mobile devices. Factors like shortened attention spans, offline capabilities, limited privacy, and small screen sizes can all affect the design, user experience, and performance of a mobile app. By taking these factors into account, mobile developers can create high-quality, user-friendly, and effective mobile apps that provide a seamless and enjoyable user experience.