Developing People-Friendly Apps

How games, typography, and sociology impact mobile applications of every stripe

One of the most beloved talks of the 2014 Snow*Mobile conference was given by Pamela Pavliscak, who spoke about the real ways people use their mobile devices and apps. “Touch is the most complicated of the five senses,” she says, “and that’s what we are doing all the time with our phones. It’s like an awesome pet that gives us superpowers.” Pavliscak’s statistics and studies were fascinating. She shared that 86% of people solve problems with their phones. We tap, swipe, and scroll—therefore, developers should omit needless gestures and give obvious cues, like the play button in the middle of a video. People scroll to the end of a page really quickly to see what’s there, then return to the top using a flick.

“For the past 15 years, I’ve been looking at the intersection of people and technology by observing and talking to strangers,” says Pavliscak. “It started with testing software, then websites, and now mobile everything. Mobile is especially exciting, though, because it is less abstract and productivity-focused and more intense and personal. It’s a pathway to this magical world that we carry with us all the time.”

Pavliscak said that people recognize the symbols for “Play,” “Close,” and “Search,” while those for “Favorite,” “Settings,” are less understood. “Don’t go rogue with icons,” she advises. Users have little interest in “The Hamburger” menu icon, and they also have bottom menu aversion—74% of users ignore them.

“When I talk to people—about 30-50 a month in person, plus hundreds on online observations—I hear about app-fatigue,” Pavliscak says. “People download a lot of apps thinking the app will be a better experience because it is purpose-built for mobile, but then it’s not a better experience. Apps have to offer something that is not possible to deliver on a mobile site, such as mobile deposit or authenticated video, or they are likely to fail.”

Pavliscak’s message dovetailed nicely with those of Matt Luedke and Clarissa Peterson, who spoke about the principles of mobile game design and responsive typography, respectively. Luedke echoed Pavliscak when he said that any app, whether it is a game or not, should utilize the power of patterns and icons that people have encountered before. He spoke on the role of game elements such as patterns and leaderboards and showed Snow*Mobile attendees how to program an app using SpriteKit, an Apple framework that was introduced in 2013 and is integrated into XCode5.

Clarissa Peterson presented a talk on typography, giving attendees valuable guidelines for making the text in their apps more readable. For example, the ideal line spacing for any size screen is 1.4, while the ideal line length is 45-75 characters. “Your website is to get information across,” Peterson says. “If your type is difficult to read, users won’t get your message or they’ll give up.” She spoke about typography in a development sense, including it in the code so developers don’t need a designer for it to look right.

“Innovation has to be counterbalanced with design that feels familiar,” concludes Pavliscak. “There is really no such thing as intuitive design. Like it or not, people learn how to use technology by using other sites and apps, and if you stray too far, people will find it tedious.”