Knowledge Center

Mobile Usability Testing: Problems and Solutions

So what is usability?

ISO standard defines usability as "the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use".

The key words here are the last three - effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction while working with a program. What is usability composed of and what does it give to a user? There are several interpretations. We will not go into theoretical details here. Let's emphasize the points which are crucial for product success in the market.

So an interface is "usable" if it has:

  • Aesthetic appeal and gives satisfaction when using the product.If the product is not considered aesthetically appealing, up-to-date and fancy (of course, it depends on a specified context of use and is not the same for games and office suite), the chances that a user will buy it are poor. If a software product didn't pass such face-control and was not bought, all the rest including functionality simply loses meaning.
  • Simplicity and intuitive intelligibility of the interface (respectively, quick learning capability). Nobody would like the idea of sitting for several hours in order to learn and memorize one and only operation. If there are other programs that give the same result and can be mastered on the first attempt, one would prefer this more simple and user-friendly system.
  • Ease and forethought of control elements, menu, dialog windows order, hot keys and so on which provide high speed of work with the program. Due to this the program can be used with minimum time and effort consumption. For instance, in business applications this means higher labor efficiency of user.
  • Taking into account scientific recommendations will provide little user fatigability when working with the program. Again, this means high labor efficiency of the user within long time. Such advantage of the system is fundamental for many corporate customers.
  •  Friendliness and user support (and, consequently, minor user errors). This point is tightly related to the previous one. It is vital in such cases as medical systems, systems of production and transport control, accounting and analytical business applications, as well as many others, where the price of correcting a mistake can be too expensive.

Basic standards of the user interface

How are qualitative user interfaces created?

There exists a range of guides and standards providing a set of recommendations on the development and testing of user interfaces. Here are some of the usability standards and guidelines:

  • ISO 9241-11:1998 Ergonomic requirements for office work with visual display terminals (VDTs);
  • Section 508 standard - Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications (Rehabilitation Act,§ 1194.22);
  • Microsoft* Developer Network (MSDN) recommendations.

ISO basic standard defines the term "usability"and describes definitions related to it. It expands the general principles of usability and also contains particular recommendations.

For Internet-applications there exists 508 Standard. It describes methods of building static and dynamic web-pages. In MSDN one can get acquainted with the rules of building user interfaces according to Microsoft ideology (for both Microsoft Windows and Pocket PC / Windows Mobile platforms).

Mobile Standards

Currently mobile technologies are developing very quickly. Handhelds have their peculiarities crucial to ensure usability.This is the reason why special guides and recommendations on usability for mobile platforms have been created. Here are some of them:

  • Symbian S60 Platform Visualization and Graphic Design Guideline; 
  • UIQ Style Guide;
  • Palm OS User Interface Guidelines.

To illustrate "usable" handhelds distinctions let's consider the following examples.

Left-handed Mode

A somewhat large share of users (and respectively market share) belongs to lefthanded people. For usual desktop applications left hand setting happens on the level of peripherals.

For mobile applicationsit is already a question of interface setting. Indeed, a lot of mobile applications (e.g.,games) imply interaction by means of stylus. Mobile devices have small screens, and it is necessary to design the graphic interface for both right-handed and lefthanded people.

If it is done, the screen is not covered by the player's hand holding stylus while playing.

Speed or Satisfaction

Small sizes of handheld screens lead to the fact that mobile software developers have to search for the compromise between ease of use and subjective satisfaction(in particular, reasonable density ofbuttons, icons and other controls on thescreen), on the one hand, and performanceand speed of work, on the otherhand.It is worthy to note that a lot of optimalsolutions of this kind of problems arefound at the stage of testing.

Landscape modeOne more example of mobile specificity isa Landscape mode. Desktop computers donot need this because their monitors arerarely used by rotating them by 90grades. But for handhelds this is donerather widely. And in this case the applicationshould support both portrait andlandscape screen formats.

General problems of usabilityHere are some of issues which influence the quality of usability in the mobile softwareindustry:

  • No established mobile software usability culture;
  • Lack of trained specialists;
  • Direct usage of PC-approaches;
  • Direct porting between different mobile and embedded platforms;
  • Fast-paced software market environment.

1. First, many programmers who currentlywork on creation of the mobileprograms were trained to develop PCsoftware. During decades of PC softwaredevelopment practice thereemerged programs and interface librariesthat became a standard defacto.

Even programmers who are notquite experienced in what concernsusability can borrow such standard interfaces,"automatically" creating fairlyusable programs.In mobile industry the situation differsa lot.

Usability culture of this kind doesnot exist here yet. Conventional programsand libraries are few so far.Moreover, for each platform there is itsown standard, the platforms are technologicallydiverse, and they look aswell as operate differently.

2. For this reason, approaches acceptedfor PC are applied to mobile software.Developers directly transfer an ideologyof PC development to the developmentof programs for handhelds.

As a result, there emerge programs forcell phones and PDA with interfacesrather satisfactory if run on PC butnever on a handheld. On a handheldthey are inconvenient, bulky and sophisticated.

3. Lack of trained specialists. This problemin Ukraine has its specificity. Asubject about user interface developmentis absent in the curriculum ofmany specialized colleges and universities.

Some of them propose a course"Ergonomics of Web-site". But this isextremely insufficient for developmentof successful interfaces for desktop,mobile or embedded applications.

4. The next problem is "direct" portingbetween different mobile platforms. Inthe struggle for the market share,software developers aim at makingtheir programs support diverse mobileplatforms and diverse models of handhelds.However, since the platformsare technologically different the programsare to be re-developed for almosteach of them.

Accordingly, theirinterface must take into account architectureand phone model, too. Thus, tobe successful, a programmer has toacquire a wide range of knowledge.Such professionals are few, and veryoften programs migrate among platformswithout changes in user interfacewhich affects usability dramatically.

5. Currently software development projectsare generally time-restricted. "Tomake faster" is the motto of our time.However, "faster" and "thought-out"do not always combine in one project.In the long run one has to sacrificesomething.

High-quality interface designis often the very thing that is sacrificedto a tight schedule.

Successful Solutions

Nevertheless, the problems we talked above are solvable. search engine is a bright example of this. This innovative system is built on the basis of Web 2.0 and mobile technologies. It can be used on both desktops and handhelds. At present a beta-version of the system is released.

However, it takes into account differences of diverse handhelds and successfully adapts the content of the pages displayed to sizes and other peculiarities of mobile devices and cell phones.