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Original author: 
Thomas Joos

  

As a mobile UI or UX designer, you probably remember the launch of Apple’s first iPhone as if it was yesterday. Among other things, it introduced a completely touchscreen-centered interaction to a individual’s most private and personal device. It was a game-changer.

Today, kids grow up with touchscreen experiences like it’s the most natural thing. Parents are amazed by how fast their children understand how a tablet or smartphone works. This shows that touch and gesture interactions have a lot of potential to make mobile experiences easier and more fun to use.

Challenging Bars And Buttons

The introduction of “Human Interface Guidelines” and Apple’s App Review Board had a great impact on the quality of mobile applications. It helped a lot of designers and developers understand the core mobile UI elements and interactions. One of Apple’s popular suggestions, for instance, is to use UITabBar and UINavigationBar components — a guideline that many of us have followed, including me.

In fact, if you can honestly say that the first iPhone application you designed didn’t have any top or bottom bar elements, get in touch and send over a screenshot. I will buy you a beer and gladly tweet that you were ahead of your time.

My issue with the top and bottom bars is that they fill almost 20% of the screen. When designing for a tiny canvas, we should use every available pixel to focus on the content. In the end, that’s what really matters.

In this innovative industry, mobile designers need some time to explore how to design more creative and original interfaces. Add to that Apple’s frustrating rejection of apps that “think outside the box,” it is no surprise that experimental UI and UX designs such as Clear and Rise took a while to see the light of day. But they are here now. And while they might be quite extreme and focused on high-brow users and early adopters, they show us the great creative potential of gesture-driven interfaces.

Rise and Clear
Pulling to refresh feels very intuitive.

The Power Of Gesture-Driven Interfaces

For over two years now, I’ve been exploring the ways in which gestures add value to the user experience of a mobile application. The most important criterion for me is that these interactions feel very intuitive. This is why creative interactions such as Loren Brichter’s “Pull to Refresh” have become a standard in no time. Brichter’s interaction, introduced in Tweetie for iPhone, feels so intuitive that countless list-based applications suddenly adopted the gesture upon its appearance.

Removing UI Clutter

A great way to start designing a more gesture-driven interface is to use your main screen only as a viewport to the main content. Don’t feel obliged to make important navigation always visible on the main screen. Rather, consider giving it a place of its own. Speaking in terms of a virtual 2-D or 3-D environment, you could design the navigation somewhere next to, below, behind, in front of, above or hidden on top of the main view. A dragging or swiping gesture is a great way to lead the user to this UI element. It’s up to you to define and design the app.

What I like about Facebook and Gmail on iOS, for instance, is their implementation of a “side-swiping” menu. This trending UI concept is very easy to use. Users swipe the viewport to the right to reveal navigation elements. Not only does this make the app very content-focused, but accessing any section of the application takes only two to three touch interactions. A lot of apps do far worse than that!

Sideswipe Menu
Facebook and Gmail’s side-swiping menu

In addition to the UI navigation, your app probably also supports contextual interactions, too. Adding the same two or three buttons below every content item will certainly clutter the UI! While buttons might seem to be useful triggers, gestures have great potential to make interaction with content more intuitive and fun. Don’t hesitate to integrate simple gestures such as tapping, double-tapping and tapping-and-holding to trigger important interactions. Instagram supports a simple double-tap to perform one of its key features, liking and unliking a content item. I would not be surprised to see other apps integrate this shortcut in the near future.

An Interface That Fits

When designing an innovative mobile product, predicting user behavior can be very difficult. When we worked with Belgium’s Public Radio, my team really struggled with the UI balance between music visualization and real-time news. The sheer number of contextual scenarios and preferences made it very hard to come up with the perfect UI. So, we decided to integrate a simple dragging gesture to enable users to adjust the balance themselves.

Radio+
By dragging, users can balance music-related content and live news.

This gesture adds a creative contextual dimension to the application. The dragging gesture does not take the user from one section (news or music) to another. Rather, it enables the user to focus on the type of content they are most interested in, without missing out on the other.

Think in Terms of Time, Dimension and Animation

What action is triggered when the user taps an item? And how do you visualize that it has actually happened? How fast does a particular UI element animate into the viewport? Does it automatically go off-screen after five seconds of no interaction?

The rise of touch and gesture-driven devices dramatically changes the way we design interaction. Instead of thinking in terms of screens and pages, we are thinking more in terms of time, dimension and animation. You’ve probably noticed that fine-tuning user interactions and demonstrating them to colleagues and clients with static wireframe screenshots is not easy. You don’t fully see, understand and feel what will happen when you touch, hold, drag and swipe items.

Certain prototyping tools, including Pop and Invision, can help bring wireframes to life. They are very useful for testing an application’s flow and for pinpointing where and when a user might get stuck. Your application has a lot more going on than simple back-and-forth navigation, so you need to detect interface bugs and potential sources of confusion as soon as possible. You wouldn’t want your development team to point them out to you now, would you?

InvisionApp
Invision enables you to import and link your digital wireframes.

To be more innovative and experimental, get together with your client first and explain that a traditional wireframe is not the UX deliverable that they need. Show the value of interactive wireframes and encourage them to include this in the process. It might increase the timeline and budget, but if they are expecting you to go the extra mile, it shouldn’t be a problem.

I even offer to produce a conceptual interface video for my clients as well, because once they’ve worked with the interactive wireframes and sorted out the details, my clients will often need something sexier to present to their internal stakeholders.

The Learning Curve

When designing gesture-based interactions, be aware that every time you remove UI clutter, the application’s learning curve goes up. Without visual cues, users could get confused about how to interact with the application. A bit of exploration is no problem, but users should know where to begin. Many apps show a UI walkthrough when first launched, and I agree with Max Rudberg that walkthroughs should explain only the most important interactions. Don’t explain everything at once. If it’s too explicit and long, users will skip it.

Why not challenge yourself and gradually introduce creative UI hints as the user uses the application? This pattern is often referred to as progressive disclosure and is a great way to show only the information that is relevant to the user’s current activity. YouTube’s Capture application, for instance, tells the user to rotate the device to landscape orientation just as the user is about to open the camera for the first time.

Visual Hints
Fight the learning curve with a UI walkthrough and/or visual hints.

Adding visual cues to the UI is not the only option. In the Sparrow app, the search bar appears for a few seconds, before animating upwards and going off screen, a subtle way to say that it’s waiting to be pulled down.

Stop Talking, Start Making

The iPhone ushered in a revolution in interactive communication. Only five years later, touchscreen devices are all around us, and interaction designers are redefining the ways people use digital content.

We need to explore and understand the potential of touch and gesture-based interfaces and start thinking more in terms of time, dimension and animation. As demonstrated by several innovative applications, gestures are a great way to make an app more content-focused, original and fun. And many gesture-based interactions that seem too experimental at first come to be seen as very intuitive.

For a complete overview of the opportunities for gestures on all major mobile platforms, check out Luke Wroblewski’s “Touch Gesture Reference Overview.” I hope you’re inspired to explore gesture-based interaction and intensify your adventures in mobile interfaces. Don’t be afraid to go the extra mile. With interactive wireframes, you can iterate your way to the best possible experience. So, let’s stop talking and start making.

(al)

© Thomas Joos for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

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Mobile users and mobile usage are growing. With more users doing more on mobile, the spotlight is on how to improve the individual elements that together create the mobile user experience.

The mobile user experience encompasses the user’s perceptions and feelings before, during and after their interaction with your mobile presence — be it through a browser or an app — using a mobile device that could lie anywhere on the continuum from low-end feature phone to high-definition tablet.

Creating mobile user experiences that delight users forces us to rethink a lot of what we have taken for granted so far with desktop design. It is complicated in part by mobile-specific considerations that go hand in hand with small screens, wide variations in device features, constraints in usage and connectivity, and the hard-to-identify-but-ever-changing mobile context.

Dissecting the mobile user experience into its key components gives us a conceptual framework for building and evaluating good mobile experiences, within the context of a user-centered approach to designing for mobile. These components shape the mobile user experience — including functionality, context, user input, content and marketing, among others.

The elements of mobile user experience

The relevance of these elements will change depending on the type of device (feature phone versus smartphone versus tablet) and the presentation interface (app versus Web). This article briefly describes each of these elements and elaborates on each with selected guidelines.

Functionality

This has to do with tools and features that enable users to complete tasks and achieve their goals.

Guidelines

  • Prioritize and present core features from other channels that have especial relevance in a mobile environment. For an airline, this includes flight statuses and flight check-ins. For cosmetic chain Sephora, it includes supporting in-store shopping via easy access to product reviews on mobile devices.
  • Offer relevant mobile-only functionality (like barcode scanning and image recognition), and enhance functionality using the capabilities of mobile devices where possible to engage and delight users. Old Navy’s app serves up surprise games or savings when users snap the logo in a store.
  • Ensure that fundamental features and content are optimized for mobile. For example, make sure the store locator shows the nearest stores based on the device’s location, and make the phone numbers click-to-call.
  • Include features that are relevant to the business category. For retail websites and apps, this would include product search, order status and shopping cart.
  • Offer key capabilities across all channels. Users who sign in should see their personalized settings, irrespective of the device or channel being used. If certain functionality is not offered on mobile, then direct users to the appropriate channel, as TripIt does to set up a personal network.

    TripIt directs users to the website for setting up a network

Additional Reading

Information Architecture

This has to do with arranging the functionality and content into a logical structure to help users find information and complete tasks. This includes navigation, search and labeling.

Guidelines

  • Present links to the main features and content on the landing page, prioritized according to the user’s needs. Mobile Design Pattern Gallery has examples of primary and secondary navigation patterns for mobile, many of which are vertical instead of horizontal as on desktop websites.
  • Enable mobile users to navigate to the most important content and functionality in as few taps or key presses as possible. Navigation optimized for small screens is usually broad and shallow instead of deep. While three clicks (or taps) is not the magic number, users need to be able to recognize that each tap is helping them complete their task. Every additional level also means more taps, more waiting for a page to load and more bandwidth consumed.
  • Address the navigation needs of both touchscreen and non-touchscreen users. When designing for touch, make sure the tap size of the navigation item is at least 30 pixels wide or tall. Provide keypad shortcuts for feature phones, so that users can enter, say, a number (0 to 9) to quickly access a link:

    Cater to feature phone users, as CNN does with access keys, not as Delta does by making the first action to be nine key presses downs
    Cater to feature phone users, as CNN does with access keys (left), not as Delta does by making the first action to be nine key presses downs (middle and right).

  • Provide navigational cues to let users know where they are, how to get back and how to jump back to the start. Mobile breadcrumbs are often implemented by replacing the “Back” button with a label showing users the section or category that they came from. For mobile websites, use standard conventions, such as a home icon that links back to the start screen, especially when navigation is not repeated on every screen.
  • Use concise, clear, consistent and descriptive labels for navigation items and links. While always a good practice, it becomes even more important on tiny mobile devices.

Additional Reading

Content

Otherwise known as “the stuff on your website” (as Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville refer to it in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web), content is the various types of material in different formats, such as text, images and video, that provide information to the user.

Guidelines

  • Present an appropriate and balanced mix of content to users (product information, social content, instructional and support content, marketing content).
  • Use multimedia when it supports the user’s tasks in a mobile context, adds value to the content or supports the goals of the website. Most of the time, multimedia content is best provided when the user is looking for distraction or entertainment (such as news or funny clips) or when it has instructional value (for example, how to use an app or new feature).
  • Always give the user control over multimedia content by not auto-starting video or sound, by allowing the user to skip or stop multimedia content and by being mindful of the bandwidth it takes up.
  • Ensure that content is mobile appropriate. Just as we had chunking guidelines when going from print to Web, copy should be written for shorter attention spans on mobile devices. Optimize images and media for the device; this means scaling down for smaller devices and making sure images are sharp enough for the new iPad.
  • Ensure that primary content is presented in a format supported on the target device. Even now, websites such as Volkswagen’s ask iOS users to download Flash.

    VW asks iPad users to download an unsupported Flash plugin

Additional Reading

Design

This has to do with the visual presentation and interactive experience of mobile, including graphic design, branding and layout.

Guidelines

  • Remember the sayings “Mobilize, don’t miniaturize” (popularized by Barbara Ballard) and “Don’t shrink, rethink” (of Nokia). Both make the point that mobile design should not just rehash the desktop design.
  • Design for glanceability and quick scanning. Glanceability refers to how quickly and easily the visual design conveys information.
  • Maintain visual consistency with other touchpoints and experiences (mobile, app, Web, print and real world) through the use of color, typography and personality. Identifying Amazon in the stack below is easy even though the brand name is not visible.

    Amazon's visual design is easily recognizable

  • Guide users from the initial and most prominent element of the design to other elements to help them complete their tasks. This is known as visual flow. A good design brings together visual elements as well as information architecture, content and functionality to convey the brand’s identity and guide the user.
  • Consider both portrait and landscape orientations in the design process. Devices increasingly support multiple orientations and automatically adjust to match their physical orientation. Maintain the user’s location on the page when they change orientation. Indicate additional or different functionality in the new orientation if applicable, as shown by ING:

    The ING app informs users about additional features in the landscape mode

Additional Reading

User Input

This has to do with the effort required to enter data, which should be minimized on mobile devices and not require the use of both hands.

Guidelines

  • Limit input to essential fields. Or, as Luke Wroblewski says in his book Mobile First, “When it comes to mobile forms, be brutally efficient and trim, trim, trim.” Limit registration forms to the minimum fields required, and use shorter alternatives where possible, such as a ZIP code instead of city and state. My favorite offender of this guideline is Volkswagen’s form to schedule a test drive; the mobile form has more required fields than the desktop version (the extra fields are highlighted below):

    Volkswagen's mobile form to schedule a test drive is more tedious than the desktop version

  • Display default values wherever possible. This could be the last item selected by the user (such as an airport or train station) or the most frequently selected item (such as today’s date when checking a flight’s status):

    United and NJ Transit use defaults to simplify user input

  • Offer alternate input mechanisms based on the device’s capabilities where possible. Apps take advantage of quite a few input mechanisms built into devices, including motion, camera, gyroscope and voice, but mobile websites are just starting to use some of these features, particularly geolocation.
  • Use the appropriate input mechanism and display the appropriate touch keyboard to save users from having to navigate their keyboard screens to enter data. Keep in mind that inputting data is more tedious on feature phones that have only a numeric keypad. For non-sensitive applications, allow users to stay signed in on their mobile device; and save information such as email address and user name because mobile phones tend to be personal devices, unlike tablets, which tend to be shared between multiple people.

    Use appropriate keyboard; examples from the iOS Developer Library

  • Consider offering auto-completion, spellcheck suggestions and prediction technology to reduce the effort required to input data and to reduce errors — with the ability to revert as needed. Disable features such as CAPTCHA where not appropriate.

Additional Reading

Mobile Context

A mobile device can be used at anytime, anywhere. The mobile context is about the environment and circumstances of usage — anything that affects the interaction between the user and the interface, which is especially important for mobile because the context can change constantly and rapidly. While we often focus on distractions, multitasking, motion, low lighting conditions and poor connectivity, it also includes the other extreme — think using a tablet in a relaxed setting over a fast Wi-Fi connection.

 The Context of Mobile Interaction
The Context of Mobile Interaction,” Nadav Savio

Guidelines

  • Use device features and capabilities to anticipate and support the user’s context of use. The iCookbook app allows users to walk through a recipe using voice commands — a nice feature when your hands are covered in batter!
  • Accommodate for changes in context based on the time of day and when the user is using the app. The Navfree GPS app automatically switches from day to night mode, showing low-glare maps for safer nighttime driving.

    GPS app sensing context

  • Use location to identify where the user is and to display relevant nearby content and offers. A Google search for “movies” on a mobile device brings up movies playing nearby and that day’s showtimes, with links to buy tickets online if available.
  • Leverage information that the user has provided, and respect their preferences and settings. After the first leg of a multi-leg flight, TripIt showed me the flight and gate information for my next flight, as well as how much time I had to kill. United’s app did no such thing, even though it knew much more about me. It could have shown me how to get from my current plane to the connecting flight and highlighted the location of the United Club along the way, where I could comfortably spend my two-hour wait, since it knew I was a member.
  • Default to the user experience most appropriate for the device (i.e. a mobile experience for small screens, and perhaps a desktop-like experience for tablets), but give users the option to have enhanced features. A big discussion on how to present this to the user recently took place, with Jakob Nielsen recommending a separate mobile website and Josh Clark arguing instead for a responsive design; yet others believe that Nielsen and Clark are both wrong.

Additional Reading

Usability

This is the overall measure of how well the information architecture, design, content and other elements work together to enable users to accomplish their goals.

Guidelines

  • Make it clear to the user what can be selected, tapped or swiped (this is known as affordance), especially on touchscreen devices. One of the big findings of Nielsen Norman Group’s usability studies of the iPad was that users didn’t know what was touchable or tappable. Another issue was swipe ambiguity: when the same swipe gesture means different things in different areas of a screen. Ensure that touchability is clear and that items such as links, icons and buttons are visibly tappable.
  • For touchscreen devices, ensure that touch targets are appropriately sized and well spaced to avoid selection errors. Also, place touch targets in the appropriate screen zones; for example, put destructive actions such as those for deletion in the “Reach” zone, as shown by Luke Wroblewski in his book Mobile First:

    Zones showing ease of access for right handed touch-screen use from Mobile First

  • Follow conventions and patterns to reduce the learning curve for users and to make the mobile experience more intuitive. Dedicated apps should follow platform-specific standards and guidelines. A comprehensive collection of links to official UI and UX guidelines is available in the article “UI Guidelines for Mobile and Tablet Web App Design” on Breaking the Mobile Web.
  • Ensure usability in variable conditions, including for daylight glare and changed angle of viewing and orientation, by paying attention to design elements like contrast, color, typography and font size.
  • Do not rely on technology that is not universally supported by your audience’s devices, including Java, JavaScript, cookies, Flash, frames, pop-ups and auto-refreshing. When opening new windows or transitioning from an app to the browser, warn users to avoid overwriting already open tabs.

Additional Reading

Trustworthiness

This relates to the level of confidence, trust and comfort that users feel when using a mobile website or app. According to a 2011 study by Truste and Harris Interactive, privacy and security are the top two concerns among smartphone users:

Privacy and security are the top two concerns among smartphone users

Guidelines

  • Do not collect or use personal information (such as location and contact list) from mobile devices without the explicit permission of the user. The first few months of this year have seen numerous reports of apps secretly copying smartphone address books, with watchdogs up in arms and users retaliating.
  • Make it easy for users to control how their personal information is shared in a mobile app by asking before collecting their location data and by allowing them to opt out of targeted advertising.
  • Clearly state your business practices (including for privacy, security and returns), and present them contextually (such as by displaying links to your privacy and security policies on the registration screen). The policies themselves should be accessible in a secondary section of the mobile user experience (such as the footer or a “More” tab). Reinforce credibility by displaying trusted badges, especially when users need to trust you with their personal or financial information.
  • Present policies appropriately on mobile devices by offering a concise summary and an option to email the entire policy. Privacy and security policies tend to be notoriously long and full of boring legalese that users often blindly click through to continue what they really want to do, so make it easy for users who are interested in the fine print.
  • Don’t break the user’s workflow when displaying legalese. Take them back to where they were before being interrupted, instead of making them start all over.

Additional Reading

Feedback

This has to do with the methods for attracting the user’s attention and displaying important information.

Guidelines

  • Minimize the number of alerts the app displays, and ensure that each alert offers critical information and useful choices. For a smile, look at Chris Crutchfield’s video on notification and alert overload.
  • Keep alerts brief and clear, explaining what caused the alert and what the user can do, along with clearly labeled buttons.
  • Notifications should be brief and informative, not interfere with anything the user is doing, and be easy to act on or dismiss.
  • Provide feedback and confirmation on screen without disrupting the user’s workflow.
  • If your app displays badges and status bar notifications, keep the badges updated and clear them only when the user has attended to the new information. Chase clears the notifications badge for its mobile app the moment the user visits the notification section, even before the user has seen which of their multiple accounts triggered the badge, forcing them to hunt through each account to see what triggered it.

Additional Reading

Help

This relates to the options, products and services that are available to assist the user in using the website or app.

Guidelines

  • Make it easy for users to access help and support options. Users commonly look for help in the footer of a mobile website and in the toolbar or tab bar of an app.
  • Offer multiple ways to get support, including options relevant in a mobile context, such as self-serve FAQs, live support via click-to-call, and near-real-time Direct Message tweets. Two financial service companies that actively offer support via Twitter are American Express and Citibank.
  • Present a quick introduction and short tutorial on using the app when it first launches, with options for the user to skip and view later.
  • When introducing new or unique functionality (such as when check depositing via mobile apps was first introduced), offer contextual help and tips to guide users the first time, and as a refresher for infrequently used functionality.
  • Offer help videos when appropriate, but allow the user to start, pause, stop and control the volume as they wish, and keep in mind the multimedia guidelines mentioned in the “Content” section above.

Additional Reading

Social

This relates to content and features that create a sense of social participation, that enable user interaction and that facilitate sharing on established social networks.

Guidelines

  • Create and maintain a presence on social networks (for example, a Facebook page) and local services (for example, a profile page on services such as Google Places, Bing Business Portal and Yahoo Local). These will be highlighted in search results and on location-based social networking services. In addition to your business’ name, include your physical address, phone number, URL and hours of operation.
  • Incorporate your social presence and activity into your website’s mobile experience by showing your recent activity and offering an easy way to follow or like you on these networks.
  • Integrate social networking features into your website’s mobile experience to make it easy for users to connect with their own social networks. This could be as simple as using APIs to enable social sharing, bookmarking, tagging, liking and commenting.
  • Invite users to generate content featuring your brand, product or service from their mobile device, offering some incentive in return. For example, the burger chain Red Robin could invite the user to share a picture of their child reading a school book at one of its locations to get a free milkshake.
  • Provide mobile offers that can be shared and go viral. American Express currently offers savings and discounts to users who sync their profiles on networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare to their credit card.
  • Apps that rely on social contributions from users should look at ways to seed content in a way that is useful and, eventually, self-sustaining. For example, the My TSA app has a user-contributed feature that shows the wait times at security checkpoints, but it often shows outdated information, even though airport staff post physical signs of wait times at some airports.

Additional Reading

Marketing

This has to do with the methods by which a user finds a website or app and the factors that encourage repeated usage.

Guidelines

  • Ensure findability by optimizing for mobile search and discovery, such as by keeping URLs short. If you have a separate mobile website, follow URL naming conventions (m.site.com or mobile.site.com). In mobile search results, provide quick access to location-based content (e.g. directions from one’s current location) and device-formatted options (e.g. click to call).

    Mobile optimized formatted information for UPS, but partially missing for Fedex
    Mobile-formatted information is optimized for UPS (left), but partially missing for FedEx (right).

  • “Quick response” (QR) codes should lead to a mobile-optimized landing page, instead of a traditional page that requires zooming or, worse still, to the website’s home page, from where the user has to hunt for information. As a side note, QR codes painted on buildings should be big and clear enough to be recognized and deciphered by mobile devices.
  • Email campaigns should include a link to view the message in a mobile-friendly format, which itself links to the relevant offer page formatted for mobile — unlike CVS/pharmacy, which takes users to its mobile home page.
  • Promote your app in other channels where possible (TV, print and in-store advertising), and offer incentives to download and use the app, usually in the form of discounts and savings. If your app has a price tag, attract users to buy it in an overcrowded market by offering a limited-time promotional price. Another option is to promote the app through the Free App A Day marketplace.
  • Prompt users to rate and review your app or to share it on social networks after they have used it, but give them the option to postpone or stop these prompts. This will not only generate word of mouth, but give you insight into what users like and don’t like about the app. “Taking Control of Your Reviews” by smalltech discusses the strategy of encouraging happy customers to post reviews and unhappy customers to email you feedback.

Additional Reading

Conclusion

Mobile user experience is still a developing field, and opportunities for improvement continue to emerge. We’ve presented an overview of the key elements of the mobile user experience, along with some guidelines to get started in each. Focusing on these individual elements will help us create great overall mobile user experiences for our users.

(al)

© Lyndon Cerejo for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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Editor’s Note: Smashing Magazine is happy to present this sample chapter from Theresa Neil’s new book Mobile Design Pattern Gallery: UI Patterns for iOS, Android and More, which provides solutions to common design challenges. We’re certain you’ll find the information useful for your next mobile project.

As I was waiting for a table at a local restaurant the other day, I flipped through a couple of the free classified papers. I was shocked to realize how dependent I’ve grown on three simple features that just aren’t available in the analog world: search, sort and filter.

AutoDirect and some of the other freebies are organized by category (like trucks, vans, SUVs) but others, like Greensheet, just list page after page of items for sale. I would actually have to read every single ad in the paper to find what I wanted. No thank you, I’ll use Craigslist on my phone instead.

But after taking a look at Craigslist mobile, it became obvious we could all benefit from some best practices around mobile search, sort and filter UI design. This chapter explores a dozen different ways to surface and refine the data your customers want.

Search Patterns

Before you ever try to design a search interface for any platform, buy and read these two books: Search Patterns: Design for Discovery by Peter Morevill and Jeffery Callendar, and Designing Search: UX Strategies for eCommerce Success by Greg Nudelman.

Then take a look at these search patterns specific to mobile applications:

  • Explicit Search
  • Auto-Complete
  • Dynamic Search
  • Scoped Search
  • Saved & Recent
  • Search Form
  • Search Results

Explicit Search

Explicit search relies on an explicit action to perform the search and view results. That action might be to tap a search button on the screen, like Walmart, or on the keyboard, like Target. The results are typically displayed in the area below the search bar. Consider pairing an explicit search pattern with the auto-complete pattern.


Walmart uses a search button (Go) on the screen, Target uses the Search on the keyboard.


Target loading and then displaying search results.

Offer a clear button in the field and an option to cancel the search. Use feedback to show the search is being performed.

Auto-Complete

Probably the most useful search pattern that emerged in Web 2.0 is auto-complete. Typing will immediately surface a set of possible results, just tap on one to selected it and the search will be performed. Or continue typing your own criteria and then tap the explicit search button.


Android Marketplace (Google Play) and Netflix both use auto-complete

Ideally the results will be displayed immediately, but a progress indicator (searching…) should be used for system feedback. Netflix (above) uses an indicator in the search field, whereas Fidelity (below) displays one where the results will eventually be displayed.


Fidelity shows feedback while loading the auto-complete options.

TripAdvisor provides an enhanced auto-complete, grouping the results by popular destinations, hotels, restaurants. LinkedIn does something similar by showing direct connections first, then other people in LinkedIn.


TripAdvisor and LinkedIn group the suggested options.

Provide feedback if there could be a delay in displaying the results. Consider emphasizing the matching search text in the search results.

Dynamic Search

This pattern may also be called dynamic filtering. Entering text in the search field will dynamically (onkeypress) filter the data on the screen. Note, the examples may look similar to auto-complete but there is a different interation model. The dynamic search pattern is used to refine or whittle down a existing and visible list of objects. In these examples from BlackBerry App World and WorldMate on Android, apps and hotels, respectively, were already displayed on the page.


BlackBerry App World and WorldMate offer dynamic search for refining a big list of results.

Works well for refining constrained data sets, like an address book or personal media library, but may be impractical for searching large data sets from multiple sources.

Scoped Search

Sometimes it is easier (and faster) to get to the desired result by scoping the search criteria before performing the search. Google and Photobucket use different designs to the same end.


Google uses an overlay to present scope options, whereas Photobucket uses a dialog.

AllRecipes also lets you select criteria (or filters) before submitting the search. Dropbox defaults the initial scope to All, but you can switch it to Files or Folders before or after tapping the search button.


AllRecipes pushes the limit of scoping options, Dropbox keeps it simple with just 3.

Offer reasonable scoping options based on the data set. Three to six scoping options are plenty, consider a search form for advanced searching capabilities.

Saved & Recent

Successful mobile interfaces follow a basic usability maxim: respect the users effort. Saved and recent searches do this by making it easy to select from previous searches, instead of retyping the same keywords or search criteria.


eBay lets customers explicity save searches. Both eBay and Walmart implicity save customers’ most recent searches.

Other options to respect the users’ effort involve location based searching options like Trulia, and bar code searching, like PriceCheck by Amazon.


Trulia offers location based searching, Amazon offers 4 ways to search.


Google Shopper offers scan and speak search options and a full search history grouped by search date.

Saved searches typically require additional steps to name a search for later use, whereas recent searches are implicitly saved and surfaced. Consider which one will best serve your customers’ needs.

Search Form

This pattern is characterized by a separate form for entering search criteria, and an explicit search button.


Search forms on WorldMate and airbnb.


WholeFood’s recipe search allows customers to add multiple criteria, course, category, special diets and keywords.

Minimize the number of input fields. Implement OS specific input controls properly. Follow form design best practices (alignment, labels, size).

Search Results

Once a search is performed the results can be displayed in the same screen or on a dedicate results screen. Results may be displayed in a table or list, on a map or satellite, or as thumbnail images. Multiple view options can be used depending on the type of results and user preferences.


Kayak and Foursquare (webOS) show the results in a table.


airbnb shows the results in a list and offers a map view toggle.


Zappos offers a list view and alternate carousel view for browsing search results.

Lazy loading is a common technique to use so that some results will be displayed while the rest are being loaded. Many applications offer either a button to explicitly “view more results” or will automatically load more results when the screen is flicked.


eBay Motors and Best Buy.

Label the results with the number returned. Use lazy loading instead of paging. Apply a reasonable default sort order. Avoid paging tables, they break the natural interaction model for viewing information on a mobile device.

Sort

It is important to choose a reasonable default sort for displaying search results. A little common sense plus user validation is the best way to choose the default sort order. These patterns offer options for changing the default sort:

  • Onscreen Sort
  • Sort Selector
  • Sort Form

Onscreen Sort

When there are only a few sort options, an onscreen sort can provide a simple one tap solution. Placing the sort toggle at the top or bottom of the screen will depend on the other screen elements.

Target provides four sort options with a three toggle button. For the price sort option, they offer two choices: sort by price ascending and sort by price descending.


Expedia (older version) and Target iOS use onscreen sort.

Clearly show which option is selected or “on”. Consider the Sort Order Selector pattern if the option labels don’t fit nicely in a toggle button bar.

Sort Order Selector

The selector pattern is a good alternative to the onscreen sort. There are a number of different UI controls that can be used for selection, but consider the design guidelines for the OS you are designing for (ex. the menu is common for Android app, and the picker and actionsheet are common in iOS apps).


Walmart on Android uses the common menu control.

The option titles can be longer (more explicit) and more options can be displayed. Walmart places the sort button in proximity with the search field, wheras Kayak offers sort and filter options at the bottom of the screen.


Kayak on iOS uses the standard selector control.

OS neutral solutions include a simple combobox, like Target on Android, or an overlay menu, like Awesome Note.


Target on Android just uses a combobox. AwesomeNote uses an overlay.

Follow OS design conventions for choosing the selector control, or choose an OS neutral implementation. Clearly show which sort option is applied.

Sort Form

Some applications have consolidated the sort and filter options into one screen, typically titled “Refine”. This is the most effort intensive sort pattern requiring the user to open the form, select an option, and then apply the selection (by tapping “done” or “apply”).


Cars.com and eBay Classifieds.

Consider the more efficient sort option toggle or sort order selector patterns before choosing this design.

Filter

Large sets of data can require additional filtering, also called refining. Filtering relies on the user selecting criteria by which to refine the set of search results or a large set of objects. Common filtering patterns include:

  • Onscreen Filter
  • Filter Drawer
  • Filter Dialog
  • Filter Form

Also see the earlier search pattern, Scoped Search, for an optional pre-filtering technique.

Onscreen filter

Similar to the onscreen sort, the onscreen filter is displayed with the results or list of objects. With one tap, the filter is applied. HeyZap uses the standard toggle button bar, whereas Google uses vertical tabs.


HeyZap and Google.

CBS News and the ACL Festival app uses a scrolling filter bar as a way to let users quickly hone in on certain types of articles and bands, respectively.


CBS News (single filter bar) and Austin City Limits Music Festival (double filter bar).

Don’t use this filter pattern for primary navigation within your app, but instead use it to group and filter related content.

SXSW offers a filter button bar combined with a second row of filtering options. Feed a Fever news reader uses a super simple stylized set of comboboxes for filtering news feeds.


SXSW Conference app and Feed a Fever.

Filter options should be clearly worded and easy to understand. Show the filters that are applied or “on”.

Filter Drawer

Almost as efficient as the onscreen filter, a drawer can be used to reveal filter options. Flicking or tapping a handle will open the drawer. Audible’s drawer reveals a simple filter toggle bar, whereas Sam’s offers a host of filter options that can be applied to the map of club locations. A better design for Sam’s would be to leave the map visible and allow for dynamic filtering instead of the explicit “filter” button.


Audible and Sam’s Club.


Expedia’s new filter drawer.

Filter Dialog

Like a pop-up on in a web app, the filter dialog is modal in nature. It requires the user to select a filter option, or cancel the action. TripAdvisor on iOS has a custom filter dialog, whereas USPS Mobile on Android relies on the default selector control.


TripAdvisor and Due Today Lite.

While the Filter Dialog may get the job done, the first two patterns provide more freedom for users to experiment with and apply filters directly in context.

Keep the options list short, avoid scrolling. Consider a Filter Form for lengthier or multi-select filter options.

Filter Form

Large data sets can benefit from more advanced filter/refinement options. For example, WorldMate uses a form to filter hotels based on price, brand and stars. Zappos uses a similar approach, using the iOS standard drill down for selection, and the clear/done buttons in the title bar.


WorldMate’s filter form (looks very similar to Kayak’s design) and Zappos filter form for iOS.

Freetime uses custom controls in their filter form. First you pick the filter category, then choose the filter criteria, then apply the filter to the calendar.


Free-Time filter form.

Conditional filters, also called predicate editors or expression builders, are an advanced filtering feature typically found in reporting tools. Here’s the standard layout used on the web and desktop.


Predicate editor in the Wufoo web application.

Creating a conditional filtering a mobile application can be challenging in a mobile form factor but Roambi has accomplished it.


Roambi’s predicate editor.

Don’t over-design the filters, a simple onscreen filter or drawer will usually suffice. If a filter form is necessary, follow form design best practices.

More Resources

Learn more about designing usable and effective mobile apps in Mobile Design Pattern Gallery: UI Patterns for iOS, Android, and More:

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Also check out the Mobile Design Pattern Gallery website, blog and Flickr photostream with +600 screenshots.

(fi)

© Theresa Neil for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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