Think back to your high school English class (if you haven’t completely blocked those memories from your psyche). It was probably a time of drafts, red-ink, and many do-overs. For most of us it was our first encounter with the seminal classic Elements of Style by the infamous Strunk and White; William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White to be precise (Elwyn Brooks White to be more precise – and yes the same guy who wrote Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little). I remember struggling through revision after revision trying to get my writing to align with all their recommendations. One of the bits of information that stuck in my head, perhaps because I often ran afoul with run-on sentences, was that great writing needs to be succinct and to the point. Elements of Style puts it this way:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Boy was that one a tough one for me. My sentences went on and on as I tried to make them as flowery as possible. Mostly it was because I felt I just needed to fill space. Trouble is, my reader got lost and my point got lost. There was something legitimate I was trying to communicate but since I couldn’t make it a crisp point my writing was a tangled mess.
A close cousin to writing succinctly is writing in the active voice. Writing in the active voice is where the subject of the sentence performs or causes the action expressed by the verb; in other words constructing sentences where the subject “acts”. This is the difference between ‘I closed the deal’ versus ‘the deal was closed by me’. The former is very direct and makes immediately makes clear who is doing what.
OK, so enough English memories and lessons – how does this all relate to mobile apps? Mobile apps would do well to follow these same elements of style. Great mobile apps should be succinct to the point in their layout. They should also allow subjects (users) to quickly act and not belabor the task at hand. It should be obvious what the point is and how to execute it. Mobile apps have the added challenge of needing to perform in a very small space. Great mobile apps promote productivity through recognizing the limitations of their medium, namely the size of the screen, and work to allow the most concise experience.
Unfortunately, to some degree, we are still in the draft, red-ink, and re-do stage of mobile maturity. Many apps and app developers are still not thinking in the mobile form-factor mindset. They don’t design and code for screen and workflow minimalism. Users should be able to connect, act, and leave. They should be able to get their task done as quickly and efficiently as possible with the least required touches to the screen. Being able to do so is the beginning step in mobile productivity. This will take time and revisions. Apps that figure this out first in their domain will have a higher probability of success. In order for business to really leverage the consumerization of IT and the BYOD phenomenon mobile apps need to reconcile their functionality to their screen size. This will allow users to find their true mobile productivity potential.
What mobile app do you find efficient and productive? Got any memories of Elements of Style? I would love to hear from you. Post a comment and let me know!
What makes a great app? To be more specific – what makes a really great mobile app? As I have written in some of my previous posts there are unique challenges with mobility in terms of form factor (which is just a fancy way of saying device size) and what it means to be productive. These challenges are not always accounted for. Many mobile app designs suffer from poor layouts, confusing functionality, or focus more on presentation and looking good over everything else. However, if an app design misses the mark from a productivity standpoint you have nothing more than a pink bow on the fence of a feedlot.
Enterprises are quickly moving away from desktop-based apps as their sole operational interface and towards an always-connected on-the-go experience. For many application developers it will be challenging, at first, to make this transition into the mobile arena. Desktop, and to the same extent web, applications designed for large screen resolutions have been the dominant paradigm and have so much momentum that it is taking time and a lot of track to stop that train. A product’s mobile UI is often an after-thought; an ‘oh yeah – now let’s make this work for mobile’ conversation. Because of inexpensive monitors application developers have become accustomed to vast expanses of screen real-estate as their playfield for form, function, and beauty. Large screens are ubiquitous and as a result we have become as sloppy in our layout. Just as we went from really tight memory management to bloatware we have become footloose and fancy-free with taking up UI space. Great mobile apps will take this into consideration -but how?
Great mobile apps combine two simple application design/programming concepts – Use Cases and CRUD – and correctly leverage them on every screen. These are straight forward ideas that consistently get sidelined over user-interface look and feel. So for you non-developer types, here is what the concepts mean:
- A use case is a description of how a user performs a task.
- CRUD is an acronym for Create, Read, Update, Delete
Great you say – now how does that help me determine what is a great mobile app? It is simple. A great mobile app is designed in such a way that on any given screen users can only do one of two things:
- Select a task to do (Use Case)
- Create, Read, Update, or Delete data on a single task(CRUD)
Not all tasks are created equal either. Great mobile apps also take into consideration which tasks make sense for mobile and which ones don’t. The app should be designed in such a way that any given screen focuses on only one of those two areas – Use Case or CRUD. Trying to pack anything more into a single screen will result in (pardon my colloquialism) crap. But you want Use Cases and CRUD, not crap. Apps that hold to this design can’t go wrong. Wrap it in a sexy User Interface for increased “stickiness” (as they say in the marketing world) and you’ll probably have a home-run. However, a great mobile app must have #1 and #2. Even with a boring User Interface it would still be a great app in terms of productivity.
Here is mobile app nirvana. A great mobile app is so intuitive that it requires zero user training. This means people are productive from the moment they encounter the app. This limits initial training costs and doesn’t require much on-going user support. A great app should be so intuitive that users can’t screw up working with it – and believe me it doesn’t take much for them to do so. Think of a bank ATM as your target. If an app is more complex than an ATM then you don’t have a great app. It’s not that the app can’t do complex things it just needs to be simple to interact with. A great app also means an organization will see a much quicker ROI. As well, the less time spent on interfacing with an application will translate into more time users can focus on other more critical tasks in your organization.
Why does knowing these two must-haves matter? Chances are you are probably not a mobile app developer. If you are, use these guidelines as a starting point to help make a great app for the mobile ecosystem. For the rest of you here’s why it matters; today there are more than a million mobile apps available for download with that number increasing rapidly. Yes – many of them are just for fun and these guidelines don’t necessarily apply. But there is an ever increasing focus on business productivity. Organizations are beginning to assemble mobile strategies and are looking at the different areas where mobile apps make sense. Once you are able to narrow it down to a handful – what criteria are you going to use to select a winner? End users need to be able to sift through the noise and find those apps that will propel them forward as an organization. Educated end-users will demand better apps and drive innovation. This will help mature the market quicker and provide better returns for you.
Got an example of what you think is a great mobile app for productivity? Post a comment and let me know.