10 ease-of-use considerations for building topnotch apps

Usability sometimes gets pushed aside in the rush to deliver an app. Here are a few factors that will help ensure that end users are on board with your dev efforts.

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Ease of use is still at the bottom of the list in IT application development. But if you do it well, you will do well with your users. Here are 10 ease-of-use factors that should never be overlooked in app development.

1: User involvement

No one knows better than your end user if an application is easy to use--or whether its workflow should be modified for improved ease of use. This is why more IT departments are actually dividing their QA functions into two sections:

  • A team that checks the technical excellence of an app
  • An end-user team that verifies ease of use and usability

No matter how well developed an app is, if it isn't easy to use, it will sit on the shelf.

2: Fit with the business process/environment

One of the first usability principles for a new app or technology is its fit with the environment or work process it's being designed for. For instance, the first impulse might be to look at tablets or mobile phones for all field-based business--but a police officer or a cab driver gets best reliability in unpredictable situations from a ruggedized laptop. And handheld units (even though they are more expensive) are often the best ruggedized option for a warehouse or yard worker.

3: Ease of navigation

Users will give up on an app if they have to navigate through three or four levels of menu choices. They'll also give up if the app has a busy display with no clues as to what the workflow is. As part of your application prototyping process with end users, cover the proposed workflow of the application as well as its features and functions.

4: Pleasing displays

Pleasing displays are important to users. What "pleasing" means to most users is a web-like interface for an app that is laid out and orchestrated like most other web apps and that's intuitively easy to understand and use. The aesthetics of the display (e.g., the number of images and text lines and the amount of blank space--and how they're arranged), as well as the display load time are all important application touches that end users should review and agree upon before the application goes live.

5: Recognizable error messages

Most of us have received canned error messages like: "Error 207, data incompatibility"--or some other cryptic message that is generated from the depths of an internal programming routine that no end user can possibly understand or take action on. As part of your QA process, carefully test the error message generation from the application. Error messages should be in plain English and the end user should know immediately what he or she must do to get out of the error situation and complete the work that was underway.

6: Thorough testing

To meet tight deadlines, IT has a tendency to cut its test and checkout of apps short--but you want to avoid an application breaking or a deluge of phone calls from users saying that certain functions in the app are missing or don't work. To prevent those occurrences, never take time away from QA. In addition, include end users in quality assurance, final checkout, and signoff. The calls you save at the help desk are well worth it--and a consistent application that is predictable and works every time will go far in establishing high usability with end users.

7: "Fit to form" applications

Enterprises develop applications for a plethora of platforms that reflect the many different devices their business users are using these apps on. Consequently, a new product configuration application must be able to perform well on a desktop computer, a laptop, and potentially any number of Android, iPhone, Blackberry, and other mobile devices. The ability of a device to support an application varies on an individual platform basis. A desktop or a laptop computer will be able to carry a more fully featured version of an app than an Android, iPhone, or tablet with a smaller technology footprint and a smaller screen. For this reason any application that will be deployed on multiple devices should tested for ease of use and form and fit on each device.

8: Centralized control for security, lockdown, and new software releases

Any app deployed on mobile devices and laptops should come with security and control that enable headquarters to track devices that get lost or displaced. If the device can't be located, central IT should have the technology to lock down the device and disable it. The same centralized control should be exerted over in-field devices by pushing out new releases of software that is either updated automatically or by permission of the end user on his/her device. That way, all devices stay current with the same levels of software and IT technical support and IT has to manage only one version of software at a time.

9: Auto fill-in fields

If end users enter a customer record, it's convenient if the entire record detail can appear on the screen. This gives them the choice to accept that record or to modify it. It is far more tedious if they have to keep entering repetitive data fields. Meet with end users during app design to determine which data fields should be automatically supplied by the system. This will save user frustration, time, and key strokes.

10: Favored applications as models

Many times, IT is asked to replace older applications that end users are displeased with--and there is a deliberate intent to make the new application markedly different in what it does, how it looks, and how it behaves. But there are also cases where end users are happy with their existing applications and simply want a new application that can conform to the basic workflows and styles of the original apps.

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By Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...