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User-centred mobile app development

The advantages of a user-centric approach to app development

The success of a mobile app – its high adoption rate and actual use – largely depends on the degree of involvement of the end user during the development stage. Mark Kamau, Kenyan web solution expert at the iHub UX Lab in Nairobi, believes a user-centric approach to mobile app development is critical to building a sustainable ICT-based solution.

UX stands for user experience, a concept that dates back to the mid-1990s, when human-computer interactions were first discussed and conceptualised. According to Kamau, too often developers focus on the technology, the hardware and software their apps will use rather than the people they are developed for. Their focus on technology has resulted in many advanced, sophisticated mobile apps winning top places in competitions, but actually failing to attract real-world users.

For instance, in Africa mobile agricultural information services that can be accessed with cell phones are mushrooming. Most of these services return requested information in the form of an SMS, even though many farmers, the intended users of these services, cannot read. What farmers need are voice-based rather than text-based mobile information services. Another problem is that sophisticated online payment gateways are often cumbersome in their use and repeatedly require the initial input of a verification code of a complicated string of 15 or more digits, which the users will receive after a wait of 20 minutes or even longer.

The failure rate of mobile apps is high and many development man-hours are wasted when user experiences are not taken into account right from the start of the development process. That is why people like Kamau and initiatives such as the UX Lab seek to convince developers to include the users in the earliest possible stage of the design process to better understand their needs and wants, and how, when and where they would use the new mobile app.

Functional illiteracy

Focusing on technology alone carries the risk of turning away users in the target group that suffer from functional illiteracy, i.e. the lack of technological know-how, or those that simply cannot read. The development of appropriate technology relies on research conducted at the level of the user and on feedback loops linking the designer and the users at every critical step of the development process.

A user-centred approach to designing solutions ensures the mobile app is contextualised, serving the needs of the intended users. At the UX Lab, app designers meet with their target audience, often in rural areas, sit together and talk about the actual problem to better define it. At this stage, the users’ needs are expressed and the intended use is discussed. In the field, designers also get a good idea of the surrounding natural environment (hazards, challenges, infrastructure and facilities, for example) in which the technology will be broadcast.

Using data about user experience, developers at the lab will prepare a prototype of the app. The prototype app is low fidelity (see Kamau at minute 3:20 in the video in the first ‘related link’): not many resources go into its programming because each function is tested first by users. Each iteration of the consultation process produces new information to guide the next step of the development process. And so on.

Kamau sees this process as a lean and agile method of making sure that in the end apps answer the needs of users. By talking first to them, not only can the developers assess the degree of functional illiteracy of the target population and choose technology accordingly – between voice-based or touch-enabled commands, for example – they also get a first-hand feel of the problems they need to tackle. This is a source of creativity that pushes for innovation.

Cognitive load

Developers have started to make their work easier by putting the users’ needs first, and by understanding their expectations and limitations before choosing a particular technology. In fact, when users take part in the process, developers share what Kamau calls the ‘cognitive load’. In other words, the user-centred design will unburden developers from the difficult task of having to pull the best solution to a particular need out of their hats.

At the moment, coming up with the best solution for problems intended users may face is something developers tend to do on their own. The thoughts, the models and the prototypes are all produced by the developers themselves: and it is a lot of work. Their time would be spent better developing appropriate solutions when developers share the cognitive load with the users during the conceptual phase that defines the problem.

UX is best understood as a person’s emotions and its perceptions of a particular product, website or mobile information service. Asking prospective users to test and manipulate early versions of an app offers valuable insight to the developers regarding users’ expectations and limitations with respect to their product. For more information: NN/g Nielson Norman Group, The definition of User Experience, http://goo.gl/LuxvF9.

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