Are mobile UIs as good as they can be?

DevToolsGuy / Friday, April 15, 2016

How did you feel the last time you downloaded a poor-performing mobile app? What was your reaction; how long did you put up with it? Perhaps you found yourself getting lost, maybe you couldn’t find out how to go back or forward, maybe it just wasn’t clear how to navigate through the app itself. We’ll bet good money that you deleted it straight away – or left it sitting somewhere in the background of your phone never to be used again.

80% of apps only ever get opened once, and even the most forgiving users won’t continue to use a poorly designed app:

Source: Digital Trends

Digital Trends report that any issues – such as freezing, crashing, slow launches or simply not living up to expectations - will turn users off even the most useful apps. And, in a world where around 85% of apps are only ever opened once, tools need to be bug free as well as immediately engaging. No one said being a developer was going to be easy!

If these statistics are anything to go by, there are a lot of apps out there that are clearly letting themselves down with a poor UI. And because users are aware there is normally an alternative to your tool out there, you often have just a few select moments to impress with a sleek and smooth User Interface. First impressions really do matter with apps, so if you want to please clients and engage their customers, it’s valuable to spend a little more time learning about UI. Not every development team has a dedicated UI design expert, but with a bit of testing, a bit of observation and a bit of research, anyone can improve their UI skills.

In today’s post, we’ll be drawing on neuroscience (and the work of Dr. Susan Weinschenk) to better understand how the human brain interacts with mobile apps, and reveal some valuable insights into how you can make UI a lot better.

Sexy chocolate kills

The human brain has various levels on which it makes decisions, including the emotional brain and the ‘old brain’ – the most instinctive part of the organ. The old brain is responsible for a huge amount of our unconscious processing, and is interested in two things: survival and propagation – which can be roughly translated to ***, food and danger (hence ‘sexy chocolate kills’). It’s very easy to grab hold of an app user’s attention by appealing to the old brain or the emotional brain (which is particularly affected by pictures of people and by stories).

The lesson here? Grab your user’s attention from the word go with an engaging message which strikes an instinctive or emotional note. Tell a story, show a picture of happy, smiling people, highlight the risks of not using your app; or show how it’s going to make them healthier, happier and better looking.

People are lazy

And you are too! Most developers are just like everyone else; they want to do the bare minimum to get the job done. However, the bare minimum just isn’t enough with UI. People will give up on your app if it forces them to remember things or if they have to do lots of additional work to get something done. Think of some of the most wildly popular apps out there: you can order an Uber cab in just a few taps or find a date on Tinder in a couple of swipes.

The lesson here? Make your app as easy to use as possible. Get rid of any information that isn’t necessary, remove any steps which confuse matters, ask your users to do as little as possible to achieve as much as possible. Use visual cues and stick to usability best practices: give users control, flexibility, consistency, updates, recognition over recall and avoid errors (among others).


The human brain is programmed to pay attention to anything that is different or novel (and fills gaps when it comes to things which it has come to expect). Something that is different or striking will stand out and users are much more likely to come back to it.

The lesson here? Grab people’s attention by hooking all their senses (…well, as many as you can) from a mobile phone screen. Give them music, beeps, flashing colors, bold and distinctive fonts or unusual tones.

There must be a reason Facebook got so big…

Humans are the most social animal in the history of the planet. We depend on others, we look to learn from our peers and people we regard as influential. When we do things together it bonds us and releases positive chemical reactions in the brain. If we’re asked to do a favor, we’re also reciprocal and unconsciously expect something back. When we’re confused we seek information from others.

The lesson here? Accentuate the social side of your UI. If you’ve developed a game, introduce competition with friends or a leader board. If you’ve provided a restaurant recommendations tool, include reviews from other users. If you’re asking someone to fill in a form, promise to give them something back in return.

There’s a lot that developers can learn from psychology about how to create truly engaging apps. In a world where close to 90% of apps are only ever opened once, there’s a lot of space for improvement, so those who design the best apps can expect the biggest returns.

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