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Issues in Mobile Application Interface Design

Jason McDonnell
Centre for Creative Technologies and

Institute of Art, Design and
Kill Avenue, Dun Laoghaire

Mobile devices such as smartphones continue to increase in
popularity, and as such the uptake and use of mobile applications
also increases. However, owing to the unique nature and
capabilities of mobile devices, interface designers must take
various issues into consideration when designing interfaces for
mobile applications. This paper reviews the main issues faced by
the mobile interface designer, including hardware related issues
(input/output related issues such as touchscreen and screen size),
software related issues (navigation, browsing, and menus) and
other issues (heuristics, consistency).

Categories and Subject Descriptors
H.5.2 [Information Interfaces and Presentation]: User
Interfaces – Evaluation/methodology, user-centered design.

General Terms

Usability, Mobile Application Interface Design.

As the popularity of smartphones, tablets, and other mobile
devices continues to increase [5], so too does the necessity for
digital service providers to optimise their content for such
devices. While many websites offer mobile versions for users on
the go, mobile browsers tend to offer an impoverished user
experience in the context of browsing websites, even when these
sites have been optimised for mobile.
Bearing this in mind, it is not difficult to fathom the rise in
popularity of the mobile application, or app; pieces of software
designed to run on mobile platforms that can take advantage of
device-specific features such as GPS, camera, or gyroscope,
among many others. Indeed, research indicates that users perform
better with apps than with mobile-optimised websites, owing to
the capacity of apps to target the specific abilities and limitations
of each individual device [13].
While nowadays there are countless mobile apps available
through the likes of the Apple App Store (iOS) and Google Play
Store (Android), many of these are either poorly designed or
leave room for improvement from a usability perspective.
Because the interface of any application or website represents the
means through which the user and the system must interact, it is
of critical importance that the utmost consideration be given to

designing interfaces that are both user-friendly and efficient in
performing their intended task.
However, designing effective interfaces for mobile applications
presents its own unique set of challenges. As such it is important
for designers to be aware of these challenges and how they differ
from those presented by desktop or browser-based interface
design so that they can address them to an adequate degree. This
paper will outline the most prominent issues through a review of
the available literature relating to interface design in mobile

2.1 Input Related Issues
2.1.1 Touch Screen
With the majority of smart phones now utilising touch screen
inputs [2], thus enabling an increase in the average screen size
and fewer mechanical buttons, designers must always bear in
mind the size of interactive on-screen elements relative to the
primary input mechanism, that being the users thumbs. When
designing an interface for a touch-based mobile application, it is
important not to sacrifice the size of interactive elements in order
to conserve screen space, as this can have a severe impact on
usability. Recommended sizes for interactive elements range
from 9.2 – 9.6mm, depending on the type of task [14].

2.1.2 Gestures
Gestures are platform specific input methods that enable the user
to interact with the system more efficiently. Examples of gestures
include swiping, pinching the screen, or tapping. While these
gestures typically adhere to specific platform conventions in the
context of their functionality, interface designers should be aware
of these in the context of what they can add to the application in
question [1].

2.1.3 Other Input Methods
Many smartphones and tablets now possess on board sensors
such as accelerometers, proximity sensors, gyroscopes, and
ambient light sensors. These offer opportunities for nonconventional input, and should be considered in the context of
the interfaces design [3] [9]. For example, a gyroscope is
typically employed to change the screen orientation from portrait
to landscape, should the user rotate their phone. Interface
designers must therefore design for both orientations, in the
event that the app in question supports this functionality.

2.2 Output Related Issues
2.2.1 Screen Size

leading to less strain. and all animations and transitions should be displayed smoothly. 2. designers must decide what should and should not be displayed on the screen at a given time in order to make the most of space available [8]. 4. These present a challenge in mobile interface development. CONCLUSION 4. However. it can be challenging to achieve a balance between the presentation of relevant information/functionality. Designers must therefore take this into account when designing between-page transitions and other animations. 4.1 Navigation and Browsing Navigation and browsing present challenges in mobile interface design owing to the relatively small display area these devices typically possess.2 Physical Interaction and Ergonomics According to this heuristic. it is these very guidelines that present difficulties when trying to maintain consistency between the same application running on different platforms. These are listed below. Furthermore. Hierarchical menus are the norm for mobile applications as a method of segmenting information. According to Gong and Tarasewich [7]. each platform generally offers designers and developers specific guidelines that detail how the interface should look and behave in response to different types of input. excessive animations or unnecessary onscreen activity can also contribute to a faster-depleting battery. Typically. As previously mentioned.2. Furthermore. 3.2. this can be achieved through an iterative process involving multiple prototypes and phases of user testing. 4. The designer must strive to maintain the same interface across the different platforms. 4. this will depend heavily upon the nature of the app in question.Due to the reduced screen size offered by mobile devices. Information must be segmented into multiple small presentation units. and the efficiency with which the user can navigate to and from the information/functionality they require. the number of steps required to perform a given task should be minimized insofar as possible. interface controls should be positioned in such a way that they match the natural positions of the user’s thumbs.2 Hierarchical Menus A hierarchical menu is a menu that presents information as part of a hierarchy. compromises may have to be made in terms of consistency in order to cater for small differences in individual platform guidelines. Similarly. it is important to offer users the same experience across different applications on the same platform and between the same application across different platforms. with less frequently used elements positioned further away. 3. frequently used interactive elements should appear closer to the user’s natural thumb positions. In the interest of conserving space.2. With regard to the former of these.1 Efficiency of Use and Performance According to this heuristic. power utilised by the app in question must be taken into consideration [10]. the designer must bear in mind that interactive elements can be no smaller than the tip of the average person’s thumb. As such. Typically they are employed in the form of different pages of an app. Consistency across platforms is a particularly challenging issue from a mobile interface design perspective. while still adhering to the specific guidelines for each platform [4]. Ultimately. others have proposed an additional two heuristics specifically for use with touchscreen based mobile devices [11]. Again. While most efficiency issues in the context of power consumption relate to the coding of the app itself. icon use can be detrimental to user experience in certain populations [6]. Designers must take care to use icons that accurately convey their functionality however.2 Power Concerns Owing to the limited battery life of any mobile device.1 Consistency . SOFTWARE ISSUES 3. as users may find them confusing and difficult to navigate. 4. How these difficulties are approached is largely dependent upon the nature of app in question. OTHER ISSUES 5. and the sub-pages within those pages. the designer should take characteristics of the intended audience into consideration when deciding on whether or not icon use is appropriate. icon use is generally encouraged [15]. thus enabling the designer to experiment with a variety of different layouts and specific interface elements [10]. This can represent a challenge in the context of the segmentation of different information and functionalities at different stages of the app. achieving this balance may result in reduced aesthetic appeal due to clutter.2 Heuristics In addition to the 10 heuristics proposed by Nielson [12]. Put simply.3 Icons The designer must decide on the number of sections and the number of items or subsections within each section. which can create difficulty when it comes to users navigating from one part of the app to another [10]. However. but these present their own challenges. and that each page should have 4-8 items [10]. such as the start menu common to Microsoft Windows. research indicates that more pages are preferable to more items per page.

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