Will Hacker is a senior UX professional and the author of Mobile Prototyping With Axure 7. He spent two and a half years working exclusively on mobile design, prototyping, and usability testing at Cars.com. He also has written about prototyping and user experience design for Smashing Magazine and UX Booth, and is a frequent speaker at design events in Chicago. Will is a Lead Interaction Designer at GE Capital, where he works on multi-device designs for commercial lending software. You can follow his tweets at @willhacker or visit his website at willhacker.net.
It’s common in our field to hear that we don’t get enough time to regularly practice all the types of research available to us, and that’s often true, given tight project deadlines and limited resources. But one form of user research–contextual inquiry–can be practiced regularly just by watching people use the things around them and asking a few questions.
I started thinking about this after a recent experience returning a rental car to a national brand at the Phoenix, Arizona, airport.
My experience was something like this: I pulled into the appropriate lane and an attendant came up to get the rental papers and send me on my way. But, as soon as he started, someone farther up the lane called loudly to him saying he’d been waiting longer. The attendant looked at me, said “sorry,” and ran ahead to attend to the other customer.
A few seconds later a second attendant came up, took my papers, and jumped into the car to check it in. She was using an app on an tablet that was attached to a large case with a battery pack, which she carried over her shoulder. She started quickly tapping buttons, but I noticed she kept navigating back to the previous screen to tap another button.
Curious being that I am, I asked her if she had to go back and forth like that a lot. She said “yes, I keep hitting the wrong thing and have to go back.”
So you want to extend your website’s account management features to mobile devices. Well you’re not alone; most major websites today have cross-platform accounts and profiles that make for a more engaging and cohesive user experience. And many sites enable account management features on mobile devices.
After all, you want people to be able to interact with your product or service whenever and wherever. The trick is knowing which features to add to the mobile account management experience. Devices and use contexts are not created equally, so you need to consider how people want to use your product in the mobile context before enabling account management features.
Accounts provide a lot of value for website visitors. They allow people to save address and payment information on ecommerce sites, airport and airline preferences on travel sites, and topical preferences on news sites. They help reduce friction when completing tasks.
In this article, and in general, an “account” refers to a set of features that allow transactions of all types and requires a person to sign in to manage it. “Profiles,” on the other hand, refer to publically exposed information about a person that can be seen by other people.
The challenge for experience designers is figuring out which of the many settings that can be part of an account should be made available on all platforms. There is no easy one-size-fits-all answer because user needs and use contexts vary from site to site.
For the purpose of this article I’m using the term “mobile” to refer to websites and native apps used on smartphones, which, in addition to the unpredictable cellular networks and often clumsy touchscreens that impact designing for tablets, have the added challenge of reduced screen size.
It’s easy for website accounts to get bloated. And while it’s common to add features for the traditional desktop user, an account can quickly become a confusing experience for someone trying to complete a simple task on a handheld device.
Context is king
When making account management mobile ready, you have to understand the main tasks someone is going to want to complete on their smartphone. This is usually accomplished by research, which can take the form of interviews, contextual inquiry, participatory design, or exploring web analytics. As you flesh out your mobile identity management strategy, start with these tasks first and only consider additional ones later.
Accounts should not be required
One of the cardinal rules of mobile design is that people should not be required to have an account to use your site or app. Greg Nudelman covers this design tenet very well in his article on the sign-in/sign-up antipattern.
Obviously, signing in is required for financial services and other applications that grant access to personal information. But an airline site or app should not require an account to check flight status or get basic gate information, and hotels should allow people to access property information and room availability without signing in.
There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Facebook, for example, loses a lot of its value if you haven’t signed in, although it still makes some of its vast amount of profile data available to searchers to the extent that users have allowed that information to be made “public.” Even for sites that require people to sign in for certain information and functionality–which Mint.com does–access to general information like blog posts and commentary should be provided in a mobile friendly format to users of their native apps–which Mint.com does not do. Since all the major mobile platforms have web viewing features built into their native app libraries, Mint should make its existing mobile friendly web content available to both website users and people using their native apps.
American Airlines, on the other hand, provides a lot of content and functionality for anonymous users of its iPhone app, as shown in Figure 1.
Streamline account creation
If you are going to allow your mobile users to create accounts, try to ask for as little information as possible. Your goal should be to reduce interaction cost and get the person’s account created with as little effort as possible.
You can see this approach by comparing the mobile and desktop versions of TripAdvisor’s website, as shown in Figure 2.
On the desktop version of its profile-creation form, TripAdvisor asks for additional information–first and last name–not requested in the mobile version.
TripAdvisor could have streamlined its mobile profile-creation screen even further by not asking the user to create a screen name until after they create the profile, or even deferring it until the user wants to create or share content for the first time. They also should have considered if a user really needs a screen name if all they want to do is save hotels and other destinations.
Using device features to enrich the experience
TripAdvisor also could have used geolocation to try and set a default value for the current city or, better still, left that until after profile creation. Native mobile apps, unlike websites, can take advantage of a lot of device features that can benefit people by streamlining activities. When you sign into Foursquare, you are asked if you want to connect to friends via your mobile address book or social media networks (if you connected the accounts). For someone working on the small screen, this is a big time saver and helps apps like Foursquare and Twitter build their networks.
Simplify account and profile management
TripAdvisor also provides a good example of exposing enough account settings on a mobile device to make its site useful without filling it up with settings unconnected to task completion in a mobile context.
As shown in Figure 3, TripAdvisor allows mobile users to modify basic settings like choosing their country and preferred currency. These profile settings would be useful in a mobile context if the user is an American reading hotel reviews in London and wants to see the nearby properties and their nightly rates in British pounds.
TripAdvisor offers many more profile settings for desktop users to manage, including the ability to list the types of activities they like and other information about an individual’s personal travel style.
Allow password reset
Resetting a password is a must for mobile products. Someone who has forgotten their password may not be able to wait until they are at a desktop computer to get into a given website. This functionality should be supported in all mobile user accounts and profiles, whether the product is a mobile-only app like Foursquare or the mobile version of a cross-platform website like Amazon.
Instagram provides a good example of this, as shown in Figure 4.
Social media and user accounts
Allowing someone to connect to a social media account is a great example of functionality you should include in your mobile account.
Foursquare, for example, allows users to connect their app to Twitter and Facebook accounts so check-ins can be shared to those platforms, as shown in Figure 5. It makes sense to include this in the mobile context, not only because Foursquare is a mobile-only experience but also because it allows the in-the-moment sharing of information to social media that is one of the great appeals of smartphones.
Fatal operations on a mobile device
Experience designers also need to be conscious of adding what I call “fatal operations” to a mobile account. Fatal operations are things that cannot be undone and can have serious consequences, such as deleting a shopping cart or an entire account.
Facebook provides a good example of how to handle this type of situation. On its desktop site, a user can deactivate or permanently delete their account. But in its mobile apps, users can only deactivate their account.
And Facebook requires the user to re-enter their password before performing the deactivation, as shown in Figure 6, making it less likely a user will deactivate an account by mistake.
Another approach could be to have an “undo” button available for a brief period after a user performs a fatal operation, like Google does when users delete email messages in its Gmail app, as shown in Figure 7.
Amazon takes a similar approach when a user deletes an item from the cart in its mobile apps, as shown in Figure 8.
Accounts are an essential part of digital products that tie individual uses and activities together into a more cohesive overall experiences. They are even more valuable when those experiences are shared across platforms and devices.
The challenge for us as experience designers is to know what parts of account and profile management should be enabled on mobile devices and what ones are best left for the desktop experience.
There’s no easy answer to this, and like many aspects of experience design, this is where research and knowledge of our users is essential. If you are adding a feature to a mobile experience, consider whether the feature will make the experience more enriching or more confusing–and think about how to mitigate the negative consequences of someone making a mistake.