8 Best Practices for Mobile App Navigation

Modern day IT systems have radically changed the way workflows, projects, and operations within enterprises are carried out. Advanced technology has significantly affected SMEs, large enterprises, and end-users, with regard to minor and major aspects of everyday life. One of the critical IT turning points in modern history was the advent, spread, and rapid adoption of mobile platforms for both personal and business use. While different forms of IT-based business workflows and marketing have come about in recent history, including inbound marketing and outbound marketing, the use of web platforms for marketing, sales, and e-commerce has been one of the more key platforms for businesses of all sizes. However, mobile platforms have become more widespread, and have seen more growth and adoption than any other platforms. Several statistics have shown that customers use business and messaging apps more than ever, even more than website applications – such that U.S. adults spend over three hours per day (on average) on mobile devices (eMarketer 2016)[1]. As WiFi becomes more available, and as smartphones become more ubiquitous, statistics have also shown that marketing via smartphone messaging apps has increased by enterprises of all sizes. According to the Statistica Research Department, by 2021, it is projected that 2.48 billion users will be utilizing messaging apps for communication (Statistica, 2018) [2]. Meanwhile, most SMEs have caught on to the trend so that approximately 42 percent of small businesses now have a mobile app, and that percentage is predicted to continue rising (Clutch 2017)[1]. It is important to note that, while optimized mobile web systems (websites optimized for a mobile experience) are important as well, native mobile applications denotes a mobile application developed for a specific mobile platform such as Android or iOS.

Thus, in order for a business to remain competitive in the modern world, and to drive sales, while reaching target demographics (and gaining new customers), enterprises must adopt, understand, and tailor a pertinent mobile experience (via mobile applications) for its customers, while ensuring that said mobile apps have the correct elements, including optimized and secure code, relevant functionality, efficient server-call speed, key content, and an effective user-interface/navigation design.

Web applications (websites) are typically viewed on larger workstations, desktop PCs, and Laptops, while mobile applications must be optimized to give the same content on a smaller screen. This optimized experience is key to allow businesses to reach customers where customers spend most of their time – on mobile platforms. To reduce customer churn rates, a mobile application must also have an optimal navigation design that allows a company to make the best use of a smaller design window. Nick Babich of Smashing Magazine noted that a good navigation design is innately connected with an optimized, well-designed User Interface (UI), and is the system that allows end-users to go where they want to go quickly and without confusion or issues (2017) [3].

Any number of different navigation design patterns may fit the marketing and/or business model of certain enterprise, but there are eight critical principles that can make any mobile application operate in a more optimized, streamlined manner:

  • Minimize Cognitive Load
  • Optimize User Flow
  • Prioritize Single Primary Action Per Screen
  • Design A Flawless Transition
  • Make the App appear Fast
  • Make the Icons Obvious
  • Benefit from Functional Animation
  • Humanize the Digital Experience

Together, the aforementioned principles operate as key parts of a blueprint that can help any business design the most optimized, functional mobile application.

Essential Principles of Mobile App Navigation Design

While content is arguably the most important factor associated with a web application or mobile application, in order for the content to be utilized and converted correctly, the design, UI, and navigation blueprint of the mobile application must be constructed carefully.

There are a number of similarities between web apps and mobile apps, but businesses should construct and design their mobile applications to reduce the following:

  • Churn Rates: Churn Rates denotes a loss of a portion of a customer base for any reason, which in this case, may include end-users not looking favorably on a company’s mobile application.
  • Bounce Rates: bounce rates do exist on mobile applications, and typically denotes a customer leaving a mobile application (without engaging with the content) after one or two server calls (the app launching event, and the page loading event). If an app’s navigation system is not optimized, or is confusing, customers may leave the app without taking the actions that the company desires.
  • Execution Delays: Like with websites, launching and page loading calls/events should be speedy and optimized to ensure that customers do not give up on utilizing the app due to execution delays.

Mobile apps operate as platforms that are connected to backend servers and also link to website assets. Mobile content must take into account critical factors like mobile Search Engine Optimization (SEO), App Store Optimization (ASO), and Mobile Web Search. The latter is of note since as much as one third of apps are discovered outside of the App Store.

While a native mobile app is not simply a copy-and-paste of a company’s website assets, a mobile application’s initial page is like a website’s landing page, that is, the page resulting from an organic SERP that often is used to display critical information to convert a lead or prospect into a customer. Regarding navigation design, while it is simpler to design the navigation layout on a website (a multi-tiered list is often used, in order to include as much key content as possible on the large screen), the smaller screen of a mobile platform requires a different approach.

Per the above, mobile app navigation design should utilize a minimalist philosophy, which includes the most critical aspects on the initial page (and on each page) – with buttons and menus in the pertinent size – while ensuring that there are clear and concise links to other pages. The layout should be consistent so as to avoid confusion, and should be logical, coherent, and grouped in a systematic manner. Each mobile app “page” should have similar elements to make it easy to follow, so end-users can be directed to where they need to be without having to navigate between multiple pages. The layout and organizational-pattern should be orderly and self-evident, and not requiring large leaps in logic to accomplish their desired action.

It is also helpful if a mobile application allows for one primary function or objective per screen (page), so as to keep a focused, simple, and logical layout for the application. Optimizing transitions between pages, utilizing functional animations that highlight critical actions being completed, and understanding the flow of the users (i.e. what buttons, pages, and functions a typical user might want within five minutes, and in what order, to carry out a list of logical actions) can all ensure that a mobile application has the most efficient navigation design possible. Additionally, it is important to remember that the platform is touch-based, so designing an intuitive, easy-to-understand and easy-to-use system is key. Lastly, applying a similar or identical style and visual theme that is used across the company’s brand can help to ensure that the end-user is confident that they are engaging with the right company.

Taking a look at the eight factors, it is easy to understand how each element is a critical and requisite principle for optimizing a mobile app’s navigation design.

1. Minimize Cognitive Load

Cognitive Load entails the amount of mental energy that one must utilize in order to carry out a desired action. When designing the navigation layout of a business mobile application, it is important that the design be simple, yet comprehensive, while being easy to follow and not confusing. The less friction and confusion that users have when interacting with the app (e.g. the cognitive load), the better the chances that the application will be valued by the user base.

It is best to remove complicated and overly-complex menu layouts – keep the mobile navigation short and sweet, in line with the minimalist principle detailed before. While a mobile app’s content should be as comprehensive as needed, “comprehensive” does not mean “overly sophisticated.” It is best to convey all that needs to be conveyed in a simple manner.

De-Clutter Your App

An app’s design should be mindful of fonts, colors, themes, contrasts, and not utilize large logos or full-screen prompts that take away from the functionality of the app. Essentially, an optimized app should be de-cluttered. A good UI design is all about delivering relevant information (i.e. signal) and avoiding irrelevant information (i.e. noise).

Avoid Notification Overkill

To truly create a minimalistic experience for the end user, delivering notifications in the most effective and efficient manner possible is key.

Time Your Notifications

While notifications are critical in mobile applications, avoid notification overkill. One way to ensure this is by timing notifications carefully – don’t send push notification in odd hours (such as in the middle of the night). The best time for push notification is during peak mobile usage hours — from 6 pm until 10 pm.

Use Other Channels

It is also key to use other notification channels when applicable. Email, in-app notifications, and news feed messaging are all valid systems that can be used to notify users about important events based on the level of urgency and type of content that needs to be shared.

2. Optimize User Flow

Optimizing user flow is a process that requires intimately understanding how end-users interact with a native mobile application, which can allow enterprises to formulate the most robust, and pertinent, navigation layout and design. This includes understanding which functionalities are most necessary and wanted by end users,  and which actions/functions to include as primary or secondary navigation menu layouts. This optimization can fulfill the above principles of keeping the layout simple, while utilizing a minimalist – but robust – navigation design.

Create Subtasks

Aligning the pertinent and most necessary functions of the app with user intentions, needs, and typical application actions can help designers to create the most optimized navigation design that is tailor-made for end-users. This includes creating a “blueprint” or a system similar to e-commerce application  “progressive checkout flow,” which allows developers to create a flow of subtasks – or steps – that a user would typically do as part of the checkout process, or other critical process associated with the app’s functionality. The navigation layout can be tailored by creating a very simple, but specific, set of menus – with a progressive flow – for users to take certain critical actions.

Utilize Users’ Information Well

While it is sometimes more advantageous to ask users about certain key pieces of information so that certain functions can be carried out correctly (i.e. location information, name, phone number, etc.), streamlining an application’s operations can be done by utilizing the user’s known information/data in the most optimal manner possible. For instance, Uber’s app doesn’t ask the user about his/her location – it automatically detects the location based on geographic data (GPS). The user only needs to select a pickup location. This helps to minimize on-screen elements and keeps functionalities and operations simple and minimal. The navigation design is seamless and optimized, and not confusing for users with too many icons.

Minimizing intrusive notifications, like prompts that require user action, creates a seamless experience for the end-user, which is why utilizing user data that has already been given is key. Even when notifications are required, using the smaller screen of mobile platforms is necessary as intrusive, full-screen notifications can disrupt the user flow and the streamlined experience.

Provide a Natural Next Step

At times, users will need to complete a number of steps  to complete an action. Utilizing the “blueprint” or progressive flow system detailed above, designers can optimize this function-based system by maintaining momentum in clearly showing the next set of steps, or an overview of all of the steps, so as to keep the process simple, not confusing, and seamless. Such a progressive system should also be logical, i.e. a ride-sharing application should highlight the steps of finding a driver and deciding on the pickup location (if applicable or necessary). The immediate next step should not be rating the driver’s performance or deciding on a tip amount.

3. Prioritize Single Primary Action Per Screen

In line with the minimalist philosophy, it can benefit a business to determine the most critical actions that a user may need to carry out with its mobile application, and align those with an equal number of critical functions that the application will be able to carry out. Assigning one primary action per screen can help to make the interface both easier to learn and easier to use. Additionally, using “visual weight” (such as contrasting colors for primary call-to-action buttons) to prioritize important elements can help to enhance the user experience.

4. Design A Flawless Transition

Application states and pages need to be designed for flawless transitions. A transition can be defined as any change in the Application state that is accompanied by updating from the previous state to the new state. Flawless transitions can help to ensure a seamless and streamlined user experience. Transitions also ensure that a minimalist approach is used when designing the most optimized navigation menu, as screen space is typically saved and users can view all critical elements on the screen without interruptions.

Twitter is a good example of a design pattern that is optimized for interruptions. The app’s notification screen shows all recent notifications. As long as the user stays on this screen, the application doesn’t update the list automatically, it simply shows a status “X new notifications” at the top of the list. This allows users not to lose their current position when they re-engage with the application after some period of time.

Provide Multi-Channel Capability

While native mobile apps on Android and iOS are different from e-commerce websites that are viewed on a mobile device, it is important that multi-channel capabilities are upheld by developing optimized web assets across all platforms. This not only enhances the business brand, but ensures credibility and optimized capabilities across all platforms. This is critical since many mobile users view websites (such as e-commerce websites) on mobile devices, and then switch to desktop systems to make purchases. Ultimately, the transition between the two systems (along with native mobile applications, not just mobile websites) needs to feel invisible and transparent – whether a customer is purchasing a TV, for instance, on Amazon.com (desktop web browser), or via Amazon’s mobile phone and/or tablet application, or via a mobile device’s web browser, the e-commerce server system should convey the content and brand similarly across platforms, and should link together seamlessly without issues.

Create a User-Friendly Zero-State

Empty states or Zero states are instances within a user’s experience associated with errors or nothing displaying to the user, whether that be a product, service, or content-page. These states are important in that they can drive user engagement, or – if handled incorrectly – increase user bounce/churn rates. As noted by InvisionApp.com, within the first three to seven days, up to 80 percent of mobile Application users abandon a new app. That said, empty states allow enterprises to engage with first-time users in a new way, specifically, helping the user understand and use the app in a more optimal manner, which can mitigate and attenuate churn rates and app abandonment. One well-known empty state is regarding the NFL Fantasy Application. This zero state utilizes an error message that is both readable and helpful. Empty states should be concise, polite, and instructive, and should clearly state:

  • What went wrong and possibly, why.
  • What the next step is that the user should take to fix the error.

Ultimately, zero states give enterprises the ability to make a good first impression with users, so being visual and offering instructive feedback is critical with such zero states.

5. Make The App Appear Fast

All mobile applications have to operate over networks and carry out server calls. In order to function optimally, page and action delays should be avoided at all costs. Bounce rates are directly correlated with significantly long page delays when it comes to website statistics. That said, mobile apps will have some delays at times, especially when actions are being carried out in the background over a network. Making the app appear faster than it is can help to minimize the appearance of a delay – for instance, with the social media platform Instagram, it allows users to add tags to a picture as the picture uploads in the background. By the time the user is ready to press the share button, the upload will be completed and it’ll be possible to share the picture instantly. This is one example of how a task that is usually associated with a delay can appear to function quickly.

Use Skeleton Screens

Skeleton screens (temporary “splash” screens during loading states that appear shorter in duration that a blank page) can help to seemingly “optimize” the delays associated with certain mobile app actions. While the mobile app should be fast and responsive, it is inevitable that situations where that’s not possible will arise.

6. Make the Icons Obvious

Mobile applications should not only be simple and concise, but should be logical and self-evident. Each icon should not require excessive – or any – external explanation for users to understand their functionality. All of the cool features and compelling content in the world won’t matter if people can’t find the functions that they need. Additionally, designers need to make their app’s navigation intuitive, which must take into account fonts, contrasts, visuals/animations, graphics, and the overall logical layout.

Design Elements Carefully

Unlike desktop systems where users can use hover-effects to understand whether something is interactive or not, on mobile platforms, users can check interactivity only by tapping on an element. Users should be able to correctly predict how an interface element will behave just by looking at it. The design of application menu buttons and elements should be clear and self-evident.

Tap Targets Should be Finger-Friendly

In order for the Application’s touch-based elements to be usable in a streamlined manner, the pertinent buttons and menu elements should be of sufficient size so as to be “touchable” by end-users. Make targets big enough so that they’re easy for users to tap on them.

Consider the User’s Thumb

Research shows that 49 percent of people only use one thumb, so consider this in the design.  It’s a good “rule of thumb” to place frequently-used actions at the bottom of the screen so users will be able to reach them easily.

Add a Search Box

Adding a search element allows users to easily find different functions that they may be looking for, which can optimize and streamline performance and usability. When there is no search box or at least a magnifying glass icon in an app,  it may feel to users like they are locked in a dark room. Giving users the freedom of searching for whatever they want is key. Essentially, don’t hide the search box.

7. Benefit From Functional Animation

While animation has historically been associated with pure aesthetics to make a website seem more visually appealing, animations can also be used to denote certain functions on a website or mobile application/platform, and typically show the status or progress of certain actions. Such functional animations can help to solve a lot of functional problems within interfaces while making them feel alive and genuinely responsive.

Show the System’s Status

Another function for the animations described above, is showing the system’s status: when the app is busy doing something, letting the user know that the app isn’t frozen – via visual signs of progress – gives the users a sense of control over the app.

8. Humanize the Digital Experience

Finally, understanding how end-users will use your mobile application – that is, looking at things from the user’s perspective – can help a business make an application that is connected with users on a more human level. Personalization is one such aspect of humanizing the digital experience, and is one of the most critical aspects of mobile apps today. While designing according to a company’s brand (from the company perspective) is important, designing from the user’s perspective gives a key opportunity to connect with users in providing the experience, interface, and information that they need in a quick and streamlined way that feels genuine.

Common Navigation Design Patterns: The Hamburger Menu

There are a myriad of different tried-and-true navigation layouts that are commonly used for mobile applications, each of which has their own pros and cons. It’s important to remember that, when it comes to screen space, there are some critical principles to remember with regard to primary and secondary navigation elements:

  • Primary Elements: These elements are those critical functions that are needed either on the “landing”/initial app screen, or on every major page of the application, and depends on the type of application. For instance, for ride-sharing apps, primary elements (during the trip) include icons for GPS location, buttons to locate and contact a driver (before the trip), and an element for the cost of the trip, including payment options.
  • Secondary Elements: These are functions and elements that are needed only in certain circumstances, and thus can be “hidden” behind expansion icons.

One of the most well-known mobile app navigation designs is the “hamburger menu.” The hamburger menu is typically in the upper right or left-hand corner ,and includes three horizontal lines on top of each other, and usually expands (usually like a drawer that pulls out of the left side of the screen) in order to reveal secondary menu elements, while primary elements are usually on the bottom of the screen in full view. There are some pros and cons to the hamburger menu:

  • Pros: Utilizes mobile screen space with maximum efficiency by hiding unnecessary menu items in its default form.
  • Cons: Doesn’t allow users to know which page they are on without tapping the hamburger icon, and also hides potentially critical menu elements, and thus results in low discoverability. For users to make full use of the menu, they have to take an extra step by tapping the hamburger icon (to expand the list).

While there are other navigation design patterns, the hamburger menu is one of the most used menu designs, and is optimal for many mobile application needs. Popular apps, like Uber, make use of it, and tablet applications often use it as well, including many suites of the Google Apps.

Optimize Your App for The Medium

Mobile applications, and the increasing use of mobile applications, gives businesses an unprecedented opportunity to connect with leads, prospects, and customers, while ensuring that their most critical content gets to its demographics regardless of whether a desktop PC, laptop, Tablet, or Mobile smartphone is used. To make the most of the mobile experience, companies must understand that mobile phones are not simply smaller versions of desktops — they come with their own nuances and constraints. Many different factors must be considered when designing the navigation style, layout and design of the mobile Application, which must take into account the users’ comfort and the device’s capabilities before planning the navigation design. Once all eight principles are followed in the design phase, an intuitive, minimal, simple, yet robust mobile application should give a company of any size a decided advantage within their given industry.

References:

  1. https://fitsmallbusiness.com/mobile-marketing-statistics/
  2. https://www.statista.com/statistics/483255/number-of-mobile-messaging-users-worldwide/
  3. https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2017/05/basic-patterns-mobile-navigation/

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