What Makes a Successful Mobile User Experience?

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On a recent trip to Chicago to visit my in-laws, I came down with a nasty cold. Instead of cleaning them out of tissues, I decided to head over to the nearest Target to stock up. Since I had never before set foot in this particular store, I pulled out my phone and searched for tissues on the Target app. Helpfully, the app told me I could find tissues in aisle A42. I headed in what I thought was that direction, only to find out after about 10 minutes of searching that the store didn't have an aisle A42.

This is a great example of consumers' increasing expectation that they will be able to turn to their mobile device to find exactly what they want, in context, and in their moment of need. But firms that provide a subpar mobile experience, as in this case, end up disappointing customers. In doing so, they are leaving money on the table.

Airbnb, which has booked overnight stays for more than 11 million guests and is valued at $10 billion, gets more than 37 percent of its traffic from mobile devices. Instagram, which launched in 2010, was sold for $1 billion less than two years later. Even bigger, Uber was valued at $18 billion earlier this year, thanks to its complete disruption of the taxi industry around the globe.

These companies offer a mobile experience that separates them from the pack. Forrester's research on mobile user experiences has found that the following common attributes set these—and other—best mobile experiences apart:

They deliver clear value. The best mobile experiences provide users with immediate value, from the second they download and open the application. Throughout the experience, they prioritize core functionality relevant to need and perform reliably. The worst experiences are bogged down with unnecessary content and fail to deliver at moments of need.

In its first one and a half months of operation, the iPhone app Heyday amassed half a million customers. The Heyday team knew that most people learn about apps from others, so it set out to engage customers from their first interaction. The app collects photos from users' phones and assembles them into a timeline, chronicling where they've been and what they've seen, and shows this visual history from the first interaction. In contrast, Friday, another journaling app, shows an empty timeline when first downloaded, forcing users to work before enjoying the experience.

They optimize efficiency. Mobile use is characterized by short bursts of partial attention throughout the day. The best experiences enable quick and easy navigation, such as the two taps needed to request a car on Uber. The worst experiences leave users wondering how much longer or how many more steps a process is going to take.

Zappos' mobile app supports customers who want to explore products and purchase them, but not necessarily in one interaction. Browsing for fall boots? If customers put away their phones and then return hours later, the app will remember where they were and let them continue their search where they left off. Conversely, Walmart's app launches customers into the home screen after about 20 minutes of inactivity, leaving them to retrace their steps or abandon their task completely.

They simplify presentation. Screen real estate is at a premium on mobile devices. The best experiences, such as Flipboard's news app, focus the customer's attention on visual, engaging content rather than clunky, desktop-era controls. When BillGuard started as a Web app, its customers were happy, but not engaging on a regular basis. When the company decided to launch a mobile app, it designed the functionality so that reviewing and approving a charge could be accomplished with just a swipe of the thumb. This simple, intuitive design made the chore of reviewing bills fun, and helped increase BillGuard's user base by tenfold. Contrast this to the Toys"R"Us app, which relies on gratuitous controls instead of simple gestures.

Many of the best mobile experiences highlighted here began as mobile apps. This is no accident. Start-ups have the advantage of beginning with a clean slate and building distinctive mobile experiences. Customer experience leaders at enterprise companies must rethink old Web-driven design paradigms. They must elevate mobile experiences with tactics such as early prototyping and frequent experimentation and testing, but most importantly, recognize that when it comes to building a great mobile experience, you're never really done.

Deanna Laufer is an analyst at Forrester Research.

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