Context and productivity aren’t the most commonly associated terms, but they really should be.
The saying “context is everything” is not used nearly enough in relation to mobile applications. Many people simply don’t understand the impact it has on productivity, especially in the enterprise space.
Without context, it is almost impossible to communicate effectively. A mobile application can ask for data to be entered or display a message but, without the right context, a user can interpret the message in many different ways. This can result in misunderstanding and the wrong action being taken.
A recent heuristics study on usability of industrial mobile applications showed how vital context is in getting users to enter the relevant and correct amount of information. More than that, having enough context allowed users to be more productive.
One of the resulting heuristics, or suggested guidelines for mobile app development, from the above mentioned study was: “Provide technicians with an understanding of what the data they input will be used for.” The heuristic study highlighted the importance of users having the necessary context to work effectively.
While mobile application developers and designers should consider what type of data needs to be entered, and provide inputs on the screen, it doesn’t mean that their intentions would necessarily be communicated to the end users.
The end users – technicians in the field, delivery personnel or engineers – often only see the output of the design process and may not understand why it was done a certain way or why it was needed. Therefore, it’s important for at least few end users to be involved in the design of any mobile application.
As an app designer, you can have all the validation in the world, but if a user doesn’t understand the context, then they will simply enter the minimum data to get past the validation. Users can be very creative this way, often in ways that the application designers have never thought of.
Instead of just popping up a validation error message, you are better off including some context text guiding the user. While a validation error can be from a typo, more often than not it is because the user hasn’t understood the question. Providing more context can help reduce the number of validation errors.
Tool tips and screens that flow can give a user a better experience but won’t automatically convey the context. Providing as much context information, like the unit of measure next to a numeric entry field, can be very helpful. Notably, not every input can be structured so, in some cases, you will need free text input fields. How successful you are in getting relevant input will largely depend on the user understanding the context of the question.
Commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) applications are more common these days due to the financial benefits, maturity of markets and the need to fill an ever-growing demand for mobile applications. These are usually built to be used in different contexts, so it is harder for the applications to provide as much context as a custom application can. Some COTS applications allow customization of the user interface terms and tool tips which can help convey more context.
Some people believe that if you make the application intuitive enough you won’t need to provide training for the field force. That may work for simple applications but typically for enterprise applications you still need some training, specifically to set the context.
If the training is effective, then users will remember the context when entering information. This will influence not only the quantity of information that they enter but also the areas that they focus on. You can use feedback mechanisms by rating or reviewing the quality of the information entered and then talking to users and trying to fill any gaps in their understanding of what the entered information is used for.
Getting people who have never seen the application before and asking them to use it, can help with understanding the issues and processes that are not obvious to someone who hasn’t been involved in the design process.
Whenever you are designing, evaluating or using a mobile application, it is important to consider the context of the information requested or displayed. Getting across the context to users is paramount in ensuring maximum productivity and getting the most out of your mobile applications.
Nic Grange is the CTO of Retriever Communications.