It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the mobile experience in app design. Numerous data points illustrate the staggering spread of mobile phones since their popularization at the start of the millennium. To wit: 

But it’s no small feat to create an app that stands out from the millions of competitors on the App Store or Google Play Store. This is in part due to smartphones’ unique form factors. As accustomed as we all are to technology, actual phones vary widely in size, input style, and raw technical power. Additionally, their smaller screen size means intuitive design and information architecture is paramount. 

Incorporating feedback from real users through the product development process can lead to the sort of user experience that makes apps ubiquitous. One of the best ways to obtain this feedback is through usability testing, which can be done early and often throughout the design process, and even after an app has shipped. Let’s dig into the specifics. 

What is mobile app usability testing? 

Mobile app usability testing is the systematic process by which a mobile application’s user experience is evaluated by real or representative users performing specific tasks in a controlled setting. Through this testing, you can better identify issues with the ease of use and effectiveness of your app. 

By asking users questions about the app and understanding problems and general preferences, design teams can improve the app’s overall user experience. 

This is important because users have high expectations for mobile experiences. They expect quick loading (under 3 seconds for webpages and mobile apps) and intuitive layouts. One study reported that nearly 90% of users stopped using an app due to poor performance. Your design team can stay abreast of current design trends and follow the strictures of mobile-first design, but ultimately they still need to test their design choices against real people’s intuition and lived experiences.

What can you test in mobile app usability testing?

Some of the qualities that can be tested via mobile app usability testing include: 

  • Navigation: Can users move through the app seamlessly? 

  • Performance: How quickly does the app react to user inputs? 

  • Functionality: Do UI elements like buttons and forms work as expected? 

  • Accessibility: Can users with disabilities perform key tasks? 

  • Consistency: Do users across different operating systems and generations have similar experiences? 

  • Visual appeal: Do people like the font, color scheme, imagery, animations, and other UI elements? 

  • Onboarding and retention: Can first-time users quickly understand the app? Can lapsed users quickly reestablish familiarity with it? 

  • Features: Does the app do the things users expect an app in its category to? 

Benefits of mobile app usability testing 

Testing for these qualities in a structured manner can lead to countless improvements throughout the organization. After all, user experience isn’t purely altruistic: good design can measurably impact the bottom line. 

Here are a few of the benefits of mobile app usability testing and how they can advance key business objectives: 

Mobile app usability testing
  • Improved user satisfaction: This can lead to better reviews in app marketplaces, as well as positive word of mouth, both of which can lead to more downloads. 

  • Increased conversion rates: By targeting key actions in the sales or signup funnel, conversion rates can be improved. 

  • Reduced development costs: It’s easier and cheaper to fix a prototype than a fully developed app. 

  • Reduced support costs: Usability testing upfront can prevent support tickets down the road. 

  • Enhanced user retention and loyalty: Apps that have been designed with real users in mind can better retain those users for the long haul, becoming go-to solutions for various functions. 

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When to test your app for usability

If usability testing is such a powerful tool, you may be wondering when you should test. The answer is that it’s good to do it as early and as frequently as your team can manage. User-centered design really comes to life when users have their hands on the given product. Let’s go over what you may be looking for in a couple of different phases of development. 

Conceptual and prototype testing for mobile apps

Early in development, when big ideas are still being proposed and ironed out, usability testing can help validate the app’s core idea. Wireframes and mockups can help elicit feedback on the app’s overall concept, while testing your interactive prototypes can secure insights about the app’s proposed flow and feature set. 

For example, if you’re designing a new fitness app, testing during the conceptual phase would allow you to figure out what sort of exercises and use cases should be prioritized, and prototype testing can make sure it’s easy to use while in the heat of a workout. 

Evaluate and refine early-stage app or website prototypes with this handy prototype test template.

Developmental testing for mobile apps

As features are being developed, iterative tests on a beta version can help make sure that key tasks and actions – like creating an account, finding a product, or starting chats – are as easy and intuitive as possible for representative users. One of the key moments to mark for a robust usability test is just before launching the app to the public, comprehensively testing that all elements work smoothly on the version intended to be used at scale. 

To go back to the fitness app example, here you’d make sure users could be onboarded quickly and easily, and that the app accurately tracks workouts and progress. It’s a gut check against how the app is being advertised: will this fulfill the promise set out in marketing and promotional materials? 

Ongoing testing for mobile apps

Whenever major updates or revisions are made to the app, it should be tested with the same rigor as it was just before it launched to the public. For example, if our workout app was branching into yoga, its new iteration would need to be stress-tested with real users. Do the new yoga icons make sense? Can users who don’t want yoga still have an equally enjoyable experience? 

Even if no major update has been rolled out recently, periodic testing at a regular cadence can help make sure that your app is keeping up with evolving user expectations. Lastly, when metrics indicate an issue, usability testing can help isolate the problem and gather additional feedback about its root cause. If our workout app sees a slow dip in retention among a certain demographic, a targeted usability test could highlight issues with its usability among that demographic. 

Ultimately, usability testing at all of these touchpoints may not be feasible for all teams. As a baseline, look to conduct usability testing once very early in development, once when there's a beta in active development, and just before launch. 

How to test your mobile app for usability

If you’re interested in learning how to test your app for usability, you should check out our full guide to usability testing. But at a high level, you can think of it as having four phases. 

Mobile app usability testing

1. Plan the test

In this phase, you’ll work with stakeholders throughout the company to understand the exact purpose of the test. What’s already known about the app and what needs to be known? This will help you isolate the usability metrics you’re testing for and create accompanying documentation. 

During this phase, you’ll design the test, including writing out tasks for users to perform and questions to ask them during and after the test. Before running the test, make time to trial it with some colleagues, just to make sure that the instructions and questions are clear. 

2. Recruit participants

Here you’ll be looking for users to undergo the test. If you have existing users, they can be a great base, but if you’re expanding into new markets, you may want a different target user. 

3. Run your test

This phase can vary significantly depending on whether you’re conducting an unmoderated test or a moderated test. In general, though, here you’re simply following the usability test script you’ve written for yourself in the planning phase. 

Check out our usability test script guide to learn how to create effective scripts that provide clear instructions, ensure consistency, and yield valuable insights for enhancing user experience.

4. Analyze and report on your data

Evaluate the results of the test against the objectives outlined in the original planning documentation. Isolate relevant qualitative and quantitative metrics, as well as key takeaways. Finally, bring this reporting back to relevant stakeholders, whether that’s the design team, department leads, or interested colleagues, and make the recommended improvements. 

Check out this chapter of our usability testing guide for practical tips on how to analyze and report on your usability test results.

Mobile app usability testing best practices

While the outline above is broadly applicable whether you’re testing a mobile app, a website, or another kind of software, there are a few specific best practices to keep in mind relevant to the mobile app ecosystem. 

Mobile app usability testing
  • When recruiting users, Nielsen Norman Group recommends finding those who have used the target device for at least 3 months. You want people familiar with the given smartphone, if not your specific app. 

  • Be sure to test on multiple devices, as the variability in screen sizes, resolutions, and performance is one of the key reasons for the importance of mobile app usability testing in the first place. 

  • Consider the user’s location while using the app. You may have designed for users who are on the go and found that they use the app much more often while at home. Remote testing in the user’s natural environment may be more relevant for some use cases. 

  • A key part of the user experience for mobile devices is its battery and resource usage. If an app causes a phone to get particularly hot, this will impact user perception. You can design questions or even entire tests around this.

  • Keep in mind the unique reach of the human thumb, which defines a lot of the typical patterns of usage in mobile apps. Users may have expectations related to the way they grip the phone.

  • People typically use apps in shorter sessions, which means the usability tests should be designed to be shorter, too, to better emulate real-world usage. 

  • Interruptions such as incoming calls, notifications, or messages are an essential part of the smartphone experience. Your app should accommodate them gracefully. The same is true when entering areas of low or no internet connectivity. These are key elements of mobile app usability to test around.

  • Pay particular attention to the onboarding process. People have many options for in-app choices, and an overly complicated onboarding experience can turn them away quickly.

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