As I said in Part 1, a lot of the talks at MWUX 2013 were too abstract for my current knowledge level in UX. However, three stuck out for me as having a lot of practical value that I could make use of. This is the third of those (in chronological order, not order of usefulness):

The Four Mobile Traps: How to Avoid the Most Common Mistakes Plaguing the Mobile Space

Michael Mace

This talk would have been worthwhile even if I only got one thing out of it: Michael’s company,, offers an awesome service that I suspect we’ll be using in the future. They put your app/site in the hands of a user, and give you back a video of the user using your app and commenting on their experience. I can think of a couple projects where I really wish we’d had this service. Sounds a lot easier than trying to find those “average” users yourself to do usability testing.

But that’s really tangential to the main point of the talk. Michael reviewed thousands of user testing sessions to distill what he sees as the four most common traps that mobile apps run into.

His overarching theme:

New computing paradigms typically cripple the former industry leaders.

Mobile is a new computing paradigm, and if we continue thinking about it the exact same way we think about the web, we’ll get left behind. Why?

  • Users reconsider their commitments
  • The rules of good product design change
  • The incumbents typically underestimate the challenge until it’s too late

So, what are  the four traps?


  • “Porting” your existing app/site to mobile


  • Users are more afraid of hackers, of accidentally opting in, and of automatic social posts


  • Elements are unreadable or too small to manipulate with a finger
  • Users don’t know what they should do
  • Lack of help


Mobile = Short Attention Span Theater

How do we escape these traps? These were Michael’s 10 key takeaways:

  • RETHINK for mobile. Start from the ground up.
  • Design for the mainstream 80% of your users, not the 20% of power users.
  • When in doubt, use text (not icons).
  • Avoid multi-level menus.
  • First make it WORK, then make it pretty (“functionality is the highest form of beauty”).
  • Respond quickly (the app, that is).
  • Give superb help.
  • Show them they’re safe. 
  • Provide absolute clarity about any social feature.
  • Test early, test often.

There were a couple things that stood out to me as contradicting some conventional wisdom. One was his emphasis on help. During the development of one of our mobile apps, we were told “if you need a tutorial, you’ve failed” and I’ve heard this “mobile shouldn’t need help” attitude mirrored elsewhere. While it’s true that mobile users have less tolerance for clunky help, I’ve come to believe that good in-app help and hints make for a good user experience. The help just needs to be designed with the mobile user in mind.

The second was his rejection of the “ship early, ship often” mentality of the web, and emphasis on more thorough testing. With mobile apps, I agree that you certainly need to be much more careful about what you submit. This is particularly true with Apple, where the time between submission and approval can be several days. That’s several days of bad reviews piling up in the App Store killing your chances before you get an update out. In our own mobile efforts, I’ve certainly started doubting iOS as a good platform for Lean Startup principles such as the MVP.

What do you think? How different is mobile from the web? Does it require different instincts? Let me know your thoughts!

Also check out Part 1 (MJ Broadbent) and Part 2 (Jason Alderman) of this blog series on MWUX.


  • cwo

    Great article! Definitely agree on building a mobile app from the ground up. There are just so many things that don’t translate over well without completely rethinking them with that tiny, touch interactive, device in mind every step of the way.

  • Alex Wolf

    Having also attended this conference, i can say this was probably the most valuable presentation to me. A lot of this seems like common sense, yet many people never stop to consider it.

    I could definitely relate to the “Fear” pitfall of mobile apps. I really hate it when I install an app, maybe even a really fun app, but I’m reluctant to use it because I’m not sure what will be posted to Facebook or Twitter or whatever else. I hate it when Apps ask “Can I share stuff??” and then never specifically tell you what that means. Sure, I’d like to be able to post an awesome pic to my wall when I choose, but no I don’t want every badge I earn in some 99 cent action game to spam my wall. Apps need to be more clear about what they are “sharing”.

    I also thought it was interesting that he blatantly said to disregard the 20% power users of your product. So often managers or developers want to squeeze every last feature of a bigger project that it ends up a bit of a mess. A great way to figure out what to keep and what to leave would be to use traffic analytics – make sure to integrate this in some way!
    The “Ship early and ship often” sounds a bit scary to me, especially after seeing at least one project that was hurt badly by long submission times to the App Store. If you’re working in responsive design for a general website where you can update whenever you want, sure, deploy as often as you want. However, when you aren’t the gate keeper to the actual release, I think testing can actually become more important.

    I definitely think that there is an icon problem with mobile and that this should be reconsidered. There have been so many times where even in a simple note taking app, a bar of icons pops up and I have no idea what they mean. Does two sheets with an arrow mean copy/paste? Save a duplicate? Move the document? Who knows? What do two people figures side by side mean? Not knowing what an icon does can also increase user fear.

  • Chris Hooker

    I can definitely relate to the social media fear. It’s not just on mobile, but mobile tends to be less clear. I hate how every time I buy something on Amazon, it asks me if I want to share my purchase on social media. “Do you want to tell your friends you just bought some underwear?” No, no I do not.

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